The Pathologies of Policing and COIN

You can find, in Kelsey Atherton’s various Storifies of military griping about police behavior and the articles they would later grow into, a consistent theme. Veterans of counterinsurgency efforts abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan expressing astonishment, mockery, and disapproval of how so-called “militarized” police have acted in everything from small-time incidents to large-scale civil disturbances like the recent clashes in Ferguson, Missouri. They aren’t wrong to express disapproval over the awful, disturbing, and sometimes horrifying spectacles of police conduct. Any American that values their liberty, no matter their background and occupation, ought to be disturbed, shocked, and angry. And every American also has the right and obligation to demand better policing than what we have seen on television this year and last.

However, the narrative of “why couldn’t they do it like we did?” is very problematic. Current and former military compare their operations in Iraq and Afghanistan favorably to the public mess of American policing. They wonder, given that their own training, doctrine, and guidance mandated what seems to be a lighter, more enlightened touch towards the locals, why America’s cops can’t just be more like them. They wax FM 3–24 poetic about legitimacy, hearts and minds, and about avoiding being perceived as an occupying army.All of this, to be blunt, is fallacious. The recent spate of “we did it this way in Iraq and Afghanistan, why can’t local cops do it at home” articles are severely lacking in appreciation of both the context of overseas counterinsurgency (COIN) and domestic policing.

They shed light on neither and in fact mostly suggest a tremendous lack of seriousness about the business of both fighting insurgencies and delivering equitable and effective policing contributions at home. There are, to be specific, three reasons why criticisms of US policing from the “we did it better in Iraq and Afghanistan” viewpoint ring hollow.

  1. US soldiers participated in the act of violently creating and maintaining political order in those states as third parties. The local security forces that did the brunt of the killing and the dying are a much more fair point of comparison to US law enforcement. And they behave more like Ferguson cops than we would like to admit given the fact that we relied on them to fight the Afghan and Iraq wars.
  2. US soldiers favorably comparing their own engagement with the local population to those of out-of-control cops have, at best, selective memories. We ought not to sugarcoat what we actually did in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the negative ways that locals actually perceived it. Nor should we forget that US cops, unlike SOFA-sitting US soldiers in COIN, do not have legal immunity to being prosecuted for their actions.
  3. The military critique of US policing actually lets both police and their political masters off the hook for their worst abuses by ignoring the political context they take place in. And it wrongly implies that those problems could be solved if only police officers could be more like the military. Rather, look to the political motivations for what we want out of the police and critique that.

Locals, Not Americans Really Were Mostly Responsible for Any “Success” We Have Had in COIN

First, it is simply misleading to compare what US police do at home and what US soldiers did as third parties to wars fought by other people. The true grunt work of COIN was never done by Americans in the first place. In Iraq and Afghanistan we were third parties that acted as adjuncts to ultimately local struggles. We came, we saw, we killed a bunch of people and wasted a lot of taxpayer money on development projects, and then we left. Obviously the Iraqis and Afghans do not have such a luxury. It is their home, and their war. They bore the brunt of the fighting. A glance at the shocking disparity in casualties between US forces and Afghan security forces in Afghanistan confirms this. And, as my New America colleague Douglas Ollivant observed, much of the real causes of the effects attributed to American forces in the Iraq War Surge most likely had to do with the outcome of conflicts between locals as well.

Why does this matter? Well, the traditional job of police, militias, and other domestic security entities concerns the consolidation and control of political order. This is achieved, bluntly speaking, with armed coercion. In the United States, the normative purpose of policing is to “serve and protect,” but if we are honest with ourselves we have a long history dating back to the colonial era of utilizing police-like entities for maintaining — sometimes violently — the local political order. So much so that the notion of a distinction between “police” and “militia” in the US is mostly a modern one. The mere distinction between police and military functions in US history has not always held true in US history. The Posse Comitatus Act only became law in 1878, and even that allows leeway for the National Guard and the Coast Guard to act in a law enforcement capacity

One should also hasten to add that other European states that we might regard as more liberal than us also maintain federalized police run under military-style command and control as well. Some even do not make hard and fast distinctions between “police” and “military” to begin with — the category of “gendarmes” encompasses both. And in Afghanistan and Iraq, police as well as informal militias and other broad types of “security” and “counter-terrorism” forces are also literally combatants in the insurgency as well. The purpose of these paramilitary entities is often to forcibly maintain local political order, serve the interests of local political elites, and victimize segments of the citizenry.

We can see this in the case of Iraq and Afghan “security forces “ (which could be anything from professional soldiers to trigger-happy Shiite gunmen). But such allegedly “Third World” security provisioning systems may be seen at home as well. The Ferguson, MO government, for example, utilized its police forces as a private army to financially plunder for revenue as well as continuously harass and victimize an African-American population poorly at best represented by city government. Put simply, the purpose of policing and security in Ferguson was to maintain a state of affairs in which the government could rob its constitutents blind and treat a minority group as an internal enemy to be suppressed.

Local partners, who did the brunt of the killing, dying, and are still killing and dying for their desired political order in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not too different from the rent-a-mob-with-badges-and-guns that was law enforcement in Ferguson (and sadly, many other American towns). Both amount to unaccountable militias serving local political interests. Hence, when veterans of COIN campaigns favorably compare their exploits to the likes of Ferguson cops, they are merely washing their hands of the dirty work that locals performed for them to actually make COIN “work.”

Americans Have Selective Memories About What They Actually Did in Afghanistan and Iraq

When current and former military talk about how they would never, ever, be as reckless and bad as local US cops, regional analysts and the people they interacted with overseas might disagree. Joshua Foust, for example, wrote in 2012 about certain aspects of US military conduct that go far, far beyond anything that the worst US police officers have done domestically:

Look, war is hell. I have no illusions about that. But what is happening right now in Southern Afghanistan is inexcusable. There were rumors of this policy of collective punishment in the Arghandab before (see this overwrought Daily Mail story that stops right before the village actually was destroyed for an idea of what is going on), and I’m really struggling to see how such behavior does not violate Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention — that is, how this behavior is not a war crime, especially given the explicit admission that such behavior is merely for the convenience of the soldier and not any grander strategy or purpose.
This sort of abhorrent behavior is not limited to the Arghandab, either. ….Pahjwok has reported U.S. Marines in Helmand province explicitly warning local villagers of collective punishment if insurgents hide out in their settlements. It is probably a safe assumption to say that this is a widespread phenomenon.

This is not the only example. Afghan civilians on the other end of a night raid also lack the rose-colored glasses worn by military critics of US police. Perhaps, if they learned about some of the more egregious raids carried out by US law enforcement, they might even nod and say “been there, done that, got the t-shirt.” Granted, these actions may or may not have been necessary for the war effort. But even if we ultimately approve of them at the end of the day, we should not sugarcoat the nature of what we did to Afghans and Iraqis or suggest that it was somehow enlightened or genteel.

All of this is a lengthy prologue to one of the most aggravating elements of the “do it how we did it in Iraq and Afghanistan” military critique of US policing: back when those wars were still active, the desired chain of influence was the other way around. Everyone and their brother was saying that Iraq and Afghanistan ought to be more like domestic US policing. For example, the persistent cliche of domestic community policing as a model for COIN. The enormous amount of work on how to incorporate domestic policing into COIN. Numerous historical links showing a causal chain from US domestic policing to the conduct of counterinsurgency operations abroad have also been observed. In fact, there was actually a prominent study that argued that US counterinsurgency was originally created by US police:

This essay outlines the current counterinsurgency model, with an emphasis on its domestic application in the United States. It shows that many contemporary counterinsurgency practices were developed by police agencies inside the U.S., and illustrates the transfer of theory, strategy, and technique from domestic police to the military — and back. The essay also examines the state’s use of non- governmental or nonprofit agencies, as one element of counterinsurgency strategy, to channel and control political opposition. The conclusion briefly considers the strategic implications for social movements, especially as we learn to recognize and respond to political repression.

And now, after a decade of op-eds, articles, research papers, and studies about how America’s soldiers ought to be more like America’s police, current or former members of the military now — without a shred of irony — tell police that they ought to take a cue from the military. It is also quite notable that some of the critics decrying US police served in an army of occupation in Iraq that left the country because it could not negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement to give United States troops legal immunity from being prosecuted in Iraqi courts.

The agreement failed over a demand that American troops be given immunity from prosecution by Iraqis, a very touchy political issue within the Iraqi Parliament. Some experts said Iraqi leaders may not have been willing to take great political risk with their citizens in exchange for a relatively small American force.But no immunity meant no sizable residual troop presence. “When the Americans asked for immunity, the Iraqi side answered that it was not possible,” al-Maliki said in an October 2011 news conference. “The discussions over the number of trainers and the place of training stopped. Now that the issue of immunity was decided and that no immunity to be given, the withdrawal has started.”

So is this the enlightened military practice that our nation’s law enforcement ought to emulate? At least cops can be prosecuted in American courts, even if those courts rarely deliver convictions. If the Baltimore police department attempted to negotiate a SOFA agreement with the city, the outrage such a move would generate would make the recent riots pale in comparison.

The Real Problem Is Not That Cops Aren’t Like The Military

When current or former military express puzzlement over their restrictive rules of engagement vs. the permissive ones of local enforcement, they miss the core point. American rules of engagement are very strict and harsh compared to those of other militaries. That is because restrained rules of engagement are politically important to the US in ways that do not hold true for other states. If veterans are puzzled as to why police have dramatically less restraint than they do, they need only look to the politics. Soldiers are trained to recite axioms like “war is politics by other means.” It also holds true that policing is politics by other means.

To understand the controversies of today’s policing is to understand the way that politicians — from Ferguson rent-seekers to Presidents — create a situation that in which a citizen’s relation to government is as an internal enemy. Our elites are fond of declaring “war” on crime and drugs, and we are suddenly shocked when those we have tasked to fight such “wars” take them up on it. To the extent that the identity and ethos of police are created through shared tasks, goals, and direction from their political masters, it is rather dishonest of us to also let our media and government elites off the hook for scaring the public with tales of marauding “urban super-predators” and then being surprised when demands for crackdowns on said “super-predators” result in gross violations of civil liberties and human dignity. Moreover, we are also (dishonestly) shocked when we create an enormous amount of useless and often petty regulation and then authorize agents of the state to kill to enforce them. It is also fascinating to see older calls for police to be more like counterinsurgents abroad juxtaposed with rightful horror over classical COIN tools such as detentions and interrogations applied to American citizens at home.

We get what we pay for, ultimately. If we want to treat our fellow Americans as enemies of the state, the state will use all of the means at its disposal to realize our desires. And one is dispirited to see all of the myriad ways in which it has.

Conclusion: The Importance of Policing

All of this, as my frequent co-author and career police officer John P. Sullivan notes, misses the point of what we want policing to be. Sullivan is sometimes stereotyped as a cop in favor of policing as war. But that is very much far from the truth, as can be seen from an interview John gave to Wired’s Danger Room back in 2009. This was before “militarized” policing was a buzzword and also long before debates over bodycams.

“Policing can be informed by counterinsurgency — and they are in fact similar at some points,” said John P. Sullivan, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and an expert on transnational gangs. “But at others they really diverge. So you need to be very, very careful.”
Sullivan, the co-founder of the Los Angeles Terrorism Early Warning Group, told Danger Room the parallels with community policing — patrolling contested areas, identifying centers of gravity — make it tempting to view counterinsurgency as a tool for containing gang violence. But domestic policing and military operations, he added, are inherently different. “It [counterinsurgency theory] is attractive, and I think that people looking at gangs should look at the literature,” he said. “But to wholesale take it in and do it is probably not a good idea.”
Take, for instance, checkpoint operations — a regular feature of any counterinsurgency. No harm, right? Well, the police in Washington tried that; the whole idea was to “protect” the endangered population of the Trinidad neighborhood by cordoning it off and restricting the movement of vehicles. A federal appeals court struck down the operation as unconstitutional. Same for “cordon and knock” — going house to house, politely searching for contraband. The police tried that in D.C., too, under something called the “Safe Homes Initiative.” It didn’t go down well, either.
That’s not to mention the more potent intelligence tools of control that are essential to fighting insurgents: Human intelligence (i.e. informants); intrusive surveillance; biometric collection. Those methods are available to domestic law enforcement, but the point is counterinsurgency is to establish sweeping civil control. Anacostia ain’t Anbar province. As Sullivan described it, the bar for collecting intelligence on your own population has to be much higher.
“The liberty issues are vital,” Sullivan said. “What gives you legitimacy in the long haul is preserving liberty while providing security. If you don’t end up doing it right, it ends up enhancing the legitimacy of the gang.”

Despite the massive structural flaws inherent in the roots of the American policing system it is also not clear that we would prefer alternatives (such as federalized, kanban, or gendarme-style policing) that would eliminate those flaws. Perhaps they would only create other flaws we did not anticipate. Policing can change for the better and it has changed for the better both in the US and abroad. But it can also only change if we appreciate the proper context in which plicing takes place.

If we’re smart, we’ll listen to Sullivan. There are certainly things that law enforcement can learn from the military, and many police innovations and ideas have come from translating military procedures and policies into civil contexts. The reasons why we fight wars abroad and police at home ought to be different, and even if the police and the military share common tools and means those tools and means ought to be shaped by the unique purpose of the police: to protect and serve a civil community. In other words, cops having military gear or not using it in a textbook military manner isn’t the issue. The issue is that cops are using these gear and tactics in a way that is counter to what we the people believe their political mission ought to be as police.

And if we want to change that, we ought to focus on how we use our police and what we tell them that their mission is rather than how they compare to how people think we fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.