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A Case for Reflection: On the Ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Detroit
Kirby Dennis, Kris Karafa and Rebecca Patterson
The military’s lessons from a decade of war can be particularly useful for a domestic audience facing similar challenges. For example, Detroit faces urban blight, high unemployment, low literacy rates, social and economic inequality, and pervasive insecurity – issues confronted by those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The authors use the framework of counterinsurgency to examine how lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan apply to Detroit. The importance of security as a precursor to economic development, government legitimacy, and the impact of economic growth on stability are highlighted with suggestions of how such lessons apply domestically. Harnessing the experience of veterans could be particularly impactful for municipal leaders as they address challenges similar to those faced by military officers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During a recent trip to Detroit, we were struck by the glaring similarities that a once proud and thriving American city shares with two increasingly well-known countries – Iraq and Afghanistan. In our interactions with Detroit municipal leaders during our visit these connections became increasingly apparent, and indeed, reflect many of the issues faced by American military leaders over the past thirteen years of conflict. The U.S. military fought counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thus engaged in activities that affected the political, economic, and social systems of these countries. Many argue that the U.S. went far beyond a military campaign in these two particular cases, and instead sought to implement wholescale societal transformation or nation-building. Like municipal leaders at home, the U.S. military dealt with issues that included urban blight, high unemployment, low literacy rates, social and economic inequality, and high rates of violence. These problems represented fundamental impediments to America’s ability to foster sustainable peace in the war-torn areas of Iraq and Afghanistan, and in many ways are commensurate with the current issues facing Detroit.
More similarities exist between Iraq, Afghanistan, and Detroit than the casual observer might expect. One should consider the following: Detroit has been listed by Forbes as America’s most dangerous city for the past five years; the city possesses $18 billion in debt obligations; the unemployment rate is roughly 16% which tripled from 2000-2012; the city experienced a 77% decrease in property value over the past 50 years; and, the city witnessed a population decline from its peak of 1.8 million in 1950 to 700,000 today, including a 50% decline in employed residents from 1970 to 2000.  Given these bleak statistics, it is important to consider how recent lessons learned from the last decade of war could inform Detroit’s policymakers in their efforts at home. The following analysis seeks to capture several key lessons from the U.S. military’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ultimately draw similarities to the current situation in Detroit. We believe these lessons can be useful for Detroit’s leaders as they chart a way towards a better future for the Motor City.
Counterinsurgency Tenets - A Framework
Through the lens of the Iraq and Afghanistan experience, several broad categories exist for analyzing similarities and lessons learned. Economic, security, political, and leadership categories – which mirror several core tenets of counterinsurgency doctrine – are particularly useful for this analysis in that they provide a clear framework for assessing the case of Detroit. We acknowledge that counterinsurgency theory does not provide a basis by which all of Detroit’s ills can be assessed. Nonetheless, broadly speaking, we believe that there is utility in assessing the similarities and lessons presented within this framework, as they may provide useful insight, perspective, and even possible solutions to domestic audiences seeking to address challenges at home. The lessons are not intended to provide ready-made answers for Detroit’s complex problems. However, as a result of our interactions with government, non-profit, and civilian leaders during our visit to the city, we believe enough parallels between Detroit, Iraq and Afghanistan exist to warrant further exploration. What follows is an examination of lessons learned from our own experiences with counterinsurgency, as well as suggestions as to how they may apply in future efforts to revitalize Detroit.
Similarities & Lessons Learned
Security is a necessary precursor to economic development. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, providing security to local populations was of paramount importance – namely to instill confidence and provide the necessary space for economic growth to occur. Although there is not a well-defined metric by which levels of security trigger economic activity, it is clear that local populations will engage economically once they assess security to be at an acceptable level – an idea buttressed by personal vignettes of counterinsurgents across the military. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, security investment was manifest in the growth of both national security forces as well as the surge of U.S. military forces in 2007 and 2010. Take for example the national police force in Iraq, which grew from a force of 27 battalions in 2007 to 44 battalions by the end of 2008. In the case of Afghanistan, President Karzai sought and exceeded an incredibly ambitious goal to field over 350,000 Afghan National Security Forces in a little over 10 years, requiring a major capital investment by Afghanistan, the U.S., and the international donor community. In the end, this exponential growth in host nation forces coupled with a large influx of U.S. troops set the necessary conditions to tamp down violence in key areas so that political and economic initiatives could take hold.
The importance of police forces in both conflicts warrants specific mention, as their performance was often linked to the legitimacy of the central government. Although in both Iraq and Afghanistan the number of police battalions grew exponentially over the course of the war, the quality of the police force itself was every bit as important as quantity. Whereas the Iraq and Afghan Armies enjoyed high levels of public support, the police were generally viewed as corrupt and incompetent – this despite public recognition of their importance to improving security. In the early stages of the Iraq war, 62% of residents in Baghdad stated that growing an adequate police force in terms of size and capability was their number one priority. Unfortunately, Iraq and Afghanistan struggled to field impartial and capable police forces early in the war. Consequently, local police functions were often assumed or influenced by militias that operated at the behest of local strongmen – a dynamic that often stymied the efforts of U.S. military commanders to improve security.
Like Iraq and Afghanistan, Detroit has struggled with escalating violence and an underdeveloped police force. Not only has Detroit ranked first on the Forbes "Most Dangerous City" list for the last five-years, but it also has a crime rate that far exceeds both domestic and international norms, to include Baghdad and Kabul. This dubious distinction has not only damaged the psyche of Detroit residents, but has also prevented potential economic investment from taking hold. Detroit citizens have expressed their outrage, evident in a 2012 Detroit News poll that indicated that 40% of the population would leave the city within a 5-year span primarily because of the crime problem. Perhaps more alarming, the same poll found that 58% of Detroit residents believe that crime is their foremost problem - an issue that eclipsed unemployment during a period in which some estimates placed the real jobless rate at close to 50%. To compound matters, investment in the Detroit police force is not commensurate with the security problems that currently exist. Specifically, members of the Detroit police force are paid less than their suburban counterparts, and recruitment efforts for new police hires were virtually non-existent up until late 2013. From 2012-2013, police rolls decreased by 300 personnel and the police budget was cut by 18% from the previous year – two trends that cannot continue if Detroit hopes to economically rebound.
While the current leadership in Detroit has acknowledged the need for increasing investment in the police force, the security situation has already resulted in far-reaching consequences – chief among them is Detroit's stagnant economy. In a December 2013 Forbes statistical analysis of major metropolitan areas that gauged economic vitality, Detroit ranked last. Not surprisingly, the study highlights population influx as a key indicator of a strong economy. Given the Detroit News poll that underscores crime as the impetus for population flight, the resulting economic ramifications come as no surprise. The security situation in Detroit is no doubt complex, as its roots run deep in economic, political, and social sectors. However, there is broad agreement that investment in security forces is a necessary step in reversing trends – a concept proven by the large growth of Iraqi and Afghan security forces from 2007-2011. As Detroit faces difficult prioritization choices in the coming months, investment in its police force should be near the top.
Government legitimacy is paramount. In addition to the aforementioned reasons for security force investment, it is critical to point out that performance and professionalism of security forces are directly tied to government legitimacy – which is vital to achieving long-term stability. Populations today expect their government to provide essential services such as education, health care, rule of law, and infrastructure maintenance as a means of sustaining and promoting economic activity. When governments in a conflict zone cannot fulfill these responsibilities, malign actors often exploit the existing vacuum and undermine its authority.
A key component of legitimacy is government leadership. As history has shown time and again, effective leaders garner popular support for government efforts while corrupt leaders denigrate the institutions they are meant to represent and alienate the populace. The U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are rife with examples of good and bad leadership across military, civilian, and host-nation organizations. Although certain environments proved to be indifferent to leadership no matter how strong, in many cases leadership was a decisive variable in advancing counterinsurgency efforts for the U.S. military. Broadly speaking, leadership proved essential to progress. If nothing else, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan prove that leaders who understand security, economics, society, government, and culture are better equipped to build consensus and achieve goals in complex environments. The most successful leaders in both campaigns were able to effectively communicate a vision and unite stakeholders, and were thus successful in guiding disparate organizations toward a common purpose.
While economic, social, and political factors led to the downfall of Detroit, a persistent failure of leadership is equally to blame. The city has demonstrated the steep cost of poor government leadership perhaps better than any other municipality in America. Sadly, it has suffered from a rash of corrupt or ineffective leaders for the past several years, and no better example of this exists than the tenure of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Mayor Kilpatrick led Detroit from 2002-2008, and was convicted on counts that included extortion, racketeering, and obstruction of justice. The government’s lack of legitimacy resulted in severe consequences for the city and its residents.
The problem of an illegitimate and corrupt government system in Detroit is much more pervasive than merely the example of Mayor Kilpatrick though. In addition, five Detroit police chiefs have been replaced in the past five years, and two of the past four city council presidents have been embroiled in scandal. These examples, along with many others, are a key reason for emergency manager Kevyn Orr’s description of Detroit's government as "dysfunctional and wasteful" and plagued by "years of budgetary restrictions, mismanagement, crippling operational practices, and, in some cases, indifference or corruption." The dearth of government legitimacy in Detroit has led to a disillusioned public with little confidence in government leaders and institutions – verified by a 2012 poll in which 63% of Detroit residents expressed no faith in the mayor or the city council.
The rapid promotion of competent leaders and their placement in the right positions is perhaps more important than any other aspect of Detroit’s recovery. Local opinion in Detroit indicates that the election of Mayor Mike Duggan was a good start in achieving this goal. However, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate that effective leadership must be sustained over the long run. Moreover, the military’s experience proved that effective leadership is not only required at the top of an organization, but must also be present throughout its lowest levels. Detroit must bear this in mind as it builds its next generation of leaders to assume critical positions across government, business, charitable and education sectors.
Economic growth is fundamental to stability, and must be carefully facilitated. Economist Paul Collier has argued convincingly that poor nations with little economic growth have a greater tendency to experience conflict and violence. No doubt, Collier’s premise applies to troubled municipalities as well. Targeting the most impactful sectors for economic growth will be as vital in Detroit as they were in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, a vital part of economic recovery is private sector development – the private sector creates jobs and provides a sustainable source of tax revenue. While it took the U.S. military longer than expected to address economic problems in Iraq, the ultimate response was impressive. By 2007, each brigade combat team was assigned a Provincial Reconstruction Team to oversee economic initiatives, and commanders were authorized to spend significant sums of money to jumpstart the economy through the Commander's Emergency Response Program – two initiatives that not only helped enable economic growth vis-à-vis small business expansion, but also contributed to reducing levels of violence. While the decline in violence was the result of a wide scope of efforts, it is clear that an improving economy was a key component to a more secure environment. As Iraq's economy grew approximately 5% a year between the years 2008 to 2012, violence declined significantly. Detroit’s leaders would do well to consider the positive impact that private sector development can have on security and stability – a notion highlighted by the American military experience in Iraq.
Moreover, a critical lesson learned in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts was the importance of a coherent, unified spending strategy among stakeholders – an issue strongly tied to economic recovery. An early impediment to economic recovery in Iraq was linked to the lack of financial coordination between the U.S. and multilateral institutions. Synchronizing financial efforts between multinational institutions in war-torn regions is difficult business, but its importance to forging unity of effort among stakeholders has become increasingly central to success in modern warfare. That said, there can be unintended consequences when external monies flood conflict zones. Indeed, such financial assistance proved to be a double-edged sword in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the one hand, external support was vital to jumpstarting economic recovery. On the other hand, as the number of stakeholders proliferated so too did the likelihood for duplication of effort in terms of programs and projects.
Similarly, the number of organizations involved in the recovery of Detroit has drastically increased. Since the public announcement of Detroit’s bankruptcy in July 2013, funding from a variety of sources has flooded the city. Whether in seed money from JP Morgan's recent $100 million investment, or the recent $25 million non-profit injection to boost community initiatives, the current landscape in Detroit is rife with well-intentioned ideas backed by cash. Though high levels of funding have the potential to transform Detroit into a place where people want to live and work, oversight is required to ensure that funds are channeled into the most impactful sectors. Without oversight and unified objectives between government, businesses and non-profit sectors, the potential for an artificial economic spike is likely – rather than the stable economic platform that Detroit so desperately needs. Indeed, if stakeholders are too eager for quick results, they can spoil the overall intention of sustainable economic development – a lesson learned by many military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Detroit moves forward, it must ensure that initiatives are synchronized and coordinated to advance a coherent economic agenda.
One of our most common refrains in America is to learn from the past. Over the last 13 years of conflict, the U.S military has displayed its ability to learn and adapt to changing environments. While arriving at change is not easy and often met with bureaucratic obstacles, the ability to adapt is imperative to success – a notion underscored in Iraq and Afghanistan, two campaigns in which the U.S. military had to meet changing circumstances with creativity and fresh thinking to succeed. Moving forward, the challenge facing the military was best summarized by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who asked “How can the Army break-up the institutional concrete, its bureaucratic rigidity…in order to retain, challenge, and inspire its best, brightest, and most-battled tested young [leaders] to lead the service in the future?” The answer to this question will be critical to future military success. Detroit, like other municipalities across America, should be asking themselves the same question.
Given the aforementioned similarities faced in Detroit with those in Iraq and Afghanistan we believe that the hard lessons learned from war should not just be data to fill the history books, but should be applied to problems faced at home. The experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans across the country should be harnessed and brought to bear on the nation’s toughest problems, whether at the municipal level or the national level. This terse analysis has hopefully illustrated the critical lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that are most applicable to domestic problems. Importantly, these lessons were forged through the hard work and sacrifice of military veterans who possess incredible insight, perspective and leadership – skills that can help municipalities tackle some of their most vexing problems. As local government leaders seek creative ways to address economic, political, security, and leadership challenges, they would do well to tap a readily available pool of talent, resident in our military veterans.
The views expressed herein are those of the authors are not are representative of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense or National Defense University.
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