As NATO nervously attempts to support some indigenous counterterrorism and counter-radicalisation movements in eastern Afghanistan—once dubbed the Local Defence Initiative—commanders would be wise to learn from comparable grassroots campaigns.
One such historical movement is Washington, DC metropolitan area’s Straight Edge campaign in the 1980s. Fighting age (18-35) Latino, African American, and White males used rhetoric, peer pressure, and outright fighting to curb drug activity in the narcotics hubs of the then criminal haven that was the U.S. capital city.
The word Straight Edge described loosely connected cells of friends and gangs, who abstained from drugs, alcohol, and smoking. Some drew “X”s on their hands or tattooed “X”s on their bodies (a vestige from the original DC “930 Club” which wrote “X”s on patrons hands who did not drink in 1981) to mark their identity. There was no single leader or ideologue, but instead a loose network related only through an antipathy to intoxicants. Nor was the movement connected to any “religion,” but depending on one’s definition of religion the Straight Edge movement could have been described as a leaderless faith.
Crossed: ‘X’ Tatoos Became the Sybol of the Straight Edge Movement
Both the violent manifestations of some of Straight Edge‘s messages, which often included fighting drug sellers and pushers in DC, and the campaign’s counter-culture and deeply anti-authority characteristic preempted its use in mainstream government anti-drug commercials.
However, the Straight Edge movement arguably did more to prevent young people from joining DC’s drug culture than any ineffective government campaign. Straight Edge was cool. If the drug culture of the 1980s was a rebellious romantic avenue for youths to define their independence against parents and government, Straight Edge was a cooler counter-counter revolution—also against authority and willing to execute violence.
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign on television talk shows, taped public service announcements to include a special “Good Morning America” episode, and family sitcoms such as “Different Strokes” and “Punky Brewster” appeared to have done little throughout the city that lay in the shadow of the US Capitol building. Her efforts failed to tap into the same youthful thrill seeking, anger, and peer pressure that may have helped perpetuate the drug culture. Straight Edge, on the other hand, short-circuited many would-be abusers to the anti-drug side.
While Straight Edge adherents helped to make their respective neighborhoods impermissible or less permissible environments for drug pushers, the family-friendly Just Say No campaign had no measurable effect on DC’s communities.
Straight Edge later expanded nationally and internationally mostly into more peaceful manifestations. Some US supremacists and militia members have also claimed to hale from Straight Edge roots, but there is no correlation between these persons and any part of Straight Edge movements or ideology.
In short, the following factors may have helped to propel youth away from drugs and into the arms of a movement bent on demystifying, damning, and fighting drug use:
- Bravado and violence
- Opposition to a clear enemy—drugs
- A simple, clearly recognizable, and tattoo-able symbol
- A simple and clear ideology that could unite disparate groups from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds
- Complete independence from government influence and support
- An anti-establishment and counter-culture backbone
- A draw to youthful thrill seeking, angst, rebellion, indiscretion, and identity searching
The basic tenets of this grassroots campaign may inform analysis, identification, and possible support of counter-radicalisation movements in Afghanistan.
NATO and the Afghan government appear to suffer from heartburn at the thought of supporting vigilantes, militias, and abnormally strong tribes who may fight Taliban elements in the short run but cause civil strife and disorder in the long run. But enduring grassroots campaigns, that do not necessarily fall into the Western norm of state-run policing and neighborhood watches, may have the best chance at both fighting violent extremists and preventing spread of violent extremist influence.