Laleh Khalili | The Aftermath

By Laleh Khalili

I completed the first draft of the manuscript for Time in the Shadows in January 2011, just as the convulsions of the Arab “intifada” of 2011 started moving east from Tunisia.  I remember vertiginous moments of joy, of hope and certainly of disbelief. The grim aftermath of this revolutionary movement has been military devastation across the region: from the massacres of Raba’a Square in Cairo and the unreported joint Egyptian-Israeli counterinsurgency in Sinai, to the hybrid civil/international proxy wars of Yemen and Libya, to the Saudi military invasion of Bahrain to vanquish the uprising, to the ongoing Israeli settler-colonial counterinsurgency against Palestinians which has led to the shooting of Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza, to the Turkish invasion of Syria to suppress the Kurdish national movement there, to the Iraqi counterinsurgency (aided by the US) in Mosul and northern Iraq, to the most devastating of all – the illiberal counterinsurgency in Syria that has torn that country apart and created millions of refugees and displaced peoples, and hundreds of thousands of deaths, casualties, and maimings.

The sheer range of military tactics used in the Middle East to suppress revolutions, uprisings and insurgencies since 2011 boggles the mind. On the one end is that bug-bear of original counterinsurgents (recall the maxim by 1960s US counterinsurgent in Vietnam, John Paul Vann: “This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I’m afraid we can’t do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worst is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle—you know who you’re killing”). Aerial bombardment, by unmanned aerial vehicles or manned planes, by US and its allied forces, by Russia, by Saudi and Emirates and Egypt and Syria and Turkey and Iraq and Israel (the latter in Sinai) lays waste to entire cities, towns, neighbourhoods, habitations. There is not much “innovation” in method here.  Even unmanned aerial vehicles (or drones) also made appearances in Vietnam, although it was the Israeli usage of them in the early 2000s that transformed them into a standard means of killing. There is now talk of using artificial intelligence (i.e. a combination of data-mining and algorithmic decision-making) to allow these automated killers to decide who lives and who dies. The irony of sovereign power invested in lines of code is not lost to observers of drone warfare, who try to read law back into computer codes.  And of course, drones are now traveling from the far battlefields to the newer places. As I write this post, the New York City Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence & Counterterrorism is calling for the use of drones to police New York City neighbourhoods. The transfer of heavy armaments from the battlefields to street policing in the US can take absurd cast: Ohio State University police –campus cops!– has bought armoured personnel carriers used in the Iraq war and demobilised and sold by the US Army after US drawdown from Iraq in 2009. APCs, armoured to defend against IEDs being used on campuses in the US against unruly students, presumably.

But the more standard counterinsurgency tactics used in the counterrevolutionary momentsin the Middle East themselves have two lineages.  There are the counterinsurgencies with their liberal pretentions (and please note my emphasis on the pretention of these counterinsurgencies to liberality): Israel is the prototype, the exemplar, and the continuing innovator here.  Liberal counterinsurgencies, as I have written, invoke law and administration. There is a careful recourse to the language of propriety and proportionality, even if the actual practice differs from this. Liberal counterinsurgents focus more than all else on coercing or persuading civilian populations to abandon the irregular forces or the insurgents. Though counterinsurgents occasionally deploy massacres to suppress populations (as they did only a couple of weeks ago at the border-crossing at Gaza), the aim is usually a far more grinding modality of domination, a kind of slow violence, where bodies are controlled and populations are subjected to monitoring, surveillance and restrictions on their movements. Here the necropolitics of siege and food control comes into play, a tactic also used all too frequently in illiberal counterinsurgencies such as that waged by the Egyptian military in Sinai (with the aid of the Israeli military).

Figure 1. Egyptian suppression of counterinsurgency in Sinai (source: HRW)


But there is another lineage to counterinsurgency wars (which I did not examine in Time in the Shadows). And these are the illiberal wars of suppression, fought by all the great powers and many a small one against intransigent populations. The liberal powers deployed these “butcher and bolt” methods extensively against peoples considered less civilised: the salting of wells and butchery of women and children in the Northwest Frontier, the slaughter of tens of thousands of Mahdists in Sudan happened simultaneously with the methods of detention and confinement deployed in the Boer War, where the counterinsurgents were white. But these were also the methods the Russians used in fighting against the Chechens over the course of the last two centuries.  In his harrowing novel which drew from his own experiences of having served in the Russian army, Haji Murad, Leo Tolstoy described the Russian methods:

The two stacks of hay there had been burnt; the apricot and cherry trees he had planted and reared were broken and scorched; and, worse still, all the beehives and bees were burnt. The wailing of the women and of the little children who cried with their mothers, mingled with the lowing of the hungry cattle, for whom there was no food. The bigger children did not play, but followed their elders with frightened eyes. The fountain was polluted, evidently on purpose, so that the water could not be used. The mosque was polluted in the same way, and the Mullah and his assistants were cleaning it out.[1]

The methods used have been repeated across the last two centuries, several times in Chechnya itself, the most recent time under the presidency of Yeltsin and prime-ministership of Putin.  Here, what is invoked is not law but sovereignty and the absolute right of the sovereign to determine the fate of the regions within a country. If this means massive violence against civilians and combatants in urban areas of one’s own country, then so be it.

Interestingly the lessons of Russian urban insurgencies of the 1990s in Chechnya weren’t just learned by the Ba’ath regimes (in both Iraq and later in Syria), but also the RAND Corporation inter alia. I have written elsewhere about the new focus by former US counterinsurgents, foremost among them David Kilcullen, on not only urban warfare, but the management of urban populations. These military men believe that their knowledge of how to suppress populations on battlefields can be used to deal with “feral cities”. As I wrote in the aforementioned article, Kilcullen’s analysis of urban insurgencis, his “explanation of the causes of urban disorder is not too dissimilar to that offered by the Modernisation Theory of the 1960s, in which revolutions were explained as the regrettable side-effects of incomplete modernisation in ‘traditional’ societies.” In a sense, knowledge transfer about counterinsurgencies not only travels between different nodes of military operations, but also through the porous civilian-military membrane which seems to come ever closer to our skins in the cities and hinterlands of both the global South and the global North.


But while we can see more clearly how the spheres of policing and military operations continuously bleed into one another (policing becomes militarised the world over, and militaries perform what was euphemistically called “policing action” in the global South), there are other after-effects of counterinsurgencies which are slow-moving, transformative, but largely invisible or at least not conceptually connected to the wars that preceded them.

When I was still conducting the fieldwork for Time in the Shadows, a brave JAG lawyer who had represented David Hicks (brave, because many of these Guantanamo lawyers were passed over for promotions and forced out of the military), Lt Col Dan Mori, said to me: “What they don’t understand is that no counterinsurgency has ever succeeded”. But just as Michel Foucault had written about how the carceral system of discipline’s failure was precisely why it was reproduced[2], the failure of counterinsurgencies also proved productive.  Elsewhere, Foucault wrote about the system of security that “the apparatuses of security . . . have the constant tendency to expand; they are centrifugal. New elements are constantly being integrated: production, psychology, behavior, the ways of doing things of producers, buyers, consumers, importers and exporters, and the world market. Security therefore involves organizing, or anyway allowing the development of ever-wider circuits.”[3]

Counterinsurgencies not only are convenient laboratories for testing out new weapons systems and technologies that are easily weaponised (data mining, algorithms, data networks, ever more sensitive sensors, non-lethal population control weapons, automated war-fighting vehicles, smart cities, facial recognition and so on ad infinitum), they also create much new that affects our everyday lives, our affective and practical ways of interconnecting with others.  These innovations are technical and logistical; counterinsurgencies produce new spaces, new occasions and milieus for accumulation of capital; and they produce new regimes of property and labour, new governmentalities, new modalities of management and business. These transformations are what I will touch on in my presentation.


[1] Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad, p. 74. Incidentally, the contemporary British imperial officer par excellence, Rory Stewart recommended the novella for politicians to read. See

[2] Foucault explains the “reactivation of the penitentiary technique as the only means of overcoming their perpetual failure” by reminding us that penality becomes a way of handling illegalities . . . of giving free rein to some, of putting pressure on others, of excluding a particular section, of making another useful, of neutralizing certain individuals and of profiting from others. In short, penality does not simply “check” illegalities; it “differentiates” them, it provides them with a general “economy.”” Discipline and Punish, p. 268, 272.

[3] Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, p. 45.