Capturing Counterinsurgency Math

Distorted Economies of Violence in Late Modern War

Abstract for a Paper Session

Annual Conference for the Association of American Geographers, 2013

Session Title: On the Question of Violence in the Humanitarian Present

In this paper, I explore the complex economies of violence that circulate through the enactment of battlefield capture in the war in Afghanistan. The practice of wartime apprehension has long marked an interstices between the lethal violence of the frontline and the strategic advantages of detention, care, and custody—the precarious border between the utterances “kill them if they try to surrender, we need the body count” on the one hand, and “it’s impossible to interrogate a corpse” on the other. In these tense spaces of encounter, the military often struggles to maintain control over both its personnel and its narrative of legitimacy, noting in recent detainee doctrine that while apprehending a prisoner, “Soldiers must monitor and control their emotions… and those of fellow Soldiers” to keep from failing to adhere to “Army values” and the Geneva Conventions. These spaces are further destabilized in light of the complications of ‘counterinsurgency math’: the idea that if a military unit kills or captures two people, this does not reduce the enemy population by two but instead has potentially increased it by angering the friends and relatives of those killed or detained.

Here I focus on the ways that this distorted arithmetic modulates the relationships between kill and capture in a ‘war for peace’. I describe how the practice of capture itself has become a site for the deployment of new forms of calculation and risk management that seek to limit the potential violence of civilians, insurgents, and military personnel alike.