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May 2, 2009 / jeni

The Enduring Dichotomy: Insurgent or Criminal

A recent post on the Foreign Policy blog, and a predictable riposte to it, show how enduring the insurgent/criminal dichotomy remains in strategic analysis.

Gretchen Peters — whose upcoming book, Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda, will hopefully be a must-read — suggests the new US foreign policy approach creates space for reconceptualising the Taliban as criminals instead of terrorists or extremists.

The Obama administration has promised “a new way of thinking about the challenges” facing the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it’s also high time it starts thinking in a new way about America’s enemies themselves. The Taliban and al Qaeda have long portrayed themselves as holy warriors, battling under the flag of Islam. Most people in the West have accepted this characterization, imagining them as long-bearded fanatics, while Washington constantly refers to them as “terrorists” and “extremists.” No doubt they are. But, having studied their operations at the village level in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than three years, another descriptor also seems useful to me: criminal. When you examine the day-to-day activities keeping their networks financially afloat and probe how they interact with local communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban and al Qaeda start to look a lot more mafiosi than mujahideen.

The criminal activities of Taliban militants are diverse and well known:

In some parts of the south, they collaborate with drug traffickers to dictate poppy output. They provide armed protection for opium convoys leaving Afghanistan’s farm areas and protect heroin labs along the Pakistan border. In addition, they work with kidnapping rings that have snared diplomats, journalists, U.S. contractors, and wealthy local businessmen. They cooperate with gunrunners, human traffickers, and the smuggling gangs that illegally export millions of dollars worth of Afghan antiquities. They also extort monthly payments from legal Afghan businesses, terrorizing village shopkeepers and even nationwide cellphone providers, attacking their homes and premises if they don’t comply.

The post makes some interesting points, but ultimately there are flaws in this approach that mirror the flaws in an approach that views Taliban militants solely as political or ideological actors. Peters is right to focus on the normative implications of a switch in terminology — the fact that the illegitimacy of criminality could be better harnessed to diminish local support for the Taliban.

In these deeply conservative Muslim communities, where religious leaders hold tremendous authority, few dared speak out against people who define themselves as “holy warriors.” But when we framed the insurgents as criminals, they opened up, describing in clear detail how the militants’ illicit activities directly and adversely affect their lives. Speaking in terms the people there can understand will improve America’s ability to win local support for the critical task of cutting off terrorist leaders from their illicit profits.

However, the militants are not only engaged in ‘illicit activities’ — they are also kidnapping, raping, killing and beheading Afghan villagers as a means of coercion and enforcing passivity among the civilian population. No matter how successfully we portray them as criminals, their use of force will likely compel local populations to do their will. In short, they are militants and criminals. While the two terms have different connotations, and it would be a good idea to emphasise descriptors that convey illegitimacy, I’m not convinced that this kind of normative strategy alone will do much good as long as civilians are largely unprotected from violent coercion.

Joshua Foust at Registan is not really convinced either, and makes some good points about the historical connections between insurgency and criminality. Unfortunately, he also strays into the dichotomy approach:

Indeed, the biggest problem with Peters’ argument for considering the criminal element of the Taliban is that, quite unlike the criminals who run the opium smuggling networks, the Taliban does not appear to be primarily profit-driven. Criminals want to maximize income, while insurgents want to govern—at the margins a semantic difference, perhaps, but one that is nevertheless vital to understanding why the differences between the two group types matter far more than the similarities (starting with the very salient observation that, despite even substantial collaboration, criminal groups and insurgents remain discrete organizations).

This is a very common argument: criminals seek profit, insurgents want to govern. There are (at least) two problems with this approach.

First, ‘to govern’ is often assumed to be an end-state objective in itself — but why does an insurgent want to govern? (Assuming that this is an actual insurgent objective; clearly some militants pursue more limited objectives.) Some insurgents may be motivated by political or ideological factors; some seek self-determination for an oppressed constituency; but some are motivated by many of the same drivers as criminal actors, namely profit and prestige. In countries and regions with rampant corruption, governance implies not just political power but an opportunity to accumulate phenomenal amounts of money with impunity. (The most corrupt politicians in the world are billionaires.)

Second, as some of my colleagues’ posts have noted, criminal actors do not solely aim to maximise income. Prestige and social value play a role; and some criminal warlords operate virtual fiefdoms, enjoying the power to ‘govern’ even if it is not legitimate.

In essence, it may be analytically more difficult or messy to consider non-state actors as both militant and criminal — but that is a limitation of our analytical approaches, not necessarily a reflection of reality. I have to disagree with Foust’s suggestion that the differences between the two ‘group types’ are more important than the similarities, if only because this dichotomy of insurgent/criminal is so firmly embedded in our political, legal, military and analytical approaches that the similarities are often obscured.

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  1. Tom Hill / May 2 2009 17:14

    I like this identification of an erroneous and unhelpful dichotomy approach. Typologies so frequently fail. There is really only context and contextual significance, which can combine any range of features that might (or might not) be identifiable in other cases.

    Strikes me that we’re missing a definition of what we mean by “militant”, given its increasing importance as an analytical category here at CCN. My opening position is that militancy is armed human organisation in pursuit of goals. Such goals can change and they can (and usually will) be multiple. By this definition so-called “criminal enterprise” groups that organise standing capabilities for violence in pursuing their organisation’s goals are militants too.
    Following this logic I’m increasingly inclined to take such a paradigm of militancy for viewing any conflict zone (whether it be Kunar in Afghanistan or Peckham in London), with any militant organisation being understood on its own terms and in all its idiographic complexity.

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