COIN Cops 2: Demand-Side Security

Nathan Hodge provides a good critique of my post last week about applying counterinsurgency principles to crime prevention. It’s a good opportunity for a second bite of the apple here.

A number of good points here from Nathan and his sources. The one I found most compelling — which is to say I really ought have considered it in the original post — was that there’s an ineradicable rule-of-law component to criminal justice that doesn’t exist in a military context. Criminals have rights, and so even the most discriminating counterinsurgency operation is probably going to face some serious rights-based restrictions. At the same time, some of the examples Nathan cites to problematize my case don’t appear so problematic. Intelligence collection in police operations may have a higher rights-based bar to clear than in COIN ops, but it’s a quantitative and not qualitative distinction. The principle at stake — give the people enough security and services and they’ll have a better reason to cooperate with you against the undesirable element — is the same in both cases.

But maybe a more productive response to Nathan’s thoughtful post would be a refinement of mine. I wrote that post in large part to promote an idea that I think animates successful counterinsurgency and has justifiable application in a broader context. I’ve been calling it ‘demand-side security.’

Basically — and I fully admit I need to flesh this out better, so your comments are greatly appreciated — it strikes me that a basic prerequisite of success for security operations of all stripes (military, police) is an understanding of why a given cohort is willing to give active or passive support to the Baddies. What conditions allow a criminal gang or an insurgent group to take root? I don’t want to get too specific for fear of diminishing applicability. But I mean to say that genuine security requires looking beyond the specific threat in question to the social, economic and political conditions that either gave rise to it or it exploits. It requires asking: what is the demand among a population cluster that gives rise to the threat? This approach is unapologetically root-cause. We want to solve problems, not mitigate them, wherever possible; although realism requires a recognition that there will be some conditions that can only be mitigated.

Unfortunately, there’s too much security thinking out there that says we need to focus on the threat itself from the gang or insurgent network — the supply side of the situation. And there’s no substitute for doing so, in truth. Any effort that ignores the supply side is going to fail, because, y’know, you’d leave the threat intact. But demand-side security is the necessary condition for success. View demand-side security as battlefield preparation. By addressing the demand for, say, justice or economic development, you’ll set up the elements of a broader strategy against the threat, and, essentially, cut off the threat’s retreat into popular appeal/acquiescence and its ability to reconstitute itself. Then, when you bring the hammer down on the supply-side threat, your actions will have lasting value. (It’ll also allow your inevitably human mistakes to be more readily understood and forgiven.) “No Justice No Peace” is the rare slogan that grows more compelling the more you think about it.

The reason why I brought Petraeus and counterinsurgency into the mix is because the counterinsurgents have created a psychological breakthrough. They demonstrated in Iraq the reasons why a root-cause approach ought to be embraced, even as in the U.S. it tends to be rejected as soft utopianism. I’m not a criminologist. But there are some basic common-sense lessons for lasting security that come out of counterinsurgency. And they all share a basic element: address the demands of people for justice and prosperity, and the basis for lasting security comes into focus.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman