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The Art Of Counterinsurgency

By Matthew Yglesias  

"The Art Of Counterinsurgency"

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James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia is not about Afghanistan, not about the 21st century, not about western powers, and certainly not about the American military effort in Afghanistan. But I think his account of statebuilding in the Southeast Asian highlands and resistance to it casts an interesting light on the current war.

For starters, if you have a corrupt governance structure whose long-term plan is to enrich itself through predation of the local population, this creates incentives for a certain kind of development model:

Successful state-building is directed toward the maximization of the state-accessible product. It profits the ruler not at all if his nominal subjects flourish, say, by foraging, hunting, or shifting agriculture at too great a distance from the court. It similarly profits the ruler little if his subjects grow a diverse suite of crops of different maturation or crops that spoil quickly and are therefore hard to assess, collect, and store. Given a choice between patterns of subsistence that are relatively unfavorable to the cultivator but which yield a greater return in manpower or grain to the state and those patterns that benefit the cultivator but deprive the state, the ruler will choose the former every time. The ruler, then, maximizes the state-accessible product, if necessary, at the expense of the overall wealth of the realm and its subjects. So it is that the premodern state attempts to so arrange its subjects and to sculpt the landscape around it in order to make it a legible field of appropriation.

But of course subjugation to a centralized state is the aspiration of all decent people:

While the rhetoric of high imperialism could speak unself-consciously of “civilizing” and “Christianizing” the nomadic heathen, such terms strike the modern ear as outdated and provincial, or as euphemisms for all manner of brutalities. And yet if one substitutes the nouns development, progress, and modernization, it is apparent that the project, under a new flag, is very much alive and well.

Consequently, provision of social services is not necessarily an alternative to more “kinetic” strategies:

Following a Hmong/Miao rebellion in northern Thailand in the late 196os, General Prapas not only deployed all the counterinsurgency techniques at his disposal-including napalm and aerial bombing-but undertook to “civilize” the rebels with schools, resettlement, clinics, and sedentary agricultural techniques. The cultural campaign, Nicholas Tapp observes, was virtually a carbon copy of the Republican Chinese government’s program in the 1930s in Guangdong, carried out by the “Bureau for Civilizing the Yao.”

C. J. Coyne and Adam Pellillo have an interesting essay (PDF) trying to more explicitly draw out the implications of Scott’s work for counterinsurgency.

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