Monday, November 16, 2009

On Modifiers

There has been a lot of talk these days in Washington regarding the intersection of terrorism, drugs, governance, and criminal networks. You can pretty much put "narco-" in front of anything. And there's much ado about how terrorist networks are working with, or modelling themselves after, criminal networks. And there's also the new-ish "natural" or "environmental" security problem space. Okay. So what?

Let's be very clear here, violence used by any actor outside of the legitimate government (sure, that can be debated in some cases) is illegal in any country and the spilling of that violence over international boundaries creates problems towards violations of international law. Period. And while I'm ranting, nations fight each other for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it's because their antagonists don't look like them and sometimes it's because of what happens to water sources when they flow downstream. Does the nature of conflict, outside of genocide, differ significantly because of the impetus of the conflict? And of course terrorist networks look like criminal networks - that's because they are criminal networks, albeit with political rather than monetary goals.

So why do we need to use modifiers for all of these types of problems? Is narco-violence any different than normal violence? To me the only difference is that drugs are involved. So how does that delineation change the government's response to the violence?

I may be way off on this, but it seems to me that we're trying to pigeon-hole all the various types of violations to the rule of law that we can. In some circles, it apparently helps model the violators. But I doubt the validity of that in a global sense. Is the Taliban a political insurgency, a narco-insurgency, or a terrorist organization? They seem to be a little bit of each and can't be compared 1 to 1 to Mao, the FARC, or al Qaeda. So what does the labeling give us?

My point is that I firmly believe that these labels don't help with the analysis and planning for solutions to combat these types of illegalities. I think that some analysts and pundits will use the categorization to simplify the problem, as opposed to looking at each case in depth and building from there. While all criminality is not equal or similar, maybe we should de-scope the generalities and take a good, hard, long look at specific problems. I have no doubts that Neustadt and May would disapprove of the modifiers and rightly so.


  1. I wonder if the phenomenon that you are describing is simply a variation of academic jargonism? You know, the tendency for academics to make up word-drivel (see, I just did it - jargonism and word-drivel) in order to seem as if they are really, really smart? Or, to show that they have discovered something hot and new, because in academia, if you don't have some hot new idea to push, you're nobody, man.

    Hey, it's just a theory.

  2. I think what we're finding is that the principles of counterinsurgency work in law enforcement. Actually, one could argue that the only real COIN the US does is within its own borders. Here's an initiative that their doing in Cali. I'm cited in the article, but I did not participate in the group- got distracted with other things. This experiment is being tested in Salinas to see if it can be expanded nationally.

  3. MikeF:

    How much of COIN doctrine comes out of the intellectual work of law enforcement? Is this a circular intellectual argument - some COIN principles arise out of police work (are police work), and now some police departments are integrating said COIN principles? Hmm, is my question making any sense at all?

  4. I don't know about the roots of the doctrine, but they appear very intertwined from what I've observed. IMO, I look at Iraq as a medium war (not small) b/c the scope of our intervention and the magnitude of violence by the competing insurgencies. To truly see the relationship between LE and COIN, I think you have to look closely at small wars- Colombia, El Salvador, Phillipines, etc...

  5. 1) "... violence used by any actor outside of the legitimate illegal in any country"

    According to Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat, in the book Sovereign Bodies they co-edited, Gunslinger's view on state monopoly on violence is a traditional view of sovereignty, only applicable in Western countries. In non-Western countries like Afghanistan, for example, the configuration is somehow different. Here's an excerpt from the book introduction:"We suggest that sovereignty of the state is an aspiration that seeks to create itself in the face of internally fragmented, unevenly distributed and unpredictable configurations of political authority that exercise more or less legitimate violence in a territory" (p. 3).


    Though academic fad is a reality, "academic jargonism" is a career-breaker for an academic. You just don't come up with empty jargon without showing its analytical value. Then, your peers have to attempt to use it as a tool. If it can't be used, you open up yourself to ridicule... and early demise.

  6. I gotta disagree with Gunslinger on this one. When applied carefully and with appropriate rigour, the labels reflect the political-economic dynamics that underpin the ability of a given actor to acquire and employ the capacity for organized violence. There are plenty of studies that demonstrate that political economic factors often shape the behaviour of such actors, sometimes in ways that are at odds with their ostensible goals and principles. Bottom line, like most terms of art, when applied carefully, they're meaningful and have important policy implications. Otherwise they're just confusing.

  7. Madhu - I think you're correct on the "jargonism" bit. And I don't think Alex's point on the matter is incorrect, either. I think we're going through that phase of showing the analytical value of some of these terms. I think you all can tell I'm doubtful of their utility and am betting on their demise.

    As to your first point, Alex, I don't see how my comment referred only to the state monopoly. I just said legitimate government. While, probably because I am a Westerner, I think that most legitimate governments would be the state, there are obviously places on earth where the legitimate government isn't the state (because it doesn't exist or is unable to govern) where the legitimate government are "traditional" or local leadership.

    It's a difficult subject because there are few clear-cut cases when this is true and the concept of "legitimate" can be a matter of opinion in some instances. But on the other hand, even in Western nations, localities can use violence legitimately as long as it doesn't violate the national norms.

  8. MK - I don't disagree at all that political-economic factors shape the behaviors of actors. What I'm saying is that "narco-whatever" isn't the same in Colombia and Afghanistan and would require completely different policies to counteract. "Narco-" doesn't add to that analysis. Additionally, with "natural" security, policy implications for water rights in Africa are very different than those for oil rights in the Persian Gulf. The titles don't do anything for me in of themselves and seem to link unrelated issues. I fear this may lead to oversimplifying these problems.

  9. I'd agree that labels don't do anything useful in segregating the problem - in much the same way that piracy doesn't - but I do think your narco problem does stand alone in terms of danger to the state requiring dedicated resources.

    There really is no other criminal element which compares in terms of self-sustainability, bottomless legions of die for the cause recruits, practically unlimited funds to corrupt and usurp the state and limitless foreign support of your cause.

  10. @ Alex Engwete - in a attempt to be funny, I probably went too far. Yes, you can't just throw a term out there and be taken seriously. Still, academic fads lead to jargon which leads to the application of theory in very strange places, indeed.