On Military Operations in Chicago, and Elsewhere

There have been a lot of talk in recent weeks about military type operations in the United States that I’d like to take the time to comment on.

First you had Donald Trump threatening to send in the Feds to Chicago, and his recent statements suggesting that the national crackdown on immigration was akin to a Military Operation.

Then you had local columnist John Kass of the Chicago Tribune openly calling for Martial law in the Englewood and Austin communities of the city.

As someone who grew up on the Southside, whose family still resides in the Austin area, this conversation obviously hits close to home for me.

However, it’s as a former U.S. Army soldier, and U.S. Gov Political stabilization strategist that I’d like to approach this issue from.

One of my first combat experiences was in a military operation similar to what Mr. Kass, and the “experts” named recommend. I was a reconnaissance team leader in Fallujah, during the second siege of the city. This still remains the largest military engagement since the Vietnam war.

Our team, along with other recon elements of the US Army, and Marine Corps were to man and monitor likely infiltration and exfiltration routes into the city to monitor for any movements by hostile forces and “ensure that the bad guys had no where to run”.

An operation by the National Guard to shut down a major metropolitan area, and seize control would inevitably draw lessons from this mission. So it’s worth pointing out that mission was, by and large a failure.

The city itself was decimated. The people traumatized. As for the bad guys? They just went somewhere else. Mosul mostly, to become the foundation of ISIS which is a story for another day.

The lesson here being that any half way intelligent, or organized criminal element would simply walk away calmly, and go somewhere else. At best, you’d get a temporary reprieve from violence, but more likely you would just move it somewhere else that is less equipped to deal with the problem.

We saw this exact thing happen in Chicago when many of the housing developments were torn down in the late 90’s and early 2000’s under Mayor Daley.

The cost, of course, would be the further alienation of a community that is already struggling to keep its head above water and another cohort of young men shoved onto a negative trajectory that would harm all of us.

The military, of course, learned this lesson quickly.

A couple of years after I left Iraq, General Petraeus began to implement a “counterinsurgency” strategy for the province. Instead of focusing on getting the bad guys, they focused on undermining their support and ameliorating the conditions that allowed them to thrive. They focused on providing a better alternative to the disillusioned young men who were most likely to turn to violence.

This meant dismantling the existing Shiite militias that operated with a heavy hand, and enabling the local Sunni populations around Baghdad to have oversight and control over police and military operations in their community.

This meant building relationships with local community leaders and ensuring that their voices were heard.

This meant an emphasis on investment in the local communities to ensure that young men had a job, and a place to go that wasn’t AQI.

This marked a massive ideological shift in “Military Operations” that would define the next decade plus of the wars.

5 years later I found myself in Kandahar City as a Foreign Affairs Officer tasked with stabilizing the city and undermining its support for the Taliban. My AO was the western part of the city, which was generally lawless since the Russians left in the 1980’s. Mullah Omar had come to prominence in this area, and old Mujahideen leaders still ruled their fiefdoms with impunity.

If Chicago’s southside is “lost” as Mr. Kass posits, then surely western Kandahar City, wrecked by 3 decades of constant violence (or centuries depending on how you look at it), was lost as well.

However, we did not build walls, or choke off access to areas. We knew that this would alienate the population, while doing almost nothing to deter the violent elements that was hidden amongst them.

We brought in money for schools, and jobs and built relationships with local leaders who had the ability to influence the population for either good or bad.

We facilitated local leaders in proactively engaging with their constituents instead of just waiting for them to come around. I have fond memories of the Mayor of Kandahar popping up in random districts on the city where no one thought he would be silly enough to show his face. He’d arrive in a taxi Cab and spend hours listening to the challenges, and complaints of people whom felt isolated from their local government. These weren’t all happy affairs. The local military commander thought he was nuts, and more than once threatened to leave me out there alone if I kept insisting on holding these big Shuras.

However, the impact was noticeable and immediate. People whom had never engaged with the local government began to, slowly, re-engage with the local government. The government office we built in that area of the city is still functioning today, despite the dysfunction in other parts of the country.

I’ll take Mr. Kass at his word that he is looking for genuine solutions to the problems of this community. Take it from someone who has seen this firsthand, shutting down a city, and conducting military operations that even the military would tell you is a waste a time is not a solution.

It’s never that simple. I wish it were, but one of the first lessons I learned in the Military was to always take the hard right over the easy wrong.

The lessons here for the City of Chicago are that sometimes we need to take more risks as a community, and do the hard things that we know can do to curb violence. Mr. Kass mentions a few of them: Summer Youth Employment, Job training. To that list I’ll add police, and political accountability for these problems, and a concerted effort to right many of the wrongs that have pushed people away from our society and into a world of drugs and violence.

We know the things we should do. So let’s do them.