Small Wars Journal

Fixing Afghanistan’s Broken Windows: A Low Tech Tool in the Fight Against Terror

Tue, 08/13/2013 - 7:00am

Fixing Afghanistan’s Broken Windows: A Low Tech Tool in the Fight Against Terror

Andy Bell

While serving as a United States Soldier in Afghanistan, on almost a daily basis, Major General Macdonald, Deputy Commanding General, United States Forces – Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and Sergeant Major Durkan directed the USFOR-A Staff to keep their areas clean. That direction extended to keeping the installation of New Kabul Compound and even Afghanistan clean. They went so far as to lead police call and personally inspect facilities. Inspections are part of Army regulations and allow commanders to determine the training, discipline, readiness, and welfare (AR 1-201 Army Inspection Policy, April 2008). However, is there more to this practice than meets the eye? On second thought, those of us who have participated in Improvised Explosive Device (IED) training remember the mantra that anything can be an IED.  When I arrived in Afghanistan, I was amazed at the beauty of the landscape and mountains in the distance. However, I was taken aback by the trash and destruction left by years of fighting.  The next thing that came to mind was rule number two of our IED training, “If you did not put it there, DO NOT pick it up.” Could keeping our areas clean and orderly positively affect Counter Insurgency (COIN) efforts?

In the early 1980’s, James Wilson and George Kelling developed a theory called “Broken Windows” (March 1982). In their search for answers to why some neighborhoods were subject to rapid decay and high crime and others were not, they observed that crime and disorder were linked.  If a broken window went unrepaired, soon there were more broken windows, other destruction, and eventually more serious and higher crime. Then it would stand to reason, if the window was repaired in a timely manner the likelihood of additional and more severe incidents decreased.  Following the research on “Broken Windows,” in “Fixing Broken Windows,” Kelling tested the theory working with the New York City Transit Authority noting that removing graffiti and keeping the subway clean reduced minor and serious crimes (Kelling, G. & Coles, C. 1998). Using “aggressive order tactics” for minor acts of social disorder can decrease the “threat of invasion form serious criminal activity” (Fritsch, E. J., Liederbach. J., & Taylor, R. W., 2009).

Kelling’s Theory is one of the tenets of Community Policing and Crime Prevention in high crime neighborhoods. That is the community taking an interest in the physical look of the neighborhood (keeping it clean, painting houses or buildings, making timely repairs, even planting flowers) it indicates that people care about the place in which they live. Just as important, it gives the perception that people are watching, they know what is going on, and they know when things are out of place.

As a law enforcement officer with over 20 years of experience, I led many Community Policing efforts and observed firsthand the impact of bringing order to crime riddled neighborhoods.  The picture in some high crime neighborhoods prior to community policing efforts were very similar to the battlefield; that of major destruction. Some buildings were abandoned and used by criminals both to live and to store their stolen goods; and yes, there were broken windows.  Even emergency service personnel (fire, rescue, and police) needed additional backup before entering the neighborhoods.  However, by working with the people in the communities and the various government agencies we were able to make a difference. Police Officers worked with the community using problem solving methods to identify the problem and to provide the right city services to take care of the problem, i.e., to clean up the neighborhood, both figuratively and literally. It took time and a tremendous amount of effort, but crime and the fear of crime that stifled everyday life were reduced.

Could this practice extend to Afghanistan in our COIN efforts? We know that insurgents watch us and adapt to our Techniques, Tactics and Procedures (TTP) in order to catch us off guard. They look for opportunities where Coalition Forces are lax or inattentive. Unclean and disorderly looking areas that contain garbage or the results of the destruction of war are perfect grounds for insurgent’s activities. These areas provide the opportunity to take advantage of what appears to be a lackadaisical atmosphere.  Even more telling is our application of technology to indicate when something is different. We are investing in video technology in order to defeat IEDs through change detection. If we have a base line of what the terrain looks like to begin with, we can then recognize when something has been changed and or tampered. The US Military has many high-tech and costly solutions to identify, protect against and defeat IEDs: mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles, ground penetrating radar, unmanned ground and aerial vehicles, jammers, and video change detection technology. Cleaning up an area and keeping it clean and orderly is a low-tech solution that usually costs little and can have a greater impact.

About a month into my tour in Afghanistan, I observed a 6” X 6”X6” box sitting at the rear of the latrines. My first thought was that the cleaning crew had left some supplies and would likely be back to pick it up.  As the day went on, and the box was still there, and I became more agitated. The box was definitely out of place to the point that it was suspicious.  I weighed my options and thought – what is the chance that it could be an IED?  Part of me wanted to get closer and look in or even give it a kick. As I thought more about kicking it, I recalled the IED deployment training from the army and my officer survival training from the police department.  I vividly remembered one such police training film where a criminal called the police, reported a suspicious package, and videotaped an officer kicking a box that contained a bomb.  That vision helped me to make the appropriate call. I reported it. In the end, it turned out to be a box of salad dressing that was likely stolen from the dining facility and left there by the thief when it was clear that someone was watching. Was I a little embarrassed? Sure, but I made the right call and would do it again and so can you.

In the future Operational Environment our military will face threats “…requiring a wide range of inter-agency and non-military tools to resolve” (The Operational Environment 2009-2025).  The leaders need not only the ability to maintain situational understanding of the physical environment, also changes to that environment as well as the basic knowledge of crime prevention techniques.  These techniques will need to be conveyed to the communities and other agencies emphasizing the need for accountability what is present and what has changed.  This practice would make things difficult for the enemy to operate without fear of discovery as being suspicious, or out of place.  This is commonly known as Target Hardening.  Target Hardening makes the act of committing a crime difficult or undesirable for the criminal. Does it mean that they may not try? No, but that is where you and I working with the community come in, because we are able to tell something is different that warrants our attention and further investigation. 

By working with local communities, we can to put the “Broken Windows” theory into practice making it more difficult for insurgents to operate. Fixing what is broken in a timely manner and maintain order is a low cost method that can improve our ability to implement Counter Insurgency Operations.

AR 1-201 Army Inspection Policy (April 2008). Retrieved from:

Fritsch, E. J., Liederbach. J., & Taylor, R. W. (2009). Police Patrol Allocation and Deployment. Prentice Hall.

Kelling, G. & Coles, C. (1998). Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities ISBN 0-684-83738-2.

Ortmeier, P. J., & Meese III, E. (2009). Leadership, ethics, and policing: Challenges for the 21st century (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

The Operational Environment 2009-2025, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, May 2009.

Wilson, J. Q., & Kelling, G. L. (March 1982). “Broken Windows, The police and neighborhood safety.” Atlantic Monthly.  Retrieved from:

About the Author(s)

LTC Andy Bell is currently on active duty working for the Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) as the Operations Branch Chief for Operations, Plans and Policy Division of the Army Capabilities Integration Center ARCIC. His previous positions since 2010 include: Executive Officer (XO) and Deputy for Analysis and Production for the TRADOC G-2 (Intelligence). In 2010, he returned from Afghanistan where he was the TRADOC/ARCIC Liaison to Operation Enduring Freedom.  In his civilian capacity, he works in Operations for ARCIC.  He has over 20 years of law enforcement experience and worked as a patrol officer, detective, patrol sergeant, community-policing supervisor, school resource supervisor, and detective supervisor.  Prior to his law enforcement career, he was on active duty with the United States Army as an enlisted soldier. In 1988, he received a commission in the Army Reserves and has held positions from platoon leader to detachment commander.  In addition, he has been mobilized numerous times since 9-11.  He has a Masters degree in Public Administration with a concentration in Criminal Justice from Troy State University, Alabama; a Bachelors of Science with a concentration in Criminal Justice from Old Dominion University, Virginia; and an Associate of Arts from St. Leo College, Florida. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice for an on-line college. 


LTC Bell,
I tend to come from the same school of thought. From many lines of effort, insurgency is best framed as a crime. For this reason, many law enforcement techniques are successfully employed in counterinsurgency now. Though broken windows theory is widely considered a fundamental theory to contemporary law enforcement, I’m not sure if it would be practical for the scale in which it would need to be employed in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has a whole lot of broken windows. We also have to remember the sociocultural differences that belie many psychological theories germane to western societies. I would highly recommend implementing your methodology in the areas immediately surrounding our bases. Aside from obvious FP benefits, clean streets (cart paths and the like) and functioning infrastructure (indicative of stable governance) around our bases would depict a certain luster of success that we have lacked.