American Shitshow: Paramilitary Ascendancy

In the previous article, I discussed why the US military is likely to be irrelevant in any civil conflict, aside from perhaps the kind of pro forma checkpoint and cordoning missions that can use large numbers of not necessarily highly motivated troops.

However, the United States has a truly vast number of paramilitaries (120K plus a decade of growth on the federal side, 700K state and local) that are staffed by people who explicitly signed up with the expectation of (or at least tolerance for) brutalizing civilians. These would naturally be expected to form the majority of core counterinsurgency troops.

Radley Balko in particular is an excellent source on the increasing paramilitary trend for US law enforcement. In terms of their tactical employment, they are indistinguishable from the traditional Phoenix Program-esque capture-torture-kill mission, designed to disrupt insurgent networks, collect intelligence, and deter potentially hostile populations from supporting the insurgency via the use of terror. The only distinction is that (mostly, but not always) the targets end up gulag’d rather than displayed in the town square pour encourager les autres.

For an example of how this works in political context, consider Wisconsin, where a political suppression campaign run by a local Democratic prosecutor and a compliant judge unleashed a year long series of SWAT raids targeting infrastructure and personnel of the state GOP and associated advocacy groups. Seized documents provided targeting for subsequent raids, attempts were made to prevent targets from communicating with each other, and the underlying entity responsible for targeting them was obscured as much as possible to avoid retaliation or attempts at defense.

One notable aspect of that incident was the way it parallels the current national situation – at the time of the raids, the governorship and legislature were solidly Republican, and the campaign was part of an attempt to delegitimize them and disrupt their ability to govern or expand their victory. It’s not difficult to see how these kinds of campaigns, pursued on a fractal basis by local authorities, could result in the purging of political minorities in eg New York, or Lubbock, in the context of a larger victory by the opposite side.

The fact that there are dozens of completely independent federal paramilitaries, everywhere from the EPA to the US Marshals, and thousands of state and local police forces, to say nothing of obscure bodies like railroad, port and transit police, armed fire marshals, armed private security firms, etc, makes it impossible for any one actor to ensure control over even a majority of them in the way that a military theoretically responds to a unitary chain of command. In even a medium sized city, there are likely to be a dozen or more when you add up the local police departments in the vicinity, county sheriffs, state police, and the local branch offices of the major federal agencies.

This obviously sets up the potential for conflict, should they end up on different sides of a political dispute, and mutual targeting should one entity attempt to secure a monopoly on force in their jurisdiction. It also has the opportunity to result in significant misattribution – police departments in the United States are notorious for not identifying officers, and sometimes not even admitting to be the agency involved, when there is a major screwup (reading house numbers is hard, apparently). In an environment of widespread conflict, it may become difficult to determine who is actually raiding whom. Even in current circumstances, it is well known that some police departments operate extracurricular, off-the-books criminal enterprises, death squads, and black sites. Once violence passes a certain threshold, inability to figure out what the hell is even going on weakens control and responsibility in a way likely to reduce deterrence between rival factions and increase the ambient level of violence and corruption. As leaks and officers with multiple loyalties become widespread, agencies will be more reluctant to even inform each other of their actions, to say nothing of cooperation. (There is a reason this series is called “American Shitshow”).

In an area with increasing violence, one would expect local police to scale back from political involvement, and in fact from anything that implies sticking their neck out, due to their notorious casualty sensitivity and practical vulnerability (showing up to an address and lining up neatly outside the door based on a phone call is not solid counterinsurgency doctrine; neither is driving around town in single conspicuous unarmored vehicles waiting for something to happen).

Out-of-towners with less skin in the game (for instance, federal paramilitaries, state police, hastily deputized forces, etc) would be the primary actors.  A robust counterinsurgency campaign in a particular area would plausibly involve 1) unreliable forces (military, local law enforcement, low-quality paramilitaries, etc.) manning checkpoints and installing a cordon, 2) paramilitaries operating as quickly as possible to target the area’s insurgent leadership, weapons caches, document dumps, etc, before skipping town.

It is somewhat of an open question how robust of a campaign would even be attempted, what operational tempo could be sustained under this model, what the adaptations and responses would be, and what casualty rates would converge to on either side.  Discovering it would be unlikely to be a fun process.

All aspects of this would seem to weaken the ability of law enforcement at all levels to carry out their traditional missions, at the worst possible time. Unfortunately, the United States happens to be right next door to, and heavily infiltrated by, large, well-coordinated, heavily armed paramilitary drug cartels, and many of its cities are vulnerable at various levels to domestic criminal gangs. This will be the subject of my next article.

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