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Coercing Insurgents

January 29, 2006

An interesting story via Laura Rozen, Andrew Sullivan, and Cunning Realist. According to reports, a series of emails and an internal Army memo suggests that US soldiers have used insurgents’ wives as leverage in order to get the suspects to surrender. So far, there has been no confirmation that the detentions actually led to the surrender of the insurgents targeted. There is no mention of explicit threats of violence against the wives which were detained, but sometimes silence speaks volumes.

Anyone who has studied war, conflict, or tried to get a 3 year old to do something they didn’t want to knows all about the art of coercive bargaining. Force is most efficient when it is held in reserve–when its use is threatened as punishment if the target of your threats does not comply. The punishment can be anything, the key is understanding what the other party values the most and then using that knowledge to either deter or compel the appropriate action. Coercion does not require the threat of physical pain. My niece can easily be compelled to eat her vegetables through the gentle threat to withhold the movie Mulan.

For some time people have been arguing over whether coercive bargaining was still relevant in the fight against insurgents and terrorists. Some have argued that states can not hold things that terrorists value ‘hostage’. For one, these things are difficult to find. More importantly, when states (especially liberal ones) are trying to win the hearts and minds of a tangential audience (as well as trying to maintain the support of their own domestic audience) they are not able to make the kinds of threats that are most effective in this regard. Threats or acts of barbarism against insurgent communities and family members are simply untenable for liberal states in this day and age.

What I find interesting about the report above is not that the US may be practicing coercive bargaining against insurgents in Iraq, but how they are doing it. There is no evidence that they have either tortured or threatened to torture the women they have detained. However, sometimes it is possible to rely upon the beliefs of an opponent to do the work for you. The insurgency is mostly homegrown, a collection of former Baathists and disaffected Sunnis. These actors know full well the kind of tactics used by the former regime to extract confessions, information, etc. It is the world they are accustomed to. Additionally, even if these actors believed US soldiers incapable of these acts prior to the war revelations (complete with pictures) of abuse at Abu Ghraib no doubtedly changed the perception of what the US might be capable of.

With this information constituting the frame through which the insurgents interpret US actions I would not be surprised if we never actually threatened to do anything to these women, and that includes the threat of violence. The threat is left vague for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its illegality under Geneva. By leaving it sufficiently vague you use the adversaries own beliefs of what they think is possible and probable to do the work for you. What you sacrifice in clarity you make up for with plausible deniability and, potentially, the wild imagination of an actor who may think you capable of actions worse than even you are willing to contemplate.

I am not making a judgment as to whether or not this kind of strategy is moral or ethical. That is a topic for another discussion, one I am sure will be had. I am curious, however, how widespread this strategy has been and whether or not it has been effective in Iraq (there is evidence, of course, that it has been ‘successful’ in other conflicts). Given that this episode involved the use of women as leverage I would not be surprised if this becomes a major issue press wise, especially given recent events.

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.