From Mogadishu to Mumbai, managing urban conflict

October 13, 2013

At first glance it is an unlikely comparison – the 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based gunmen and the disastrous 1993 operation by U.S. troops against a Somali warlord in Mogadishu.

But David Kilcullen, a former adviser on counterinsurgency in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, compares the fighting in the two cities in often unexpected ways in his new book “Out of the Mountains” to convince people to think more about urban conflict.

In the case of Mumbai, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant group behind the attack turned the city to its advantage. It spent months getting to know its layout and dynamics, with Pakistani-American David Headley carrying out detailed reconnaissance. The 10 gunmen who snuck in by sea from Karachi and went on to kill 166 people were able to hide among the many boats plying smuggling routes. They landed in Mumbai’s coastal slums where nobody thought to report them to the police. “They didn’t get in there secretly; it is just that people thought they were smugglers,” says Kilcullen.

They communicated with their handlers back in Pakistan, taking advantage of the explosion in internet communications which have linked the world’s cities. They consciously exploited the chaotic urban environment in multiple attacks during a three-day siege.

In Somalia, the opposite was the case for the U.S. operation in the coastal capital Mogadishu meant to capture two lieutenants of Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed and which went badly wrong after two U.S. helicopters were shot down. Before the operation – which inspired the book and film “Black Hawk Down” and whose 20th anniversary was this month – U.S. forces had less than six weeks to get to know how Mogadishu worked.
“Unlike LeT, however, the Americans didn’t nest in the city’s natural flow; they deliberately ignored it,” Kilcullen writes.

When the U.S. operation went wrong, the city turned against them; 18 Americans and at least 1,000 Somalis were killed in a bloody search and rescue mission which left deep scars on the United States, putting it off for years from intervening overseas with U.S. ground troops.

Kilcullen cites the two examples – among many in a dizzying tour of the developing world’s rapidly growing coastal cities – in an effort to persuade military strategists in particular to start planning for urban conflict after years of fighting in mostly rural areas in Afghanistan. “It is not so long ago that the entire military doctrine on cities was ‘don’t go there’,” he says.

With the obvious exception of Iraq, he argues that some of the earlier experiences of 20th century urban warfare had been forgotten by a generation who fought in Afghanistan after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks. In the interim, cities – usually concentrated along the coast – had been changed enormously by population growth and the increased connectivity made possible by the internet.

LESSONS FROM AFGHANISTAN

Kilcullen acknowledges that many of the problems which confront modern cities, from population growth to crime to urban riots, are not new. In his book he cites commentary on urbanisation from the 14th century Tunisian scholar Ibn Khaldun to Charles Dickens and Karl Marx to more recent scholarship. Paris, he notes, had been redesigned in the 19th century by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann with wide boulevards to give ease of military access after the street fighting in the 1848 revolution.

He also cites research showing that the growth of cities encourages economic development – though he questions whether the vast urban sprawls in developing countries will be able to show the same adaptability seen in developed countries which industrialised earlier with far smaller populations.

But while he draws heavily on existing scholarship on cities, he is hoping to bring a fresh perspective as a relative newcomer to the multiple problems of urbanisation. And it is there the book comes into its own; not so much as an original theory of cities but as a highly readable work in progress on everything from links to drug-smugglers in diasporas to gang warfare in Latin America to flooding in Dhaka.

Kilcullen uses his experience of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan – where the Taliban often managed to out-govern the United States and its allies even as they were outgunned – to try to explain how non-state actors operate in an urban environment. By offering their own predictable system of rules through their courts, the Taliban had pulled in supporters, who would often then become beholden to them if they ruled in their favour. Belief in the Taliban ideology, he argues, would come after being drawn into that net rather than, as is usually assumed, the cause of support for insurgents.

A similar form of “competitive control”, he suggests, could also be at work in cities where governments have to compete with criminal gangs and other non-state actors to win over populations. It is a model that could be applied well, for example, to Karachi, where criminal gangs, political parties, Islamist militants and the government all compete – with varying degrees of coercion and violence – to win the loyalties of people in different areas.

Rather than arguing for such authoritarian measures as Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris, Kilcullen calls for more attention to be paid – with the help of local communities – to understanding the ecosystems of cities “as living, breathing organisms” and to seeing these as a changing system of flows of people and goods rather than a spatial construct frozen in time.

It is an ambitious book – the title “Out of the Mountains” refers to Kilcullen’s call for the generation who fought in Afghanistan to turn their attention to “the implications of the coming age of urban, networked, guerrilla war in the mega-slums and megacities of a coastal planet.” But it is also one that will bring the problems facing modern cities to an entirely new set of readers at a time when governments throughout the world are trying to work out how to manage them better.

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