Strategic Horizons: How the U.S. Military Might Get Involved in a Megacity

Strategic Horizons: How the U.S. Military Might Get Involved in a Megacity

Last week I wrote about the challenges that the future U.S. military might face if ordered to intervene in the type of sprawling, coastal megacities that are emerging around the world. This sparked some intense debates among national security experts, many aghast at that prospect. “So what if there are megacities,” one strategic thinker wrote in a private communication, “why in heaven’s name do we want to go into them, simply because they are there and somebody is telling us that they are important?” The complexity and human costs of such an operation, the critics noted, would be great, and the chances that the United States would stumble into another national security quagmire significant. To operate in them, one argued, the United States would need to reinstate the draft, militarize American society and send American legions out into the world “because there are a lot of so-called megacities out there which contain lots of budding bad people.”

It’s true that no one wants the United States to become embroiled in insecure megacities. But the important point is that these places will include an increasing proportion of the world’s human capital and wealth and become a mounting source of danger, which means some future U.S. president may decide that American involvement is necessary. If this happens, it does not automatically imply the deployment of tens of thousands of American troops to occupy every street corner of a restive city. In fact, that is the least likely form of U.S. intervention. More realistically, American involvement could fall anywhere along a spectrum ranging from indirect and limited effort to provide advice and intelligence all the way to full-scale occupation. It could include some combination of contractors, government civilians, police and the military. Given this wide range of different types of involvement, it is important to look ahead and consider exactly why future political leaders might feel it necessary to commit the United States to something so challenging, dangerous and costly.

First off, geography might compel a future president to order the American military into a dangerous megacity because it is so close that its insecurity has a direct effect inside the United States. One of the case studies David Kilcullen examines in his book “Out of the Mountains” is Kingston, Jamaica, during the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. Like many of the world’s megacities, the government controlled parts of it while criminal gangs ruled the slum belts. As beleaguered Jamaicans fled to the United States seeking greater security and opportunity, criminal leaders extorted money from the diaspora by threatening family members who remained in Jamaica. The United States did not become directly involved, but it provided indirect support to the Jamaican government focused on breaking up the narcotrafficking operations of the criminal gangs. This could be repeated elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.

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