New Wars and Autonomous Self-Defense

Nazan Üstündağ, 18 Nov. 2015

A number of scholars working in the fields of geography, sociology, and political science have developed the concept of “new wars” to talk about the state we are living in the last two decades.[1] These scholars claim that currently, we are going through a fourth world war—that is, of course, if we would call the cold war a third world war—and argue that after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the politics of controlled conflict and tension has been replaced by continuous, scattered, and extending small wars, whose sides are multiple and whose outcomes remain uncertain.

So first, I will address this concept of new wars. I will explain how both a biopolitical and a necropolitical logic underline these wars. Different from territorial wars between states that Clausewitz characterized as politics with violent means, the biopolitical and necropolitical logics of war transform war into a permanent state of affairs whereby politics become an extension of war, rather than vice versa.

Second, I will discuss how Turkey is increasingly becoming a playground for these new wars, and how Kurds and women in particular are being targeted by both the Turkish state and the Islamic State, transforming Kurds’ public and private lives into spaces of death and violence. Finally, I will talk about the concept of autonomous self-defense as developed by the Kurdish Liberation Movement to counter such attacks. Autonomous self-government and self-defense are hotly debated issues among oppositional circles in Turkey, especially in the aftermath of the Gezi events and the Rojava experience in Syria. Many cities in the southeast of Turkey—that is, northern Kurdistan—have declared autonomous governments and created self-defense structures in the last couple of months, and have in turn come under state attack, as a result of which more than one hundred civilians were killed.

New Wars

The concept of new wars refers to two different forms of conflict in the contemporary world. The first of these is best exemplified by the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq but is also associated with Israel’s occupation of Palestine and Turkey’s policies in northern Kurdistan. Such wars encompass both soft and hard power. They have popular support and their characteristic is that they will be continuous and relentless until an abstract goal such as “ending terrorism,” “bringing democracy,” or “ensuring security” is achieved.

The second type of war that the concept of new wars refers to is rooted on the one hand in the wars of eastern Europe—to be specific, in the former Yugoslavia—and on the other hand, in the multiple civil wars in Africa. Paramilitary groups that flourish once the central state loses power typically lead this second type of war. While global powers and capital also play a role in shaping these wars and the actions of those who wage them, most of the time, alliances on the field remain temporary and enemies are changing. This is true even in the first type of new war, as we have for example witnessed in Iraq. Therefore, scholars, when categorizing these wars, take as their criteria the form and the logic of war rather than the identities of the actors who wage them.

I will follow their categorization and call the first type of war “biopolitical” and the second one “necropolitical.” Before explaining these, let me also say that both state and non-state organizations exercise biopolitics and necropolitics despite the fact that the former is associated with states and the latter with non-states in the new wars literature.

Biopolitical wars are those hybrid wars that are fought in the name of life and making live.[2] We can also call them liberal wars, since they are given meaning by discourses of democracy, security, and peace. So, for example, the US intervenes for the sake of democracy, Israel kills in the name of security, and Turkey declares curfew and brings special teams to Kurdish towns for the sake of social peace.

Such biopolitical wars, which have been spreading since the Soviet collapse and effectively made their mark all around the world, have become the ordinary state of affairs with liberalism’s and capitalism’s declaration of themselves as the only representatives of humanity and ethics. Biopolitical war targets populations deemed different and dangerous to humanity, but also always implies that such populations have the potential of being converted, assimilated, and cleansed.

In general we can identify five characteristics of these wars.

First—and I have already discussed this characteristic—they aim at depoliticizing war and the public sphere by attributing theological and teleological meanings to war such as humanitarianism, democracy, peace, unity, or security. Second, war is permanent and unending and its fronts are ever enlarging. A difference from past wars is that negotiation or treaties cannot bring an end to these wars, and all people, regions, and cities, as long as they remain inassimilable to the liberal and capitalist world and incommensurable with its values, can be a target of this war.

Third, since these are wars whose political meanings are emptied out, old concepts such as martyrdom for the nation make no sense in their context. The death of soldiers in far away lands who fight the liberal war cannot be easily valorized, because the war is fought for life, in order to make live, in order to cleanse. It is not territorial, not for defense, not for religion or for nation. As such, the goal becomes to minimize the human cost of waging them. Accordingly, in such wars technology, special teams, and contracted soldiers replace armies.

Fourth, new wars take place in urban spaces, in cities and other populated areas. Destroying the unhealthy elements of the population and winning the hearts of those who have not yet been infected by the epidemic of, say, terrorism, become complementary goals. During biopolitical wars, siege, quarantine, and isolation, along with social policies, granting of selective social rights, and selective punishments are employed as counterinsurgent tactics. Violent means are also hybrid, ranging from tear gas to drone attacks.

Finally, these wars are fought at the representational level as much as on the field, and consenting spectators must be actively produced who see a personal stake in war. People at home must believe that the multiple native deaths produced in far away wars are for their own good and help them to continue their lifestyles and moral high ground.

As I have mentioned earlier, such wars have no ending and no particular, accessible, identifiable enemy. Peace in such wars is a continuation of war with other means. Peace aims at neutralizing opposition, at opening up the spaces made uncanny by war to capital investment, at restoring state power and its law, and at producing security regimes by delegating power to police and to bureaucrats who primarily work as the guardians of the regime.

Needless to say, such wars are also closely linked with capitalist development. People who are targets of biopolitical warfare are used as cheap labor during peacetime and taken out of the labor market violently when there is no more need for them. Investment in military industry vitalizes economies: building military safe zones around natural resources legitimizes primitive accumulation with the help of local collaborators and dispossess economic actors seen to be an impediment to neoliberal restructuring. Finally, permanent wars prevent populations from demanding social rights, especially when the state needs to cut its social expenses.

On the other side of the new wars coin is necropolitics, whose calculative logic demands death, devastation, and destitution. Here, war is not fought in the name of life. On the contrary, it aims at producing dead bodies, limbs, wounds, injuries.

The anthropologist Achille Mmembe made the concept of the “necropolitical” popular when he put it forth to describe the African situation during the 2000s.[3] However, today Syria and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq became the symbols of necropolitics and have brought necropolitical wars to a whole new plane. According to Mmebe, necropolitical wars are waged by non-state organizations and paramilitaries that are formed as a result of the weakening of nation-states by economic and political globalization. As states lose their capacity to control trade routes and to monopolize means of violence, and as they fail to maintain any kind of productive relationship with their citizens through social rights and state employment, non-state organizations with vague ideologies but powerful narratives of victimization and revenge flourish around natural resources and penetrable borders. Moreover, the examples of Ukraine, Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East show that such organizations are neither temporary nor exceptional, but rather became part of the contemporary global war order.

Necropolitical wars also have a few common characteristics. First of all, necropolitical wars are genocidal wars that aim at annihilating populations and at “freeing” spaces from unwanted ethnic, religious, or racial enemies to make them available for plunder first and for re-territorialization later. Second, the non-state organizations that wage necropolitical wars show hedonistic qualities and operate in an expenditure economy. Spending, murder, rape, and the suicidal and murderous drive orient their actions and desires. In necropolitical wars, transgression of norms and extreme forms of violence become the means to enter the historical stage, specifically for young men who have been kept at the fringes of the global economy and politics.

Here as well, the war is unending. It becomes a permanent state from which honor and meaning is derived. Zygmunt Bauman says those who wage necropolitical wars see themselves as warriors and as raiders for whom the world has become a frontier. We should also add that they are also traders of sorts who make their revenue from natural resources. The Islamic State brought a new dimension to this by selling archeological relics they gathered from cities whose destruction they turned into a spectacle.

Just like biopolitical wars, necropolitical wars are also wars waged on the representational level. Jean Baudrilliard once declared that the medium of television prevented the western public from ever recognizing the Gulf War for what it is; an atrocity with deadly consequences on the field. The IS descends from Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda, one could safely argue, has both a historical and visual genealogy to be traced from that war. The IS places great emphasis on using electronic media as one of its war tactics. Instead of hiding atrocity, electronic media allows the IS to multiply and accentuate it. It uses Twitter and Facebook—and allegedly also video games—for recruitment, videos its combatants, and most significantly, documents and disseminates its shootings, assassinations, and decapitations. Indeed, a double process of fetishizing and de-fetishizing occurs during necropolitical wars: while means of violence are profaned and made available to an increasing number of men for use, violence is transformed into a spectacle, into a fetish, that orients desire, produces meaning, and helps for recruitment.

Finally, apart from death, images, and territory, necropolitical wars also produce migrants. Such migrants are integrated to the global economy negatively as recipients of humanitarian assistance, residents of refugee camps, as seekers of asylum, and as objects of human trafficking. A vast informal and global economy develops around them as their bodies and organs become available to buy and sell. Migrants’ bodies are repositories of raw material instead of labor and capitalist exploitation and slavery meets once again in the new economies of war and refuge.

What does all this have to do with Turkey?

In the last decade, Turkey had already become a ground of biopolitical warfare waged against a number of different groups, including Kurds, Alevis, and women. Both hard power and soft power targeted them and interfered in their lives for the sake of peace, development, morality, and security, using multiple means. Let me give just a few examples. Neighborhoods in big cities where Alevis lived were brought both under strict police control and also became objects of urban reconstruction projects. Kurdish cities were populated with special security units and new police stations. Alongside these were extending social assistance programs and conditional cash transfers, as well as free health insurance schemes to people who passed means testing ordeals. Also, of course, public housing projects flourished, causing a debt crisis everywhere.

A peace process with the PKK began, which was aimed—as we now find out—at neutralizing opposition and making uncanny spaces secure for capital investment. It attempted to restore the state’s law and create homogenous Islamic subjects out of the diversity of Kurdish people. Women’s bodies, on the other hand, were targeted through hybrid means also, including new abortion laws, the sanctification of motherhood, Islamic morale, and labor laws that encouraged part-time, temporary, and flexible work. Meanwhile, femicide increased. Through political speeches women were made responsible for raising docile and conservative youth, and Alevi and Kurdish women in particular were regularly blamed for failing in this endeavor, which was also a basis for legitimizing anti-terror laws that targeted children who participated in political protests.

When the peace process collapsed after the 7 June elections, the state also showed its hard power, declaring martial law and weeks long curfews in Kurdish cities, arresting politicians, and killing civilians. The existence of tanks, special teams, tear gas, snipers, and drones quickly became a part of everyday life, and we have witnessed a war against the living and the dead alike, supposedly in order to create security, democracy, unity, and order in the oppositional spaces of Turkey. Unfortunately but as expected, large numbers of people still give consent to such atrocities.

Meanwhile, Turkey has also become a scene for the necropolitics of the IS. In Suruç, Diyarbakır, and Ankara, a press meeting, an election rally, and a peace demonstration respectively were attacked by IS suicide bombers, leaving hundreds dead. These suicide bombings primarily targeted Kurds, against whom the IS is waging a war in Syrian Rojava.

Now the question becomes: What happens to populations like Kurds or women or Alevis in Turkey who become the intersecting targets of biopolitics and necropolitics? To what extent can national or international law protect them? Can they protect them at all? To what extent can notions of citizenship, electoral democracy, or any institutions of liberalism address their situation? To what extent can liberal peace processes address issues of security and democracy in such a context?

The answers to such questions in this case are very complicated. For example, norms of peace processes are developed from within a nation-state paradigm, whereas Kurds are spread in four different nations, in each of which they need to be defended against state violence and, now, IS violence. Moreover, in a region of irreducible diversity—where the fact that “citizenship” as a category fails to represent everyone has emerged as an everyday truth; where, as opposed to the west, the liberal imagination of human rights can not be sustained; and where the category of “the population” is also not easily applicable due to continuously permeated boundaries and sovereignties—new political imaginations and institutions are necessary. The question is, then, how can peace, citizenship, or liberal democracy be performed when they cite norms that have less and less grounding in current reality?

As a response to this question, and also inspired by the Rojava revolution in Syria, Kurds have developed the idea and institutions of autonomous self-defense to deal with their situation in the four nation states in which they live. I will conclude by discussing this concept to start a broader debate on how to defend ourselves in the midst of a fourth world war, whose grounding is deepening and whose fronts are extending everywhere in the world.

The concept of self-defense as used by Kurds has different genealogies. First, it refers to the defense of Kurds against state violence and the role that armed guerilla and militia will play in its organization. Second, self-defense is a question of how oppressed people in general will protect their life-worlds against centralization, ecological destruction, patriarchal relations, and capitalism. Finally, it also addresses how societies will produce and reproduce themselves peacefully in the face of new and hybrid wars fought by global powers, states, genocidal organizations, and multi-nationals using violent and non-violent means. Self-defense as opposed to the notion of security involves the democratization of the means of production, reproduction, and violence, and hence implies that social forms should gradually acquire autonomy in processes of decision making, self-production, and security provision without depending on state structures.

Kurds have also developed several methodologies to realize self-defense here and now without expecting a change in international or national law that would give them the legal space to organize themselves. First, they have started to arm themselves in the cities they live to resist arrest and police raids. Second, they have started forming negotiations, alliances, and networks with other Kurds and oppressed groups in Turkey. Finally, they have started creating institutions that develop means of self-governance in areas such as decision making, health provision, and schooling. Kurdish women have also created their own institutions, structures, and networks parallel to these, with the recognition that it is not only capitalism and nation-states but also patriarchy that underline today’s war ideologies.

What is happening in Kurdistan as a result of these developments is a gradual transformation in all aspects of life, most importantly in space, ethics, and work. Spaces are transformed into spaces of resistance, negotiation, and self-organization. A new ethics is emerging that foregrounds solidarity, community, friendship, and internationalism. The work of care and the work of reproduction of those who resist and transform the system becomes more important than wage labor. People in Kurdistan are convinced that survival, defense, and autonomy have become the same things and have the same referents in the context they live in.

Of course, these developments create new problems and new questions that I will not discuss here.

As I finish, I must say that in Turkey and in the Middle East we are going through very difficult times, specifically as women and as oppositional subjects. From what I hear and read, I think this is a general state in a lot of other contexts. Different groups, communities, and identities are trying to come to terms with the wars shaping our life worlds. A debate on how to defend ourselves and society based on our different experiences and responses has become more urgent than ever. I hope that this article has contributed to opening up such a debate.


[1] See, for example, Mark Duffield, Global Governance and the New Wars (London: Zed Books, 2001); Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (second edition) (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2007); Zygmunt Bauman, “Reconnaissance Wars of the Planetary Frontierland,” Theory, Culture, and Society 19 (2002): 82-90.

[2] For biopolitical wars see, for example, Colleen Bell, “Hybrid Warfare and its Metaphors,” Humanity 3.2 (2012): 225- 47, and Brad Evans, “The Liberal War Thesis: Introducing the Key Principles of Twenty-First Century Biopolitical Warfare,” South Atlantic Quarterly 110.3 (2011): 747-56.

[3] Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15 (2003): 11-40.


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