Army Takes Lessons From A U.S. Battle
The Boston Globe
March 24, 2005
WASHINGTON - As it struggles to control the insurgency in Iraq,
Army is looking for lessons from an unusual source: urban gangs.
After two years of steady violence, a new Army War College analysis
concludes that, instead of fighting a ragtag army, American troops in Iraq are
dealing with an enemy that more closely resembles sophisticated, violent
street gangs, similar to powerful Central American groups spawned more than a
decade ago in Los Angeles.
Challenging the conventional approach of the U.S. military and its allies
of relying on firepower to defeat guerrillas, the study argues that the
current anti-insurgent strategy can't succeed without tough police work and
social programs addressing the root causes of street conflict -- poverty,
injustice, repression, lack of opportunity.
"We traditionally think of insurgency as primarily a military activity,
and we think of gangs as a simple law enforcement problem," according to the
study by Max Manwaring, a professor of military strategy. "Yet insurgents and
gangs are engaged in a highly complex political act: political war."
The Iraq insurgency shows signs of spiraling into a broader criminal
network. Some senior officers have recently reported that criminals for hire
are playing larger roles in the violence. But Manwaring's paper, which is
getting attention on military websites and in internal Pentagon discussions,
warns that the U.S. military still treats insurgents as largely a security
problem, not a societal one -- a major reason why violence remains high in
Iraq. Some specialists worry that without a more holistic approach, the
instability will remain long after the troops come home.
"The U.S. military and the Iraqi security forces don't merely face a threat
from the insurgency," said Phillip Carter, a former military police officer
who writes extensively about military strategy. "They must also deal with the
threat posed by street crime and other problems that threaten order and
stability. If left unchecked, these criminal enterprises can ultimately mature
into very dangerous adversaries of the sort seen in Colombia or even Somalia
More military strategists say commanders in Iraq need to engage in "cop
work" to break up the insurgency, much like the FBI painstakingly took down
the Mafia in the United States. Only then, they say, can the United States
break up networks for moving illicit personnel, material, and money that fuel
the violence and instability.
"These terrorists seem like gangs on the street who are willing to kill
anybody," Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, remarked during
a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week. "In the cities of
America, the best tool that the police have to stop that kind of activity is
infiltrating the gang and, frankly, buying intelligence from people who are on
the street, information to go after the killers."
Admiral Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency,
agreed. The key to successfully controlling the insurgency is "to work with
the population and having the population get to sort of a tipping point where
they willingly come forward" to tell what they know about insurgent
Guerrilla fighters "hide in the population," added Carter. "They are the
population. Military tactics aren't effective against an enemy you can't see
and [that wants] to remain in the shadows."
The war college study concludes that a variety of street gangs -- from
those that defend neighborhood turf to more powerful groups operating with
broader criminal connections and ambitions -- have striking similarities to
the Iraq guerrillas. Street gangs kill rivals in drive-by shootings, while
insurgents use homemade roadside bombs against the military and quick-strike
assassinations against the government. Both gangs and guerrillas use
kidnapping, violence, and terror to silence witnesses.
The war college paper, published this month, singles out the evolution of
Latino street gangs in California as a model of how local criminals and
disaffected youth can combine, then quickly morph into vastly more organized
and effective networks more difficult to control as they grow.
In the early 1990s, powerful Southern California Latino gangs, such as
MS-18, Mao Mao, and Crazy Harrisons Salvatrucho, rapidly expanded into several
nations in Central America. Many members were convicted felons the United
States deported back to their countries of origin; those felons soon joined
with larger criminal networks, such as drug cartels, and corrupt military,
police, and intelligence officers. They now threaten the rule of law in
Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador, openly battling governments
In outlining the scourge of gangs in Central America, the military's top
officer for Latin America earlier this month could have been talking about the
Iraqi insurgents, whose relentless attacks continue to kill soldiers and
"Unemployment and poverty make Central America a spawning ground for
gangs," Army General Bantz Craddock, head of the U.S. Southern Command, said in
prepared testimony for the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday. "There
are an estimated 70,000 gang members stretched across Central America. The
level of sophistication and brutality of these gangs is without precedent. One
gang in Guatemala requires the murder of a teenage girl as an initiation
Military leaders say more and more young Iraqis, faced with unemployment
and grinding poverty, have joined the ranks of the insurgency. U.S. intelligence
officials believe the guerrillas pay jobless youths to execute some of their
operations. The insurgents -- a lethal association of highly-trained former
military and intelligence officers, foreign terrorists, and common criminals
-- are also believed to have a network of informants inside the new Iraqi
"The challenge, then, is to come to terms with the fact that contemporary
security and stability, at whatever level, is at base a holistic
political-diplomatic, socioeconomic, psychological-moral, and military police
effort," Manwaring writes.
"Even if the insurgency is eventually neutralized, the average Iraqi will
continue to live in fear if these criminal elements are not dealt with," said
Carter. "Soldiers and military force cannot deal with this threat alone; it
must be eliminated using a combination of military, law enforcement,
intelligence, and legal capabilities."
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