Straight Outta Kandahar

What soldiers fighting the Taliban can learn from cops policing American inner cities.

If the insurgency raging in Afghanistan seems foreign, wildly complex, and virtually impossible to defeat, consider this: Police and community groups working together in some of America's most dangerous inner cities have successfully engaged, calmed, and sometimes reformed armed groups that have striking parallels to the Taliban.

Innovative tactics being employed in more than four dozen U.S. cities could have a place in America's most daunting overseas conflict. As part of their counterinsurgency training, Camp Pendleton Marines are already embedding with LAPD cops, learning how to better interact with the civilian populace and respond to their security concerns.

Americans often think of the Afghan insurgents as fanatical holy warriors, hiding out in caves and reliant upon donations from ideological supporters to finance their operations. But in their day-to-day street-level activities, the Taliban are surprisingly similar to a more familiar breed: They resemble violent gangs like the Bloods and the Crips, or the Latin American network Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13.

It's not just that all these groups engage in violence and fund their activities through organized crime, including drug trafficking and extortion. There are also striking similarities in the way they are loosely structured and the narratives they use to justify their violent and criminal behavior.

The American media typically refer to the Taliban as if it were a singular, monolithic organization, which, like the Iraqi army, has a defined command structure, identifiable bases of operation, and a unified leadership. But insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan are more like a loose network of armed groups and gangs. And whether they're in South-Central LA or Marja, such violent groups generally lack identifiable hierarchies, and what hierarchies do exist don't actually control very much.

Furthermore, most gang activity is local, personal, and capricious. There may be leaders, like the Taliban's Mullah Mohammed Omar, but the allegiance of cliques or factions ostensibly under their command is often fleeting at best.

In the United States, cliques in the same gang family often fight amongst themselves -- sometimes over who has the right to conduct business in a particular neighborhood, and often in "beefs" that are really about respect or the lack of it. There are similar patterns of infighting in Afghanistan between factions of the Taliban that are ostensibly allied. As with gang members in the United States, many if not most of the Taliban foot soldiers are locals in the communities where they're based. And like in the United States, there aren't actually that many of them relative to the population of the areas where they operate; it takes just a handful of violent actors to terrorize a whole community.

But the most critical parallel may be the similar type of narratives that violent groups use to justify their activities. In violence-wracked African American communities, it's widely whispered that police are part of a conspiracy to destroy the black community, that the Central Intelligence Agency invented crack, and that Washington floods these neighborhoods with drugs as an excuse to put young African-American men in jail. All too often, this narrative makes community members reluctant to work with police, choosing instead to quietly suffer crime and violence.

"No one likes to say it, but the issue is soaked in race," says David Kennedy, a crime-control specialist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, whose innovative programs to reduce inner-city violence are being applied in about 50 American cities through the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC). "And when we discussed race in the context of a core community issue, like reducing violence, we found we could make progress because everybody wanted the same thing."

In Afghanistan, the issue is soaked in Islam. The Taliban narrative echoes the gang narrative in African-American communities: U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan and other parts of the Islamic world as part of a conspiracy to destroy the religion; Afghan women are being turned into sex slaves at U.S. bases; CIA agents are smuggling heroin to fund U.S. military operations; and Washington uses the drug trade and al Qaeda as an excuse to incarcerate thousands of young Muslim men around the globe.

"In a very real way, we need to deal with the ideas that motivate people in these kinds of groups," Kennedy says. "We need to challenge the dumb ideas that are driving their behavior."

And, he says, we need to challenge the dumb ideas that drive official engagement with such communities. In the United States that meant breaking a misguided narrative among law enforcement: that gang members engaged in violence for no reason, that the community lacked moral backbone and didn't really want to stop the problem, and that there really wasn't much of a community to partner with anyway.

I often hear similar language when American leaders discuss communities in Afghanistan. But when I speak to Afghans, they say they want safe communities, jobs, and schools for their children. The key is getting security providers to work closely with the communities.

Consider how this has worked in the United States. Kennedy helped American police forces develop a strategy, known variously as "Operation Ceasefire" or in law-enforcement jargon as "focused deterrence." Members of the community -- often mothers who lost sons to gang violence and, when possible, former gang members themselves -- gather the gang members as a group and call for an end to violence.

Local government agencies and organizations, meanwhile, offer social services such as vocational training, while police gather offenders to spell out clearly which crimes will draw which responses from law enforcement. Focused-deterrence programs in the United States have reduced homicides on average by 30 to 50 percent, according to the NNSC, with even greater declines in gang violence in some cities.

With some adaptations, focused deterrence could help engage communities and work toward reducing violence in Afghanistan as well. Ordinary Afghans in remote parts of the country will be unlikely to stand up to the Taliban on their own, but NATO forces could provide the security they need to feel safe delivering such messages. Such a program could enhance counterinsurgency tactics that seem to be succeeding in some districts of Afghanistan, while struggling in others.

Of course, Afghanistan would present its own special challenges -- chiefly, that police and local power brokers also victimize the Afghan populace, a prospect that would make it difficult to find reliable local partners in some districts. The strategy could be tested first in relatively promising areas like Nawa, where local governance is at least improving, and where there is a community already willing to engage the coalition.

Change wouldn't happen overnight, making this kind of approach a hard sell at a time when many Americans' biggest concern in Afghanistan is how to get out of it. The experience of police departments in American cities has shown there must be sustained engagement, and real commitment, for these tactics to work.

But we do share one clearly unified goal with the Afghans: A recent poll has shown that security remains the number one concern among the rural populace there, followed by unemployment and corruption. As U.S. casualty figures also climb, force protection must surely be a priority for coalition commanders too. Reducing violence on Afghanistan's streets is a simple, shared objective toward which Americans and Afghans can all agree to work.

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Zardari's Katrina

Why is Pakistan’s president junketing while his people drown?

View a slide show of Pakistan's great flood.

This week, Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, boarded a private Gulfstream jet along with his family and his hundreds-large entourage to visit the European countries included on the president's grand tour. Yesterday, Zardari -- who was married to my aunt, the late Benazir Bhutto, before her 2007 murder -- landed in London. As soon as the plane touched down, the president and his Very Important coterie were chauffeured in a dozen luxury vehicles to a five-star hotel where the president will be staying in a £7,000 ($11,160) per night Royal Suite.

His welcome, however, was less than royal. On the drive to the hotel, protesters held placards reading "Zardari King of Thieves," "Zardari 100% Pure Corruption," and "GO Zardari GO." While Zardari was schmoozing with his cronies in luxe London hotels, Pakistan was reeling from the deadliest floods to hit the country in 80 years. In short, it looks like Zardari's Katrina.

More than 3 million people in the northwestern region of Pakistan have now been affected by the floods. Parts of the north are facing terminal food shortages even as they are inaccessible to relief workers. The U.N. World Food Program says that 1.8 million will urgently need something to eat in coming weeks. The death toll has risen steadily in recent days to more than 1,400 people. About another million have lost their homes.

The news is also unlikely to get any better: Officials now say that the waters are expected to hit Punjab and Sindh provinces, Pakistan's food-producing regions. New flood warnings are still being issued, and the country is bracing for further monsoon downpours.

Zardari takes a lot of overseas trips -- so many that one local TV pundit estimated somewhat anecdotally last year that Richard Holbrooke, U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy to the "AfPak" region, had spent more time in Pakistan than Zardari had recently. But the timing of this particular visit has angered not only his subjects but also his hosts. Two prominent Asian Britons refused to meet the visiting head of state. Khalid Mahmood, a member of Parliament, vigorously condemned Zardari's decision to visit London. "A lot of people are dying," he told the press. "He should be [in Pakistan] to try to support the people, not swanning around in the UK and France." Lord Ahmed, a labor MP, continued that Zardari had a responsibility to be "looking after people, not [be] over here."

Yet the protests seem to have fallen on deaf ears -- which really shouldn't surprise anyone who has watched the Zardari government in action. The floods are just the latest, most tragic example of how inept the Pakistani state truly is. The inundation was predictable; Pakistan suffers monsoon rains every year at exactly the same time. But in a country -- and with a president -- so endemically corrupt, dealing with the entirely preventable, whether terrorism or natural disasters, has become impossible. There is simply no will, and more importantly no money, to spend on the Pakistani people. The country's coffers are constantly being diverted to more pressing programs -- or pockets, for that matter. Before he came to office, Zardari was facing corruption charges in Switzerland, Spain, and Britain. (As president, he withdrew Pakistan's cooperation with the latter two countries' courts; his presidential immunity prevented a Swiss case from reopening.)

And thus the tragedy unfolds: There are no emergency evacuation plans for natural disasters, nor is there money for institutions that could help victims of such crises. What there is money for -- almost $600,000 -- are such programs as the Martyr Benazir Bhutto Income Support Scheme, a cult-of-personality initiative named after the president's late wife. Those who sign up receive meager cash handouts and find themselves on the president's ruling party's election rolls -- which themselves received more government funds than two whole federal departments of Pakistan put together.

Meanwhile, if rumors in the Pakistani press are right, Zardari's European tour is even more cynical than it already seems. The trip is meant to kick-start the president's young son's political career. That launch has to take place overseas to avoid the inevitably hostile reactions such a dynastic coronation would draw back in Pakistan. Speculation has it that Zardari's son Bilawal, a recent college graduate who is already co-chairman along with Zardari of their political party, will proclaim himself the future leader of Pakistan to a select audience in Birmingham on August 7.

Pakistan's The News newspaper summed up popular sentiment in a laundry list of questions posed to the country's High Commission in London. "Who is paying for the buses and coaches being booked to bring people to the Birmingham rally?" the paper asks. "Why will the president not cancel his visit?" And the most crucial question: Shouldn't the money for the trip be better spent on the flood victims? In response, the Pakistani High Commission issued a one-line blanket response: "This is an official visit and procedures for official visits are being followed."

Pakistan can ill afford a president who prioritizes his personal political future over the lives of millions of his citizens. We have always known in Pakistan that the rest of the world's attention comes at a tremendously high cost. Yet we seem to keep paying.

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