A Firm Place to Stand: Understanding Contemporary Urban Conflict

by Sam Abrams on March 7, 2014

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The global population is projected to grow from 7.2 billion people to 9.6 billion over the next four decades, and cities will bear the brunt of this growth. Today, about half of the world lives in cities, but that figure is expected to reach seventy percent by 2050. And the number of people living in megacities of 10 million or more will increase from 360 million to 630 million. These shifts will increase stress on social systems and state capacity, creating space for gangs, insurgents, and organized crime. Treating the city as a dynamic system of flows can help state security forces around the world better understand and navigate these challenges.

Cities have long been the subject of social scholarship. In the fourteenth century, Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldun wrote about asabiyyah, or “group cohesion,” which allowed groups in the imperial periphery to conquer urban centers, but was gradually degraded by the materialism and sedentary nature of urban life, leaving cities vulnerable to conquest by new rural groups. In the nineteenth century, German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies distinguished between Gemeinschaft, or relations based on the intimate, familial social ties found in rural areas, and Gesellschaft, or relations based on the impersonal, self-interest-driven ties found in industrialized cities. And in the twentieth century, Louis Wirth wrote that urban societies were characterized as “impersonal, superficial, transitory, and segmental,” producing the violence and disorder that many consider indelible urban phenomena: gangs, ghettos, slums, and social decay.

In the 1990s, military analysts such as Robert Scales, Ralph Peters, and Charles Krulak identified cities as increasingly important conflict environments and warned that the inherently slow and destructive nature of urban conflict could negate American technological strengths. Krulak even coined the term “three block war” to summarize the complexity of urban operations that might include humanitarian relief, peacekeeping operations, and intense military combat in adjacent areas—a term that could apply to recent conflicts in Bosnia, Iraq, and elsewhere.

But the twenty-first century is even more technologically connected than the world these analysts wrote about, and non-state actors have found ways to take advantage of these links to devastating effect. For example, Lakshar-e-Taiba’s attack on Mumbai in 2008 was coordinated from Pakistan using satellite phones, and the perpetrators used personal GPS devices to navigate the city at night. The attackers even had their handlers Google hostages they took at the Taj Mahal Hotel to determine their worth. Untrained Libyan revolutionary fighters took to Skype in 2011 to receive real-time tactical guidance from veteran relatives abroad. And in September 2013, al-Shabaab live-tweeted its siege of a mall in Nairobi, Kenya. These instances and others have demonstrated how urban operating environments diminish the discrepancy between the capabilities of states and non-state actors.

In order to guard against new threats, state security forces must account for the distinct nature of cities as well as the relations between cities and the outside world. To that end, the concept of “urban metabolism” can be helpful. Urban metabolism describes the connection between material flows such as water and energy, processing mechanisms like consumption, and outputs like social services or even pollution. This framework can shed light on conflict by including “social flows” such as money, weapons, drugs, and people; processing mechanisms like state institutions and social capital; and outputs like violence. The resulting “urban systems logic” suggests how and where security forces might act. For example, extraordinarily high levels of violence may seem endemic to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, but they are the result of an interaction between flows of drugs, money, and deportees from the United States on one hand, and insufficient state capacity to manage these flows and mediate disputes on the other, leading non-state armed groups to compete for economically valuable territory. Using urban systems logic, interventions could focus on inputs (limiting deportees from the US), processing mechanisms (improving police training), or the terrain where outputs are produced (redesigning infrastructure to facilitate surveillance)—or some combination of the three.

What kind of security force is best suited for this new operating environment? Cold war-era doctrine suggested that police forces’ investigative skills and local knowledge were better suited for confronting non-state armed groups. But that theory might not apply today. Mexican marines have fared better against cartels than local police forces, perhaps in part because they are less connected to local populations than other units and therefore less prone to corruption. And Brazilian police combating gangs also have a long history of brutality and ineffectiveness, but with military support, they have at least achieved modest results. Almost by definition, no existing security force will be perfectly suited to confront the constantly evolving challenges of technologically empowered, well-armed non-state actors operating in urban areas. But a critical first step is identifying and understanding the operating environment, a task for which the flow modeling and urban systems analysis are well suited.

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