“Crime is a way to use the city”

by Asher Kohn on 1/15/2010

When reading one of the most recent pieces on BLDGBlog, I was struck by how the writer describes how criminals and crime-fighters use the urban space to defeat their opponent. It’s like chess, sure, but without rules: climbing through elevator shafts, breaking through walls and ceilings, and basically using any which way to get through a building to the objective without using doors. Sure, the writer uses Die Hard as his example, but its still applicable to Central Asia.

Local Knowledge is, I think, always the criminal’s greatest asset. Whether you’re talking about Taliban, Hekmatyar, or whoever in Afghanistan or smugglers in Tajikistan or anti-government opposition groups in, well, most anywhere, the criminal usually must leverage their knowledge of their environment for their own protection. And the more sci-fi and creative they can be, the better off they usually are.

As a result, government groups invest in technology to leverage their economic advantage. They get pretty sci-fi and creative themselves, as you can see every time you click on Danger Room. Drones, missiles, special forces all rely on leveraging technology and training, but even still they cannot realistically execute One Shot-One Kill attacks. Even more, armed groups like the Taliban, who used to take to the mountains, have now begun to take to urban areas to use the city as camoflauge and protection. The Quetta Shura is now in Quetta, not just Somewhere in the Mountains. It is a whole lot more difficult to isolate the Quetta Shura in an urban world, geopolitics between the nation-states aside. They can use the entire built environment as layers and layers of camoflauge allowing them to plan and meet without fearing an instant attack. In this case, the city can beat the technology.

But what about smugglers and their warehouses? Here, corruption can trump intelligence gathering. Knowledge of the city and the city’s weaknesses allows drug runners to avoid arrest, if not detection. If the city is not camoflauge, it can also be armor.

So as much as some folks have derided the new ISAF plan to “take the cities” there is some logic and forward-thinking to it. If ISAF can prohibit Neo-Taliban folks and their cadres from entering the city, ISAF can then get them into the open, where they are more susceptible to the ISAF’s technology advantage. ISAF can prohibit the Neo-Taliban from using the city as camoflauge or armor. This presumes, of course, that Signals Intelligence can combine with the work of the ANP to really put a squeeze in the rurality, and that this squeeze is still a sincere goal, not just “opening up” the already relatively opened up cities for Kabul to extend its influence. But if the “take the cities” approach is meant to be proactive, than its a bright move to put the Neo-Taliban to a disadvantage and one of the first real proactive strategies ISAF has had since 2008 or so (I’m sure that I’m going to be corrected on this, or pointed to some date closer to 2001. Correct/point away!).

ISAF can, and security forces from Afghanistan north to Kazakhstan can, choose between using greater force (Eyal Weizman has a fascinating, if a bit politically-charged, essay on Lethal Theory that is a must-read as far as I’m concerned) or greater policing (which involves lots of words to be spilled on corruption, of course). It’s not a true dichotomy, but it brings up questions involving how to fight the War on Terror and the War on Drugs. I’ve mentioned Nazrif Shahrani before, and I think it’s important to ask how to view these Wars through other perspectives. It’s as much about creating a legal environment as it is a secure environment, in my opinion. And how the security forces choose to view the population centers, be it as dangerous wildernesses that must be tamed or as bastions of order that need coaxing, can affect how these Wars will be viewed by the populations themselves.

If Crime is a way to use the city, then the goal is to mitigate the crime while promoting the city. It is complex, sure, but proactive solutions can lead to successful resolutions, and those have been rare to come by recently.


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This post was written by...

– author of 33 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Asher is currently in law school at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is studying natural resource law in Central Asia and its intersection with different theories of jurisprudence. Besides Registan.net, Asher has written for The Los Angeles Times, Run of Play, İstanbul Altı, and Istanbul Eats. He has worked with the Natural Resource Law Center and the International Crisis Group, where he studied legal and political traction over a variety of issues.

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