Sunday, April 25, 2004

Rules of engagement

Recent events in Iraq, including the capture of Pfc. Matt Maupin, reveal the ambiguity of a shifting warscape with ill-defined forces

Since the rise of states in the 17th century, governments have monopolized the use of violence. Yes, mercenaries found employment and groups organized to promote a cause, but states asserted a unique role to exercise violence within their boundaries or against each other. These practices became part of international law and a basic organizing principle of international relations.

However, the abduction of Pfc. Matt Maupin and the grisly death of four Blackwater Security Consulting employees in Fallujah highlight the growing importance and ambiguity of nonstate actors in the war on terrorism.

    'The enemy has proven that they have no rules. Our rules should be to seek them out, hunt them down, and treat them like the savages they are.' --Henry Williamson, Fairfield

    'These insurgents were left out of the power-sharing institutions the Americans set up after Saddam's fall. This use of violence, which includes intimidating by suicide bombers and hostage taking, is the model of grabbing power Saddam showed them.' --Gerry Thiemann, Mount Airy

    'By labeling the fallout of the invasion of Iraq as terrorism, we implicitly validate a no-tolerance policy of coercion that will be fiercely resisted - with more violence.' --Jill Landis, Madeira

    'The United Nations must take political control. That would encourage more military cooperation by other nations and give at least some appearance of even-handedness by the Bush administration.' --Jon-Paul Kroger, Alexandria

The U.S. war on terrorism - defined in messianic terms of good versus evil and sweeping in its application - is being fought against a multifaceted, nonstate enemy whose motivations vary considerably. It is clear, for example, that religious or ideologically motivated groups are garnering great strength among persons alienated by rapid social, cultural and economic changes. But violent resistance also stems from other sources, such as feelings of humiliation from military occupation.

Hence, despite perceptions of a monolithic terrorist movement, there are significant differences in motivation and goals between networks such as al-Qaida that challenge Western influence in the Middle East and Central Asia, and territorially anchored movements found in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or Kashmir, for instance, that are motivated by desires for independent statehood.

The nonstate enemy has its counterpart in the nonstate military. According to national security expert P.W. Singer, author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, the privatization of military forces reflected in companies such as Blackwater Security is a result of shrinking military establishments and the withdrawal of superpower support from client states, the increasing complexity of high-tech, information-based warfare, and the outsourcing of services that is occurring throughout the business world.

What is interesting about this phenomenon, however, is that unlike the traditional military whose loyalty to the state is embodied in organizational norms, the privatized army forges loyalty through legal contracts.

Corporate actors

Although their services range from battlefield leadership to training and providing logistical support services, these companies are not mercenaries in the traditional sense. Instead, they are corporate actors, organized and operating like other businesses, seeking to maximize profit, securing financing, and providing a broad range of services to many different clients.

The appearance of these kinds of actors in Iraq is not a new phenomenon. Both nonstate enemies and militaries operated elsewhere before the war on terrorism began. What makes Iraq unique, however, is that there was little evidence to justify an invasion, occupation and reconstitution of the government.

While it is convenient to describe the abduction of Maupin, acts of violence directed at allied soldiers, or the killing of private security personnel as the work of bands of thugs, terrorists and criminals, for many in the Arab world the attempt to rebuild Iraq according to an American design is the reinvention of an imperial mission.

It is important here to discern the motivations of nonstate enemies. Although the United States and its allies may consider the Iraqi phase of the war on terrorism at an end, it is clear that emerging political forces in the country disagree. For them, the war continues, not as part of al-Qaida's war against the West, but as a form of resistance to occupation and the struggle for political power in the vacuum left by Saddam Hussein's overthrow.

Differences of perception

Just as nonstate enemies acquire a degree of legitimacy in their violent response to occupation and claims to power, nonstate militaries become de-legitimized. They are no longer regarded as neutral corporate actors operating under contract to governments or other companies. Instead, they become viewed as mercenary fighters siding with the forces of occupation in a war zone.

The ambiguities of the war on terrorism and the changing economic conditions that are reshaping traditional concepts associated with the international law of states, such as prisoner of war, mercenary and combatant, are considerably more perplexing when applied to Iraq.

However, this is the consequence of an invasion that was only partially won, and is tangentially related - at best - to the broader war on terrorism. Nor are these ambiguities likely to be resolved. They are rapidly becoming a defining characteristic of war in our time.


Nayef H. Samhat is National Endowment for the Humanities Associate Professor of Government and International Studies at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

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