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.