February 27th, 2012

Colonel Nascimento’s War

In the Brazilian film Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, the penal system is a microcosm of Rio de Janeiro’s society and power dynamics. But hold your Foucault books, because the lesson of the penal system is not what you might think. As the history professor Fraga explains in a (somewhat portentous) voiceover, the Bangu 1 prison complex—like Rio—is contested and controlled by a group of cartels. Bangu 1 is guarded by corrupt and politicized police. In order to prevent bloodshed, the high-security prison divides different criminals in cell blocks by affiliation. In the words of The Offspring, you gotta keep them separated.

During the opening scenes of Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, the Red Command, a powerful cartel, pays off a prison administrator in order to smuggle weapons to their side of the cell. Once the prison admin enters the Red Command block, the criminals overpower him with the weapons he just supplied and take his access keys. Entering the cell of a rival gang, the Red Command terminates them with extreme prejudice. Rivals are shot, beaten, and set on fire. Police guards stationed to keep the peace are quickly overpowered and held as hostages in order to facilitate Red Command’s frenzy to eliminate their opposition before outside intervention can occur.

The Special Operations Police Battalion (BOPE) is called to end the violence. BOPE is a highly professional force, but an aggressive one optimized for war instead of keeping the peace. Though BOPE commander Colonel Nascimento wants to resolve the situation without a mess, a convoluted chain of events (which includes the transportation of an outside  mediator) ends with BOPE rashly shooting its way into the cell block and killing a large portion of Red Command. Though BOPE saved the lives of the mediator, the hostages, and the remaining gangsters Red Command had yet to exterminate, they are blamed for using excessive force. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

The travails of BOPE illustrate some of the cruel truths about internal war. First, while both sides certainly are “protected” by the artificial imposition of the prison that keeps them separated, this protection is only temporary.  Both sides desire to fight each other, and are only one improvised shank or smuggled weapon away from doing so. The power game continues, and the artificial environment designed to create peace is simply an impediment to the war both sides clearly want. The walls of the prison are porous, and ultimately Red Command’s desire to exterminate its gangster rivals triumphs over the ability of an external force to impose an artificial order on a situation that fundamentally lacks order. In fact, in seeking to protect the gangs from themselves, the prison administrators are attempting to construct a new order that both sides agree is fundamentally in neither side’s interest.

In Rio de Janeiro itself, the gang war dynamic continues outside the prison walls. As in the first Elite Squad film, innocents are caught in the crossfire of the internal war. Nascimento, given new authorities, turns BOPE into a war machine built to exterminate the cartels and bring peace to the favela. However, in seeking to destroy the drug trade and thus protect the weak from the wolves, Colonel Nascimento and his BOPE are also creating a new political order. Unfortunately, though Nascimento at first believes that destroying the cartels will lead to people being free to live unmolested, all he actually does is upset a delicate patronage system. Nascimento thinks that he is upholding an order that has been threatened by the gangs, a basic fabric of law and order that needs only to be restored by force. But what if in doing so, he actually becomes a revolutionary rather than a law-and-order conservative?

The gangs, after all, are only the servants of powers behind the scene. The gangs have a relationship with what Nascimento dubs “the system,” a constellation of political interests that collaborate with the gangs. When BOPE kills, captures, or routs the gangs, the second-stringers decide to come to the fore. The corrupt police officers and their political bosses who rely on drug gangs to make money and attain votes simply cut out the middleman and fill the authority gap where the gangs once existed. Instead of gangs victimizing Rio, the police and their political masters now extort money and votes from the slumdwellers and kill anyone who resists. In fact, one of the more twisted aspects of the movie is that Nascimento, the only honest cop in Rio, is used by the corrupt police officers and the politicians to implement their new system as BOPE unwittingly eliminates the gangs through his interventions. Gangs are driven out, and the remaining hustlers cannot continue to pay their rents to the corrupt cops. So the police take over.

The genius of the new system is that the cops and politicians, who made less profit under the previous system of extracting rents from the gangs, now can make more money by effectively taxing everything in the slums. Nascimento’s interventions directly created this new and profitable opportunity, and the second-stringers take advantage. Though Nascimento’s motives were pure, his attempt to build a new order—and thus protect the poor and vulnerable of Rio—simply led to a new regime of victimization. Unfortunately, the situation just described is emblematic of many fragile societies engulfed by civil war.

What Nascimento was trying to create was not a restoration of the society he thought existed, but an entirely new order that disadvantaged both the drug pushers and the cops. But the order his force created was a far different one than he intended. The corrupt police and politicians take over the gang turf and exterminate the remaining gangs themselves.  Civilians are still at risk, but the threat comes from a badge instead of a drugged-up teenager’s semiautomatic pistol.

Street politics are still politics, and the dynamics of crime and patronage in Brazilian crime movies illustrate something essential about civil wars. Internal war occurs when a given political system that once provided a state of order breaks down. In Mexico, the eclipse of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the attendant disruption of cartel patronage the PRI once supported, the rise of the overland drug route, and the decapitation of the Colombian drug cartels combined to create a massive war to control the lucrative drug trafficking corridors known as the “plazas” and other licit and illicit public goods. The American Civil War occured when the political contradictions that sustained the slavery compromise between the North and the South were eroded by political, ideological, and economic shifts. The Taiping Rebellion was set loose in China when a revolutionary ideology mobilized the peasants against a decaying imperial system that appeared to melt away in the face of disciplined opposition.

All wars are rough on civilians, but internal wars—because they are existential in scope—are perhaps the worst. The stakes are literally an issue of life and death, and there are truly no front lines. Not only are both sides arrayed against each other on a marcocosmic scale, local disputes inevitably become incorporated into the fabric of violence. Even if the incumbent political system triumphs, a new order is inevitably created by violence. It is impossible to go back to the status quo ante. “Facts on the ground” are created, frequently through mass killing of noncombatants. Even when noncombatants are spared, they suffer a severe loss in status. The Loyalists were expelled or treated as second-class citizens after the American Revolution, and many Confederates were imprisoned or suffered lasting discrimination and suspicion. After the creation of the Church of England, British Catholics became second-class citizens and the object of intensive surveillance and persecution.

When outsiders intervene in civil wars or attempt to rebuild societies in which order is contested, they are not simply protecting civilians or engaging in a kind of apolitical “capacity-building,” they are attempting to a create a new political order of their own design. Often that specific order is desired by neither combatant in the civil war, making the intervenee a target for violence or an obstacle. Hamid Karzai is fundamentally not interested in building a state. He is, rather, interested in doing what’s best for Hamid Karzai and his clique. Just as the police in Nascimento’s Brazil is not a neutral instrument of state authority but instead an means of cementing political control for Rio’s governor and his cadre of corrupt cops, the government of Afghanistan is a vehicle to enrich Hamid Karzai and his clique.

In attempting to create a new order in Afghanistan, the United States unintentionally traded the depredations of the Taliban for the cronyism and corruption of Karzai and the warlord system. Neither Karzai or his opponents have a reason to support the liberal order the United States wants, and they would be fools to do so. Afghanistan-as-Switzerland means that Ahmad Wali Karzai might have to make legitimate, 9-5 money instead of trying to outdo Eazy-E in the dope game. And who wants that? Screw (the real, not the former prison guard) Rick Ross, Wali’s your man if you really wanted a classic hustler. And Wali was definitely rolling in that brown paper bag money before he was killed. Obviously the Taliban are equally unenthused about a state of affairs that would conflict with their own power and perorgatives.

Nobody, in short, likes the intervener because he is not a neutral actor. Intervention in Syria, contrary to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s intentions, would not force the Syrian government to fight “fair.” Why? Because there is nothing fair about supporting the Free Syrian Army with supplies, airpower, special operations training and protecting their mobilization areas from harm. There was nothing fair about intervening to protect opposition-controlled areas in Libya, because it helped the opposition fight the civil war. In both cases, intervention creates a new political order through the military defeat of one side. But at the very minimum it at least consciously favors a side.

Many times interventions are simply a larger version of Bangu 1—a futile attempt to build a new order that consciously separates both sides. It is bitterly ironic that Foucault uses the ideas of Jeremy Bentham—the creator of the modern prison system—as a means of advancing his thesis that the prison represents the controlling agent of the liberal system of governance, because the attempt by outsiders to build a liberal system of government in war-torn societies requires a level of coercion implied in the system that Bangu 1 represents.

The fallacy of intervening in civil wars and criminal insurgencies to protect civilians resides precisely in the fact that civilian protection is not a policy. A policy is a condition or behavior rather than an action. Civilian protection (an action) is certainly a byproduct of a policy, but is not a goal in and of itself. Wars decide political issues—and politics is power over people. Policy is fundamentally about aspects of power—who rules, who survives, who gets what and when. War creates or defends political orders. Destruction of opposing force armies removes their leaders’ ability to defend a certain order and lays the groundwork for another.

In order to truly protect civilians, the military defeat of the Syrian regime is necessary. But this would inevitably create a new political order that either privileges a new regime or a new system of power relations that features a significantly weakened Assad. Constructing a new order through force is no guarantee of civilian protection. Nascimento’s military defeat of one regime of victimizers merely cemented the rule of another. Though BOPE had armored personnel carriers, helicopters, and hundreds of tactical operators, they in the end fell prey to the same law of unintended consequences that the United States faced in Iraq. Civilian protection is, to restate, a byproduct of a new political order rather than something that is created through purposeful military action. And outsiders frequently lack the granular knowledge and political power to create an order in which the innocent can be truly safe from harm.

A policy and strategy rooted around pure civilian protection is unlikely to succeed. In order to protect both gangs from themselves, the Brazilians had to construct an artificial instrument of control—the prison—and even that proved to be a temporary expedient (if an expensive one) that both sides could easily get around. As David Kilcullen related, in order to try to stem the sectarian violence the United States walled off many sections of Baghdad. But Kilcullen wisely dubbed this solution the “urban tourniquet,” a temporary device to stem bleeding before the patient could get to the hospital. As Douglas Ollivant noted, what really ended the civil war was the Sunni community’s recognition of imminent defeat and its attendant partnering with the United States to eliminate Sunni extremists who stood in the way of a settled truce. They salvaged what political power they could by making themselves useful to the United States through the device of the Anbar Awakening.

So how do we protect civilians in war-torn societies? Is it impossible? No, it is actually possible to safeguard the innocent from harm. But not the way we currently think about it. Simply put, civilian protection occurs when there is no longer a basic dispute over political order, and an agreed order exists. This is where transitional law enforcement, peacekeeping, and other forms of civilian protection arguably is most effective. When the enemy is simply what John Mueller dubs the “remnants of war”—the drunks, rapists, and punks who would melt away at the appearance of a disciplined soldier or policeman—human security can be created. Security does not produce order here, but is produced by it. Alice Hills, in her book Post-Conflict Policing, argues that liberal theorists misunderstand the nature of order in post-conflict situations. Order, rather than security, is much more important to the lives of the vulnerable. When order is contested, security cannot be created unless the political disconnect is fixed.

But even the policing of broadly “post-conflict” environments is fraught with peril. In societies where gangs and local power brokers hold political power, peacekeepers and police fall into the trap of providing human security by attempting to construct a new order from the outside—otherwise known as “nation-building.”  In Somalia, attempting to a construct a new order by targeting Aideed’s militia made the United Nations a target of his forces. Some states may never reach what Westerners understand as “normal” conditions of governance. Heads of state—like old European kings dependent on titled nobility—will rule by implicitly tolerating the perogatives of druglords and Huey Long-type supremos. Protecting civilians in such an environment depends on the cooperation of these local kingmakers—and turning a blind eye when they victimize the poor and helpless.

There is no easy answer to dealing with societies trapped in such a purgatory. Kimberly Zisk Marten reviewed many cases of warlordism from pre-Mao China to pre-Taliban Afghanistan and found that those states unified when a transcendent and unstoppable ideological force matched with the interest of one group within the warlord system. Charles Tilly famously declared that “war makes the state,” comparing the rise of governments to mafias that finally eliminate all competitors to control a given neighborhood. And there is the long-running debate between William Easterly, Paul Collier, and other academics about poverty and war traps, which is beyond the scope of this post.

Civilian protection is possible—but only when it is rendered truly apolitical and separated from warfare. The modern face of civilian protection is not a bomber over Libya but a police officer standing down a demobilized militiaman trying to extort food from a refugee camp. This may be a bitter pill to swallow, because it implies that many victims cannot be rescued from violent civil war or squalid anarchy. But it is a worthwhile investment, and the peacekeeping and policing produced by a cessation of hostilities is proof of the power of multilateral organizations to make a huge difference in protecting civilian life. To repeat, a situation favorable to civilian protection occurs when existing order produces the opportunity for security to be created. But when order is still contested—particularly in violent civil war—intervention is a profoundly political act with potentially ruinous second and third order consequences.

Colonel Nascimento’s war may have been waged to protect the innocent from murderous and corrupt dope-pushers and gangbangers. But it merely swapped one inequitable and violent system for another. In the end, Nascimento came to view his police work with a sense of shame, and assisted Fraga in trying to expose the corrupt Brazilian political system that foiled his efforts. Unfortunately, the system we deal with on a day-to-day basis is the one described by Thomas Hobbes. We are lucky not to live in such societies, but the political consensus that undergirds our stability and security was bought with the blood of 500,000 dead Americans in our own civil war. We should always remember that while we may live in Fukuyama’s post-political world of “The Last Man,” countless people do not.

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A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng