Ethical Encounters – Care in Counterinsurgency: Feminist Ethics and the Morality of ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’

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This guest post, by Jillian Terry, is the fourth in a series of posts reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Jillian is in the final stages of completing her PhD in International Relations at the LSE, where her research explores the relationship between feminist ethics and post-9/11 war. Recently, Jillian has published her research in the International Feminist Journal of Politics and has contributed a chapter to the edited volume Gender and Private Security in Global Politics, edited by Maya Eichler (OUP, 2015). For earlier posts, see Myriam’s here, Joe’s here, Elke’s here and Diego’s here. Kim’s discussion post can be found here.

In thinking of twenty-first century war, questions of ethics in the realm of counterinsurgency are embodied in a wide range of encounters between combatants, civilians, and counterinsurgents. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we have witnessed tactics, strategies, and mechanisms in the name of COIN operations ranging from population control and detention to targeted killings and the implementation of the Human Terrain System, resulting in a set of complex realities about what it means to ‘do’ counterinsurgency in the contemporary era. Nevertheless, much of what we talk about when we think through questions of ethics and counterinsurgency remains tied to its manifestation in formal, legal mechanisms – namely the Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) – and their insistence on counterinsurgency as a practice of ‘winning hearts and minds’. Like much mainstream work on the ethics of war in IR, this has resulted in ethical conversations around counterinsurgency operations that are theorized with respect to just war doctrine, applying principles of jus in bello and jus ad bellum to determine the moral status of counterinsurgency as a means of warfighting. Here, I see a vital disconnect between existing analyses of COIN and how it is actually experienced and felt by insurgents and civilian populations – experiences and encounters that are irreducible to the strict criteria of the just war framework. To bridge this disconnect, I suggest a reorienting of our ethical lens away from just war thinking and towards a feminist ethics premised on care, empathy, and relationality. Such a perspective is more attuned to considering the practical realm of counterinsurgency rather than remaining mired in abstract debates about the semantics and theory of COIN operations. Given that the practical realm is one in which the truly relational nature of counterinsurgency becomes apparent, it is logical to look towards feminist ethics for an alternative viewpoint that prioritizes the lived experiences of individuals over legalistic interpretations of counterinsurgency as it appears on paper. A feminist ethics rooted in understandings of care and relationality will allow us to move beyond the formal articulation of COIN as is found in FM 3-24 and instead think about the encounters of those affected by counterinsurgency operations in a genuine and meaningful way.

U.S. Army PFC Danny Comley during patrol in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, February 2010.

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