Americans are naturally focused on the counterinsurgency work being performed by our forces in Afghanistan and to a lesser extent in other areas of radical Islamist activity (e.g., Yemen and Pakistan). But there are many other insurgencies raging around the world and quite a few of them are primarily criminal not political. That is certainly the case in Mexico and Brazil — both countries that have seen their authority challenged by powerful gangs of drug traffickers.
Many of the same principles that apply in Afghanistan or Iraq also need to be observed in those countries. Chief among them is the importance of follow-through — the need to do not just “clear” operations but “clear, hold, and build.” That is something that U.S. forces have struggled with in the past, as have many other armed forces. Pakistan, for example, has not followed through in the Swat Valley, where its army attacked militants last year. There has been insufficient development aid or security to keep the extremists from coming back.
I fear that Brazil might be making the same mistake when I read about its army and police making a celebrated sweep through the Alemão shantytown in Rio de Janiero — an area that has long been dominated by criminal gangs. My concern stems from this detail in a New York Times account of the recent operations:
It was also unclear how long the military and the police planned to stay, or how long they could.
Mr. Beltrame, Rio’s security secretary and the architect of the pacification program, has previously said that he did not expect to have enough officers to occupy either Alemão or Rocinha, another violent slum overhanging the city’s affluent South Zone, until next year.
If there are not enough forces to occupy the slum, then why bother clearing it in the first place? Odds are that the gangs will just come back and wreak vengeance on anyone who was seen as helping the forces of law and order. That, at least, has been the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Countries such as Brazil would do well to study the lessons of counterinsurgency as they battle criminals on their own turf.