If the conflict between insurgents and counterinsurgents is ‘a competition in government’ then what is the nature of the government offered through counterinsurgency rule?

Written by Victoria Dittmar

Counterinsurgency has been the most common form of warfare for the West since the end of the Second World War (Sitaraman, 2012; Kilcullen, 2013). From the anti-colonial uprisings against European Empires to the latest US-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, what has been at stake in these conflicts are arguably no longer material gains disputed between different states, but the control and governance over a civilian population contested between a constituted government and an organised movement within the same state. In other words, this form of asymmetric warfare is a competition in government, in which each side seeks to dominate the civilian population (Isaac, 2008).

If this is so, then what is the nature of government that counterinsurgency rule offers in order to successfully defeat the insurgents and pacify the civilian population?

The answer to this question has been debated in the literature of counterinsurgency, in which three main approaches stand out: political realism, liberal solidarism and biopolitics. The first one understands government in terms of a sovereign power that has control over violence as a means of domination (McFate and Jackson, 2006; Kilcullen, 2010). The second approach argues for a legitimate government that is to be achieved by the consent of the population rather than through coercion (Sewall, 2007) Thirdly, biopolitics understands government as tactic to control human bodies and their life processes in order to maintain the healthy functioning of the state (Gregory, 2008; Anderson, 2011; Kienscherf, 2011).

This essay takes the last approach as its framework and argues that along counterinsurgency campaigns, although the government offered by its rule has been different in character, its nature remains biopolitical and can be better understood under Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the ‘state of exception’.

In order to continue with the analysis, it is necessary to define the key concepts of it. First, counterinsurgency is defined by the new U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24 (2007: 1-2) – which will be referred to as the Counterinsurgency Field Manual in later parts of the essay – as the measures a constituted government takes in order to defeat an insurgency. An insurgency is, thus, an organised movement that aims to overthrow this government through the use of subversion and armed conflict while increasing the power and control of the insurgents. The measures taken by the counterinsurgent side include military activities, such as ‘the killing and capturing of insurgents, the arming of local militias, and the training of state security forces’ (Sitaraman, 2012: 5). Additionally, they may incorporate non-kinetic actions, which can have a ‘political, economic, psychological and civic’ character (US Army, 2007: 1-2).

Secondly, a government in this case, will be understood as the administration of the local civilian population by the state apparatus, including the techniques for its pacification (Foucault, 2003). The theoretical framework around what exactly is meant in this paper by ‘government’ will be explained more extensively in the second section of the essay alongside the concepts of biopolitics and the state of exception.

Taking this into account, the paper will proceed as follows: the first section will review in more detail the existing debate in the literature concerning the nature of government during counterinsurgency campaigns. The strengths and weaknesses of the different approaches are going to be considered and it will be explained why biopolitics is able to offer a better understanding of the problematic. In the second part, the theoretical framework around biopolitics and the state of exception is going to be clarified, drawing on the work of Michel Foucault (2003; 2004) and Giorgio Agamben (1995; 2005). The next section will apply these concepts to the theory and practices of counterinsurgency by looking at how its strategy of pacification is centred in promoting and controlling the life processes of the civilian population as a means to defeat the insurgency. The analysis will be divided in two case studies as a way to compare how the government offered through counterinsurgency rule along different occupations, although different in character, remains biopolitical in nature: the first one will look at the counterinsurgency doctrine that surrounded British campaigns in late-colonial Malaya and Kenya, and the second one will engage with the more recent US-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, the essay will conclude by laying out the implications of this analysis for the general understanding of war.

Literature Review

As mentioned before, three main approaches stand out in the literature that discusses the nature of government offered through counterinsurgency rule. It is necessary to review them in order to know why biopolitics is needed in order to answer the question of the paper.

Nevertheless, as Owens (2015: 24) argued, it is not suggested that counterinsurgents consciously put these theories into practice when it comes to social administration. Instead, the argument is that these ideologies can influence the ideas of government in counterinsurgency theory and practice because they originated in and represent the modern thought regarding the administration of societies.

First of all, the appeal to political realism in counterinsurgency doctrine becomes apparent, especially, while reading the Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2007).  This theory is based on the writings about state building of Max Weber (1946), who understands the nature of government in terms of sovereign power. In this framework, the government has the legitimate control over the means of violence as a method of domination. The dominated individuals must, therefore, obey.

Since counterinsurgency is a political competition, the counterinsurgent rule will seek to become the sovereign power that controls the means of violence in order to defeat the insurgency. This idea is embraced in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and along the writings of military advisors like McFate and Jackson (2006) and David Kilcullen (2006; 2010).

The Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2007) emphasises the importance of popular support for the counterinsurgent side in order to gain legitimacy, which according to it, is the main objective of the campaign. To become the legitimate government, counterinsurgency rule needs to be able to provide what the insurgents cannot. This can range from basic social services, to economic development, and to physical reconstruction. However, the most important aspect that civilians will consider when deciding which rule to obey, is the provision of security. Therefore, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual highlights the need for an efficient juridical system and rule of law in order to achieve a successful provision of security (p. 1-22). This idea suggests that the government aims to become, or regain, the sovereign power, which had lost to some extent to the insurgent group.

In their paper titled ‘The Object Beyond War: Counterinsurgency and the Tools of Political Competition’, McFate and Jackson (2006) specifically discuss political competition during the counterinsurgency conflict and mention four tools, which are available to both the insurgents and the counterinsurgents, that can help each side win popular support. These are, namely, coercive force, economic incentives and dicentives, legitimating ideology and traditional authority. Nevertheless, alongside with the manual, and also with David Kilcullen (2010), the authors believe that the provision of security is the basic pre-condition in order to gain popular support. It can be provided and also be taken away so as to convince or force non-combatants to support the government rather than the insurgency. This can be understood as a kind of Realpolitik applied to internal populations (Owens, 2015).

In his book Counterinsurgency, David Kilcullen (2010) follows the same framework of arguing that the provision of security is the main aspect civilians will consider when deciding which side to obey, even if this is done by coercion. Therefore, in his view, the winning government will be whoever establishes a resilient system that gives civilians a sense of security.   Also, earlier in his Twenty-Eight Articles (2006) he discusses counterinsurgency being armed social work. This means that basic social and political problems should be addressed as part of the war in order to achieve long-term development and stabilisation. By doing this, counterinsurgency rule is ‘restructuring the environment and displacing the enemy from it’ (Kilcullen, 2006: 8), which can be understood as a process of nation-building. According to Hodge (2011), after the Bush administration, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan were saved from complete failure, because they were turned into nation-building processes.

Political realism is a theory that is mostly appreciated in the literature and discourse that is addressed to counterinsurgency practitioners. Thus, it is a rather normative methodology of how counterinsurgency campaigns should be carried out in order to be successful. One of the strengths of the approach is that it does mirror the objective of counterinsurgents and it is also the only perspective that profoundly explains the aspect of sovereign coercive power. However, according to Owens (2015), it does not necessarily reflect political reality nor it analyses the practice of counterinsurgency critically, remaining therefore, as a very descriptive approach. Luttwak (2007) has also criticised the thinking behind the Counterinsurgency Manual by arguing that it assumes that there is only one kind of politics in which popular support is decisive and can be won by providing a better government. He also suggests that the mere assumption that popular support is what gives a government power could be misleading.

On a biopolitical critique, scholars would argue that political realism only considers one type of power to control a population, namely sovereign power or juridical power. According to Foucault (2003), this is just one of the many techniques of domination and therefore, a further approach is required, which is able to account for the tactic of using power to foster life, instead of taking it, and to infiltrate the bodies of the subjects and their biological processes.

Another major theory that aims to understand the nature of government during counterinsurgency rule is liberal solidarism.  This perspective is based on the writings of sociologist Émile Durkenheim and his concept of structuralism (Owens, 2015). In this viewpoint, all parts of a society are functionally interdependent and the normal condition of it is order and stability, as opposed to conflict. When a society is in transition, conflict might erupt, but the natural condition can be restored if new moral and social forms of solidarity are constructed (Owens, 2015: 28). The counterinsurgent government therefore, should provide humanitarian assistance and basic services in order to achieve legitimacy among the population, since in this perspective acceptability is won by consent rather than through coercion (Sewall, 2007).

The discourse of counterinsurgency through the framework of liberal solidarism is mainly employed while addressing public audiences. Therefore, it is best appreciated in the introduction of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual version that is available for the general public, written by Sarah Sewall (2007).

Sewall argues for a population centred approach, rather than an enemy-centred one while fighting the insurgency. In this case, the security of the civilian becomes the top priority instead of the killing of the insurgent. She emphasizes the importance of non-kinetic activities, such as the provision of basic services, social development and local engagement in the process of reconstructing the society.

The translation of the conflict into a more benign way of war would mean that the insurgency could be defeated without unnecessary damages to the non-combatant population. Liberal solidarism assumes that in this way, the civilian population would support the counterinsurgent government because they would perceive the war as just and for their own benefit (Sewall, 2007). This goes back to the concept of functionalism because new norms of solidarity within the society are created for a common goal. This is necessary because as Sitaraman (2012) argues, insurgencies grow organically within a society. Therefore, the process of the displacement of the insurgents needs to come from society itself.

Liberal solidarism can offer an analysis about society and its structures, and it is useful when ‘describing populations targeted by armed social work’ (Owens, 2015: 27). However, it falls into the danger of masking the reality of how the wars are actually being fought and it also obscures the main objective, which is to kill the insurgents and dominate the population. Everything else is just a means to this end (Kaldor, 2010).

Biopolitics would further argue that this approach is not enough to explain the nature of government because it does not include any technique of domination or power in its analysis, which is essential in understanding what government is (Foucault, 2003).

So far, the approaches of political realism and liberal solidarism have been reviewed and it has been pointed out that a further approach is required in order to fully understand the nature of government during counterinsurgency and all its techniques of domination and control. The next section will explain the theoretical framework around the suggested alternative, which is biopolitics.

Biopolitics and the state of exception

For Michel Foucault (2003), one of the main scholars on biopolitics, the understanding of government should include all levels of control and domination of individuals and groups in a society and not only be reduced to the Leviathan model and the institution of the state. Therefore, he identifies three types of power through which populations are governed: the first one is sovereign power, or juridical power, which is the right to take life and let live. It is a method of control that punishes and represses those that present a threat to the sovereign entity. Disciplinary power is another method, which is the control one enforces over the actions of his or her own body and can be also found in disciplinary institutions, such as hospitals, schools and prisons (Foucault, 2003). Finally, there is biopower, which is disciplinary power at the level of the population’s bodies as a whole. It is a set of mechanisms through which the biological characteristics of a population become the object of knowledge, of political strategy and of security practices (Foucault, 2004: 1, Evans, 2010). Biopower is a mechanism of control that penetrates the subjects’ bodies and their forms of life. It does not aim to repress life, but to promote it (Agamben, 1995). In other words, it is the right to make life and let die (Foucault, 2003).

In this framework, Foucault argued that since the eighteen century, governance changed from sovereignty over territory to the control of populations. The modern state is now understood as being constituted by the living bodies of its population, all of them being considered as equal. Thus, the population becomes the subject of politics and also the objective of politics itself (Kinsella, 2015). This means, however, that the dangers to the life of the state will arise from the social body itself. Biopolitics, therefore, is about exercising biopower as a means to organise and promote the life of those human bodies, which are considered as safe and eliminate the lives that are considered dangerous for the sake of the general health of the population (Foucault, 2004).

A government that is biopolitical in nature intervenes in the biological processes of its population in order to optimise human life and also to normalise it. Hence, it uses statistics, such as the rates of birth, longevity, mortality, and productivity, so as to produce scientific knowledge about what biological aspect of the population needs to be modified in order to enhance life.

Since biopolitics also attempts to normalise life, it installs security measures around the random elements of the population that can present a threat to the survival of the state. These random elements are the bodies that are meant to be ‘left to die’, which does not mean killing in the literal sense, but refers to any type of indirect murder, such as expulsion and deprivation from political rights (Evans, 2010). This killing is justified when the death of the ‘other’ is something that will make life in general healthier (Foucault, 2003).

So, in the framework of biopolitics, a government is able to decide which groups of the population need more direct management than others and also to determine what must live and what must die (Foucault, 2004; Owens, 2015). Consequently, a biopolitcal government is likely to have a racialised or gendered character, because these are methods that can be used to justify the separation of groups that exist within a population (Foucault, 2003).

Giorgio Agamben expands on Foucault’s ideas in his book Homo Sacer (1995) and later in the State of Exception (2005), where he reflects on the condition a state adopts when life becomes politicised, which is the state of exception.

According to Agamben, life is to be understood in two ways: bios (political life) and zoe (bare life). He agrees with Foucault that the state is constituted by living bodies (zoe) that have equal political rights (bios).  However, because of the constant need to redefine which lives are valuable and which ones are not, those who are considered a danger to the bare life of the state are deprived from their political rights and reduced to zoe, where they can be ‘killed’ without legal implications (Agamben, 1995). The zones where the bodies reduced to bare life are managed are what Agamben (2005) refers to as ‘the camp’, using as main reference the concentration camps that were used during Nazi Germany. However, the suggestion is to include into the definition any spaces ‘in which power confronts nothing other than pure biological life without any mediation’ (Agamben, 1995: 179). Thus, ‘the camp is the defining biopolitical paradigm of the modern’ (Evans, 2010: 426).

For a government to be able to ‘legitimately’ eliminate those who cannot be integrated into the political system, it needs to enter a ‘state of exception’. This is when the sovereign can act beyond the law (Agamben, 2005).

Because the threats to the state arise from the population itself, each individual could be considered as dangerous (Evans, 2010). For this reason, Agamben argues that the state of exception has become the normal type of government in modern politics, because each member of the population could potentially be removed from its political rights and reduced to bare life if it threatens the survival of the ‘better’ population. And even though it does not necessarily mean that the governance will be as radical as during the Nazi regime, for example, the simple possibility that the political rights can be removed from individuals, makes the state authoritarian (Agamben, 1995).

So far, the theoretical framework around biopolitics and the state of exception has been illustrated. The remaining of the article will apply these concepts to the doctrines and practices of counterinsurgency in order to support the argument that the nature of the government offered through counterinsurgency rule is biopolitical.

Biopolitical governance during counterinsurgency rule

In order to make a general claim about the nature of government offered through counterinsurgency rule, it is necessary to look at historical case studies, since the knowledge and techniques about counterinsurgency have never been static and are always evolving (Kilcullen, 2010). Hence, this essay will look at the late colonial campaigns in Malaya and Kenya, and at the US-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan as a way to compare how populations are governed during and after war. To analyse each case study, three aspects will be considered: how the biological life of populations is politicised in the specific theory surrounding the understanding of counterinsurgency, how the counterinsurgent government intervenes in the biological processes of the population in order to foster the ‘good lives’ and eliminate the ‘dangerous lives’, and finally, how it acts in a state of exception as a means to lawfully eliminate insurgents and prevent future revolts.

British counterinsurgency operations in late-colonial Malaya and Kenya

After the apparent success in the counterinsurgency operations in Malaya and Kenya, Britain considered themselves to be the leader in counterinsurgency formula, since it was claimed that their methods of war among the population were ‘kinder and gentler’ than the ones of any other Western power (French, 2012: 744). The reason for this supposition was that the success of war was not only the result of military activities but also of winning the hearts and minds of the civilian population. In theory, this idea changes the centre of focus of the counterinsurgency strategy from the enemy to the non-combatant population (Gurman, 2013). By considering the tactics as becoming population centric, there is already a link being made to the framework of biopolitics and the discovery of the population. Subsequently, the biological aspects of the population start to become politicised when the counterinsurgent government needs to decide which are the lives that should be protected in order to win the support of the population, and which are the ones that ought to be eliminated so as to defeat the insurgency that is threatening the bare life of the state (Evans, 2010). This decision would also determine which groups need closer management than others (Owens, 2015).

Malaya is the classical example of hearts and minds, since it is the first time when a population-centric approach became, in theory, the main focus during a counterinsurgency campaign (Hack, 2013). In this operation, the principal mission was to deter the communist insurgency, which was associated with the Chinese workers living in Malaya. Thus, the politicisation of human life happened by dividing the population on the basis of ethnicity, as the conflict was considered a ‘Chinese problem’, and therefore, the operations needed to target this particular group of the population (Hack, 2013). Hence, it can be said that the Chinese living in Malaya were conceived, in biopolitical terms, as the random element in the population to which security measures needed to be installed for the sake of protecting the healthy functioning of the state.

In Kenya, the campaign took a much more racialized character. The biological differentiation of the population made by the government becomes more obvious, as the enemies to the state were described through zoomorphic language, in order to damn them as savages or animals (French, 2012). The tribes that were considered in this category were predominately the Kikuyu, and also the Embu and Meru. These were labelled by British rule as being more likely to embrace violence and criminality (Elkins, 2003). In the case of the Kikuyu, it was held that violence was a part of their psychology, which called for the inclusion of ethno-psychiatrists into the counterinsurgent strategy so as to understand the reasons for their resistance to colonial rule (Elkins, 2003). The insurgent movement, denominated Mau Mau, was specifically called a psychological disease, under the argument of an apparent inability of its followers to deal with the transition of their society to modernity (Porch, 2013). These examples show how knowledge about the insurgency was constructed on the basis of biological aspects of the population.

As mentioned above, the Kenyan population was divided on the basis of race. Overall, the division included three categories that aimed to determine how much control should be installed around certain groups of people. One was the ‘black’ group, to which the Mau Mau members belonged. This group included all the individuals that were considered irreconcilable and were meant to be eliminated for the sake of the survival of the rest of the population (Porch, 2013). The ‘grey’ group encompassed those lives that could still be ‘rehabilitated’ and possibly be integrated back into the political system. And finally, the ‘white’ group, which incorporated the lives that did not represent a threat at all to the rest of the population and thus needed to be protected (Elkins, 2003). The knowledge production about which human bodies fitted into what category was done through the screening whole villages (Porch, 2013).

Therefore, it can be said that both campaigns had at its heart the politicisation and differentiation between types of human life.

In terms of government intervention in order to control the population and defeat the insurgency, in both Malaya and Kenya the strategy was to divide and resettle the population so as to separate the insurgents and avoid them to gain more support (French, 2012). These resettlements were done in what was called “New Villages” in Malaya, where 50% of the Chinese population was resettled, and concentration camps in Kenya, where 70% of the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru were resettled (French, 2012). These new areas can be considered in Agamben’s terms of ‘the camp’, where there is no distinction between zoe and bios.

In Malaya, the government intervened in the life processes of the population because the state limited the movement of people in these New Villages and restricted the possession of foodstuffs (Porch, 2013). In each New Village, only the minimum rations of food required were allowed. These could be increased or decreased depending on how willing to cooperate with the government the population living in the camps was (Hack, 2013). Outside of the New Villages, those areas considered as ‘safe’ were relatively protected and did not experience restrictions on, for example, foodstuffs, since the object of the war was also avoiding to harm the ‘good’ lives, as their ‘hearts and minds’ needed to be won by the government (Hack, 2013). Therefore, the interventions of the government were targeted and focused on biological aspects of human life in order to defeat the insurgency on one side, and win popular support on the other (Hack, 2013).

In Kenya, the situation was not very different. According to Elkins (2003: 192), it was in the ‘detention camps, Mau Mau prisons, and Emergency Villages that the battle unfolded’. As in Malaya, in Kenya the Kikuyu population was forcedly resettled to concentration camps where they could be ‘rehabilitated’ by starvation and forced labour, as means to become again governable citizens (Elkins, 2003; Porch, 2013). This suggests another example of how the biological becomes the target of government intervention. Ethnic cleansing of Kikuyu also became a strategy of combat, in order to declare Mau Mau-free areas, such as the capital Nairobi (Porch, 2013). This also fits into the biopolitical imperative of creating safe areas for the protection of the life of the state.

Thus, it can be said that government during the late-colonial British campaigns targeted the biological character of the population in order to eliminate the insurgency.

However, in order to ‘lawfully’ take these biopolitical measures to reduce the insurgents to bare life and exclude them from the political structure, the government needed to be in a state of exception (Agamben, 1995).

According to French (2012), during the conflicts in both Malaya and Kenya the security forces were not regulated by previous colonial manuals, but by enacted emergency regulations. Thus, both campaigns were described as ‘Emergencies’ by the British government as a way to be able to employ legal power to disrupt the insurgents’ organisations (French, 2012). The strategy included methods that would normally be unlawful, such as arrests and search of premises without warrant, and as mentioned before, forced resettlement of the population (French, 2012).

In Malaya the state of emergency was established in order to be able to arrest suspected left wing leaders without warrant and deport Chinese people who were deprived from their political rights (zoefication) or did not have any citizenship before (Hack, 2013; Porch, 2013). According to Porch (2013) the Article 15 in the Convention of Human Rights at that time allowed for detentions without trial during public emergencies if the suspected persons were threatening the life of the nation.

In Kenya, the state of exception, also called Emergency in that context, was employed in order to control the Kikuyus’ life processes, such as individual movement, and to be able to employ coercion ‘behind the wire’ against Mau Mau followers (Elkins, 2003). The state of emergency continued in Kenya for six years after the conflict had officially ended. This relates back to Agamben’s idea that the state of exception becomes normalised, because it is not only necessary to defeat a current insurgency, but to prevent future ones (Anderson, 2011).

Analysing the campaigns through the concept of the state of exception also allows emphasising the brutality of the campaigns and avoiding the artificial argument that the wars were to some extent benevolent.

Therefore, taking into account the cases of late-colonial Malaya and Kenya, it can be suggested that the nature of government offered through counterinsurgency rule is biopolitical and can be best understood under the concept of the ‘state of exception’.

US-led counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan

Various aspects of the campaigns in Malaya and Kenya were adapted to the counterinsurgency doctrine for Iraq and Afghanistan. For instance, counterinsurgents continued to claim that centre of gravity of the operations was the civilian population because counterinsurgency was a competition for the government of it (Isaac, 2008). In the campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan especially, it was largely emphasised along the counterinsurgency literature and discourse that in the middle of both competing ends – the government and the insurgents – there was a mass of population, assumed to be neutral, waiting to be dominated by either side (Anderson, 2011). This conception also gives counterinsurgency a biopolitical character because, in this case, the population is being considered as just a group of living bodies that need to be controlled and administered.

Nevertheless, unlike the British campaigns that were previously analysed, the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were part of a much wider scale of conflict. It was, arguably, considered that these insurgencies represented a global circulation of threats that emanated from ungoverned spaces, presenting a threat to the liberal system (Kienscherf, 2011). Therefore, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the lives that endangered not only the local population but also ‘humanity’ as a whole, were described as pathological (Anderson, 2011).

Because insurgents originate among the population, the population itself is conceived as being the source of potential victory or potential defeat (Anderson, 2011). Hence, the counterinsurgency doctrine of the United States changed its focus in order to understand the local population of each country, as it was considered to be the new terrain of combat (Kipps et. al., 2006). In order to learn how to defeat the insurgency from the population, counterinsurgents were required to study the social and cultural features of the local societies (Kilcullen, 2006). This strategy gave birth to the Human Terrain System, which is a method of collecting knowledge about the specific distinctive aspects of the population that is to be governed (Kipps, et. al., 2006).  In Iraq and Afghanistan, it was considered that this knowledge was essential so as to determine who the insurgents were because this was not immediately obvious since they were intrinsically embedded in the population (McKenzie, 2014). This technique of ‘discovering’ the population can be considered as essentially biopolitical, because again, humans become the object of knowledge and politics. Moreover, it is used to make a distinction between which lives are ‘safe’ and which ones are ‘dangerous’. According to Kienscherf (2011) it is done in a similar way as during the colonial Emergency, but on the basis of culture, rather than race or ethnicity.

Furthermore, the separation and distinction between lives of the populations had a gendered character, especially in Afghanistan (Kinsella, 2015). Afghanistan was described by the counterinsurgency discourse as being the most dangerous country for women. Thus, one of the many justifications of the war that were presented, was that it also aimed to liberate and save the lives of women. Additionally, women were conceived as being closer to biological realities, such as giving birth, and were thus described as those on which the continuation of the life of the population depended, placing them into the group of the lives that need to be promoted (Kinsella, 2015).

In terms of government intervention, as with the British campaigns, the U.S. government controlled and targeted the biological processes of the population by enhancing the life of the ‘neutral’  population on one hand, and attacking the life of the ‘enemies’ of liberal governance on the other (Kienscherf, 2011).

In relation to the promotion of life, both campaigns had a large focus on community development projects, or armed social work, which also included biological aspects such as the promotion of a certain type of healthcare and nutrition (Anderson, 2011). Some projects, mainly in Afghanistan, targeted women in particularly, and required the implementation of a female branches of the military, especially dedicated to these assignments (McCullough, 2012).

On the other hand, strict control of populations took place in order to eliminate insurgents. For instance, Iraqi cities and neighbourhoods were divided through security walls with check points in order to stop the ‘haemorrhage’ of the ethno-sectarian conflict that was taking place. In order to gather the knowledge about these believed divisions, census about the population distribution in cities depending on ethnicity were carried in order to collect statistics. Cities were thus divided into safe and dangerous areas and entire communities were resettled (Gregory, 2008). This suggests a further example of divisions between types of lives and installing security measures around those considered to be part of the dangerous zones.

Furthermore, in Iraq there were documented cases of denial of water to some cities in which insurgents were believed to be living (O’Huiguinn and Klevnas, 2005), suggesting that the strategy of war continued to target life necessities of the population in order to ‘leave them to die’.

A state of exception existed both in Iraq and Afghanistan and also in the United States, according to Agamben (2005). In Afghanistan and Iraq, the state of exception permitted ‘emergency’ measures, such as night raids and targeted attacks in order to detain suspected insurgents, but it also allowed the creation of spaces, such as Abu Ghraib, where prisoners were completely removed from their political life and reduced to bare life, suggesting another case of the use of a ‘camp’ (Anderson, 2011).

Agamben (2005) argues – and Anderson (2011) follows up – that ever since 9/11 the United States has been operating in a state of exception, and will continue to do so, because counterinsurgency objectives are not only defeating the current insurgency but about preventing future ones. Thus, after an ‘emergency’ it becomes the normal type of governance. This idea also suggests to explain the increasing militarisation of cities in the West, where ‘exception’ measures, such as surveillance and hard policing have become normalised (Graham, 2011).

Therefore, by analysing the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan it can be suggested that the nature of government offered through counterinsurgency rule it is biopolitical, in the character of a state of exception.


This essay has addressed the question of the nature of government offered through counterinsurgency rule and has argued that along different campaigns, it can be appreciated that this nature is biopolitcal and is best represented in the concept of the state of exception, which has become the normal type of governance. Case studies from British colonial campaigns and recent U.S. led operations helped to illustrate the evidence of how biopolitical imperatives are implemented on the ground.

Taking this into account, the essay will end with two implications for the general study of war and politics. Firstly, analysing counterinsurgency through the lens of biopolitics and especially the state of exception, allows to shed light on the coercive character of war that is sometimes tried to be obscured through other approaches and discourses (Owens, 2015). Secondly, Clausewitz (1976) argued that war is ought to be understood as being the continuation of politics by other means. However, this analysis has suggested that the relations of power and force during war continue even after armed conflict ceases, hence the perpetuity of the state of exception. Thus, paraphrasing Foucault (2003), this essay wishes to suggest that the aphorism should be inverted and rather consider government as being the continuation of war by other means.

Victoria Dittmar is co-editing products of Bisconia and has a degree in International Relations and Development from the University of Sussex. Victoria’s main IR interest lies in transnational organised crime, armed conflict, and violent non-state actors.


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