Laleh Khalili is professor of Middle Eastern Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her 2012 book, Time in the Shadows, links contemporary counterinsurgency tactics to the long history of colonial counterinsurgency. She shows how throughout history, liberal states have acted illiberally in counterinsurgency confinement.
Tank I wanted to start off by asking about your book Time in the Shadows. As we’re here in Jaipur – how does the Indian experience and the Indian situation fit into the history of colonialism and counter insurgencies?
Laleh Khalili I haven’t studied postcolonial India, but it is an important area of study because of the Maoist movement here, as well as the other post-1947 guerrilla movements. The responses they have had from the Indian military reflect in some ways the particular kind of liberal counterinsurgency that I talk about in Time in the Shadows. Because this isn’t my area of study I don’t want to pontificate about it too much, but it was my sense that the kind of counterinsurgency tactics I write about were particularly relevant in colonial instances, in the pre-1947 era. One of the most striking instances of these liberal counterinsurgencies, which I have studied extensively and written about, was what happened in the North-West Frontier, which was then part of India and is today part of Pakistan. What was really striking was that it pointed to two different methods that the British used in order to pacify a population considered to be particularly intransigent. The two different methods were called “butcher and bolt” – it’s a very self-descriptive name – and the Sandeman method.
If there was an intransigent region – where they didn’t pay their taxes or they engaged in what was called banditry, i.e. stopping travellers and trying to extract taxes from them – the British would want to punish the groups involved in this intransigence. Butcher and bolt entailed going into particular villages, destroying the crops, killing all their livestock, salting the earth, cementing the wells, killing anyone they could find and then leaving. Essentially, this was a method of slaughter. This happened in places where the “tribal leadership” was not amenable to British administration. In places where the British administration had managed to co-opt the tribal leadership they used the Sandeman method. This was a particularly successful method for the British, and it goes by lots of other names, including “indirect rule”. In this case the British would find amenable local elite leaders, fortify their power by giving them arms and an allowance – often in cash – and ask them to do the punishment. That provided them with a form of plausible deniability, so any kind of extraordinary violence unleashed on the intransigent people by a client of the British was the fault of the client. But it also gave power to a particular tribal leader who could be held responsible and who could be killed as a lesson to others. Alongside these two forms of counterinsurgency were others. For example, taking the sons of intransigent leaders hostage and putting these hostages, say, in the front of convoys that went through these difficult-to-control areas, so that if they were going to be attacked, the hostages would be the first to be killed. There were other forms of collective punishment beyond butcher and bolt. They would do a sweep and arrest of all men between a certain age, sometimes beat them and release them, sometimes not. These forms of collective punishment and doctrines of pacification were extended not only across India, but far beyond. For example, letters were exchanged between British colonial officials in India and Palestine, giving lessons on how to run the British counterinsurgency in Palestine.
Another, particularly relevant, aspect of British counterinsurgency in colonial India was the method of incarcerating leadership and sending them off to other colonial holdings, but under a different administration. So not under the Indian government, but under, say, the Seychelles. When people would claim rights or habeas corpus, they would be told by the British that they couldn’t be helped because they were being held under Seychellois government, the government of India could do nothing to release you. This method and the legal arguments that were used in those instances, were used again by the US in Guantánamo, when, in the early stages of the war on terror, a number of civil-rights lawyers tried to invoke the right of habeas corpus in order to release the prisoners. One of the arguments put forward by the US government was that they were not on US sovereign territory because they were in Cuba; even though it’s a US base; even though it’s a US detention centre. It is a question of sovereignty, which became a flexible tool in the hands of the British in the case of, say, India and the Seychelles. Likewise in the case of Guantánamo, which like the Seychelles, ended up becoming a prison island, or an island prison.
Tank How does the way in which people think about digital surveillance fit into these structures of counterinsurgency?
LK I think that it is impossible nowadays to think about counterinsurgency without the idea of digital surveillance – surveillance not only of digital material but also surveillance of our conversations, which are recorded digitally, as well as satellite spying and all sorts of other things. Biometrics, too, are a form of digital surveillance of populations. It is really striking that when the US walked out of Iraq after 2003, it took with it a database containing hundreds of thousands of entries of Iraqi fingerprints, iris scans and various other forms of biometric data. That database now sits in Virginia somewhere. So the US has control of what is essentially a database of who the Iraqis are.
I think it is important also to remember that although we think that digital technology is significant to biometrics, it has a pre-digital history. I think very, very few people know that, for example, fingerprinting, which we now associate with police work – maybe because of all the police procedurals we watch – was actually invented in India during the colonial era, in order to stop political prisoners, not criminals. So fingerprinting, from the very beginning, was a technology of counterinsurgency. Today, fingerprinting has also been digitised so that when you go through an airport and they take your fingerprint, you are becoming part of this massive database of biometrics that is saved somewhere with very little oversight. Interestingly, the second place fingerprinting went to after India was Ireland, which was also in the throes of its own anti-colonial struggles in the early-20th century, and then it moved to Scotland Yard and the Metropolitan Police. So there is this quite particular history that has been forgotten, but which is really quite relevant in the way in which we think about the control of populations, whether digitally or otherwise.
Tank It’s fascinating how you’ve managed to draw these very direct lines from one to the other.
LK One of the things I didn’t pay enough attention to in the book, and which I think is really worth talking about, is the connection between the US counterinsurgency prisons, particularly in Guantánamo Bay, and internal incarceration in the US itself. I think it’s really important to mention the fact that, for example, the mass incarceration of African-Americans in the US in some ways follows methods profoundly similar to the methods used in Iraq. Many of the warders and interrogators in Iraq had experience as prison guards in the US. Charles Graner, who’s famous for orchestrating some of those hideous pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib [prison] was actually suspended from his job as a warden because of sexual torture of an African-American prisoner somewhere in the Midwest. Ultimately, supermax prisons were the models used for the prisons in Guantánamo. These kinds of connections need to be drawn out. It is important to realise that liberal counterinsurgencies have their roots in profoundly illiberal carceral mechanisms back home. And that’s also true elsewhere.
Tank You also look at the Native American populations.
LK Yes, and that’s hugely important. In the case of Native Americans, it’s not so much the prison system as the reservation system, which was originally invented as a form of pacification, but was also a way to dispossess Native Americans of the land that settlers wanted. In that sense, the US has used its minority populations, indigenous populations, African-Americans, as a kind of laboratory for the various forms of counterinsurgency that it has used overseas.
Tank I wanted to ask about the importance of literature in your academic work, specifically with regard to the book that you’re working on now. What are you reading for it?
LK Literature is enormously important for my work. I started reading and writing when I was very, very young – three years old – and I had read through the classics by my early teens. I was very precocious. In some ways I chose not to go into literature because I was afraid that if I made it the bread and butter of my work, I would stop reading it with so much pleasure. So that’s why I went into politics, although the two things seem to me completely and totally inseparable. In every new project that I begin, if it’s something that I don’t know about, if it’s a place that I don’t know, the first thing that I do is sit down and read as many novels as I can about it. I think that the kind of texture that you get, the kind of language that you get, the kind of stories that you get in novels, are something that you cannot find elsewhere, that cannot be recreated in academic texts. Literature is absolutely crucial for understanding the texture of things, the affect of things, the immersions of things. So when I started my current project about ports and maritime transport in the Arabian Peninsula, the first thing that I did was put a notice on Facebook asking everyone who I know what I should read that has to do with ports, maritime transport and shipping. They came back with hundreds of suggestions, which I’ve been working my way through.
I am currently reading a very orientalist account of a trip that a British sailor took from Sohar in Oman to Canton in China during the 1970s in a reconstructed dhow, which is a traditional form of ship used in the Indian Ocean. I’m also reading – and this is completely random, but in some ways it’s quite interesting and relevant – a book called Fossil Capital, which is about the emergence of coal and the subsequent emergence of oil, as crucial to the emergence of specific kinds of technologies and industrialisation. Part of the reason that I’m so interested in that is because the more I read and the more I understand about shipping and maritime transport, the more I think that it is inseparable from the history of both oil and coal as fuel, particularly in the Middle East. I discovered recently that Aden was, at the end of the 19th century, the most important coaling station in the world, which is quite something. §