The difficult campaign by Iraqi forces to retake the second-largest city of Mosul, which has been under the control of the Islamic State group since 2014, highlights the strategic significance of cities in the contemporary world. Yet there is nothing new about warfare centering on cities.
From the Mongols in China to the Battle of Stalingrad, Russia, in World War II, cities have been among the prizes of conflict. They have also been among the most complex battlefields not only because of the difficulties of effective maneuver in concentrated urban spaces with multiple buildings and extensive infrastructure, but also because of the complications of dealing with civilian populations. Not surprisingly, therefore, U.S. military operations on urban terrain have had mixed results.
One of the more successful operations during the insurgency in Iraq after 2003 was the battle in Sadr City, which represented an important tipping point in the efforts to combat the Jaysh al-Mahdi militia. The result on that occasion was rapid and decisive. Arguably, however, that was the exception rather than the rule. Urban warfare always has the potential to become a war of attrition in which U.S. technological superiority is neutralized by the complex and difficult terrain, and by adversaries who know the city and how to exploit that terrain.
While the battle of Mosul in late 2016 and early 2017 has shown that cities might still be the scene of traditional warfighting, the U.S. must consider broader contingencies. Indeed, in recent years the Army has given considerable attention to a variety of contingencies in megacities, defined as those with populations of more than 10 million inhabitants. In 2016, according to the annual inventory Demographia World Urban Areas, there were 36 megacities, with 12 of these having populations of more than 20 million. Some of these megacities might be breeding grounds for diseases with potential to become global pandemics. In some circumstances, quarantining the city might be the only feasible option.
It is also possible that U.S. military forces will be deployed to carry out relief operations in the aftermath of disaster, to restore order in a city suffering high levels of violence and disorder, or to engage in urban peacekeeping operations.
In these kinds of contingencies, U.S. military forces will require an understanding of the city at multiple levels, ranging from formal infrastructure and service provision to licit and illicit power-governance structures; flows of people, traffic and goods; and the pulse or rhythm of the city. All these levels demand a degree of understanding and appreciation that goes well beyond traditional aspects of military strategy and tactics.
The focus, therefore, is not on infrastructure and other tangible aspects of the city, but on informal governance structures, the flows and the rhythms—facets of urban life that are vital but neglected in traditional assessments of military operations in urban terrain.
The importance of understanding formal and informal governance is critical in determining who might partner with U.S. forces and who might oppose them. Formal governance structures are relatively easy to understand, while informal structures require more effort but might prove critical to the success of the mission. Youth gangs, militias, criminal organizations, and various kinds of traffickers and smugglers are generally understood as potential challenges or threats. Yet such groups also might play positive roles in their communities, providing sources of revenue and alternative forms of governance, service provision and conflict resolution to populations that are marginalized and disenfranchised.
This is not to ignore the predatory nature of these groups; it is simply to emphasize that they also might make positive contributions. They also might be important potential allies not least because they know the city, are able to facilitate flows of commodities and services, and can assist in various kinds of activities.
While much will depend on the reasons for military deployment, a neutral view of such groups is preferable to the automatic assumption that they are hostile to the U.S. Where possible, it is probably more advantageous to co-opt them rather than confront them, even if this means turning a blind eye to some of their activities. If they are hostile, however, then appropriate action must be taken to neutralize the threat. Indeed, a mixture of carrots and sticks may be the key to getting them to play a facilitating role rather than becoming a disruptive and complicating force.
Another often-ignored dimension concerns the flows through a city. One idea emphasized in urban studies literature is that a city is an organism with its own metabolism. Just as the flow of blood through the body is crucial to health, the flow of services, food, water, goods, people and vehicles is critical to the well-being of cities. In the event U.S. military forces are engaged in disaster management, for example, familiar flows will have been disrupted and a major task will be to re-establish and reinvigorate them as rapidly as possible. If, in contrast, the mission involves peacekeeping or the restoration of law and order, then at a minimum it is important not to disrupt existing flows.
In some cases, however, the requirement will be to facilitate and protect these flows. To succeed, it is vital to develop an understanding of the points of origin, length, duration, intensity, direction and routes of the flows as well as natural variations or pulses within them.
One of the most important flows through cities is traffic. Transportation flows cannot be taken for granted; some countries see violent contests for control of taxi and bus routes. In South Africa, where more than 60 percent of commuters depend on minibus taxi services, intense competition has frequently spilled over into taxi wars as rival companies, political factions and individuals seek monopoly control. In other countries, transportation services are targeted for extortion, such as by the Mungiki in Kenya and MS-13 and Barrio 18 in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Resistance by drivers or owners results in violence and, in many cases, has led to the massacre of bus passengers.
Such attacks sometimes are a response to government policies. Whatever their rationale, however, these attacks highlight the importance and the vulnerability of transportation flows. U.S. military forces involved in a military contingency in a megacity might well face adversaries who deliberately disrupt these flows. In such circumstances, protecting the flows and the conveyances themselves might be a prerequisite for mission success. The notion of flows in and through a city is related to the rhythm or pulse of the city.
Although not elaborated fully, the importance of the rhythm of the city was acknowledged by David Kilcullen in his important analysis of the future of insurgency, the book Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. Kilcullen was explaining to an old friend and colleague how barriers had helped to reduce violence in Baghdad. In response, his friend suggested that this had been achieved by killing the city, which was best understood as “a living organism that flows and breathes”—processes inhibited by the barriers. It is only a small step from this to recognize that the city also has a rhythm, and that interfering with the rhythm can have serious adverse consequences, turning friends into neutrals and neutrals into adversaries.
There is a significant body of literature on the rhythm of cities based on the pioneering work of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre. According to Lefebvre, “Concrete times have rhythms, or rather are rhythms—and all rhythms imply the relation of a time to a space, a localized time or, if one prefers, a temporalized space. Rhythm is always linked to such and such a place, to its place, be that the heart, the fluttering of the eyelids, the movement of a street or the tempo of a waltz.”
Forces Could Create Arrhythmia
This idea of a close linkage among time, space and activity can seem complex and abstract. Yet one simple phenomenon that illuminates the notion and gives it concrete form is the idea of rush hour—a term that, all too often, is an oxymoron. Generally, there is one in the morning when people are moving into the center of the city from the suburbs and outlying areas, and one in the later afternoon or early evening when the flows of people and vehicles are moving from center to periphery. Simple things like accidents or road work can impede or disrupt these flows.
The introduction of military forces into a city, even if they are there to help, can do the same. If these forces are not attuned to the rhythm and flows of the city, they could create enormous disruption, or what Lefebvre termed “arrhythmia.” As much as possible, therefore, military forces deployed in a city should be sensitive to these rhythms.
Another way of thinking about rhythms is in terms of the “temporal understanding of place and space.” And while there is often repetition in time and space, the repetitions are not exact; rather, they are variations on a theme. In Lefebvre’s words, “There is always something new and unforeseen that introduces itself into the repetitive.” In other words, cities are complex emergent systems, constantly changing and adapting. Places are not static, fixed and immutable; they are dynamic, pulsating and emergent, and their rhythmic qualities can be “steady, intermittent, volatile or surging.”
Certain locations, such as Tiananmen Square in Beijing and Tahrir Square in Egypt, take on an enormous importance in political protests. Such protests can be regarded as examples of surges in the rhythm. In Baghdad, these protests often had a temporal component as well, with demonstrations and violence following Friday sermons at important mosques.
In sum, informal governance, flows and rhythms in urban areas are as important as terrain and need to be understood as such. Many contingencies in which U.S. Army forces are deployed in megacities or even smaller cities will not involve attritional pitched battles. Rather, they will demand strategies that are subtle instead of blunt; actions that move with, not against, the flows; and not only a sensitivity to the prevailing rhythms but also an ability to synchronize with these rhythms. To do this requires a much broader approach to Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield than the traditional focus. Understanding the city becomes almost as important as understanding the enemy.
Set Up Knowledge Base
How can this best be achieved? Perhaps most importantly, it requires a specialized center or institute for thinking about urban military contingencies, developing intelligence, and creating a knowledge base about specific cities, particularly those where a crisis might arise. Such a center could develop a baseline of knowledge that would be supplemented by a surge capability in the event of a crisis in which U.S. forces are deployed to a city.
The center would bring together not only security and military specialists but also city planners, architects and urban scholars. It would also make use of novel forms of intelligence, especially what is derived from the layer of social media postings that have become part of the data cloud that hovers unseen above most, if not all, cities.
The analysis of large amounts of geolocated social media, for example, could provide useful insights into both flows and rhythms, and perhaps even about informal governance structures. Many of these insights could be obtained from the flows, ebbs and timing of social media and cellphone activity without requiring access to content.
Finally, the center would encourage creative approaches to thinking about cities. A good example is Geoff Manaugh’s book A Burglar’s Guide to the City, which offers novel insights about architecture and infrastructure and provides an exemplar for a volume on a soldier’s guide to the city. Such a study would be as welcome as it would be important.