Racial Hierarchies and the War on Terror

Paul Higate argues that ‘counter-terrorism’ strategy in Afghanistan and elsewhere has been grounded in persistent ideas of racial hierarchy that value the lives of ‘deserving’ British troops well above those of contracted foreign personnel, let alone ‘disposable’ local allies and proxies.

Let’s be clear. The US and its allies are not withdrawing from Afghanistan but rather, are changing the ways in which they engage with the country through a ‘redistribution of imperial power’. This means both an increasing use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones and the (deniable) deployment of Special Forces (SF) into the country alongside attempts – facilitated through sympathetic proxies on the ground – to foment resistance to the Taliban. Whether from thousands of feet in the air, or within close proximity to an ‘operative’ on the ground, the logics of these so-called targeted killing and their dehumanised victims remain largely unchanged through the latter’s consistent framing as ‘terrorist’.

Race, power and masculinities

The foundational premise for these pre-emptive actions is that some bodies are more disposable than others, with the terrorist occupying the lowest reaches of an informal hierarchy, which has at its top ‘our’ armed forces ‘boys and girls’. Humanised through the media as sons, fathers, mothers and daughters, death and injury amongst military personnel resonates differently on account of the worthy sacrifices they have made for ‘our’ state, in stark contrast to the self-serving acts of a medieval, primitive and distant enemy. It is through public displays of respect made towards ‘the fallen’ as their funeral corteges move solemnly along the streets of Royal Wootton Basset and more recently, Carterton near Brize Norton, that the former’s bodies are revered in life as well as in death.

Reflecting on the question of rupture and continuity in Western engagements with Afghanistan over the last two decades, in direct regard to the disposability of bodies and the informal hierarchies of importance within which they are located, I was reminded of ethnographic fieldwork I conducted in Kabul in the summer months of 2011. My focus was on Private Military and Security Companies (PMSC), in particular why it was that a number of them exacerbated insecurity for host populations. This had been highlighted in the notorious Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad, where a Blackwater convoy protection team killed 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians in 2007.

At the centre of the analysis were questions of masculinity and the role it played in how far those men working for security companies behaved sensitively towards the local population. As the research progressed, it became clear that to make any real sense of gender, identity and professional practice, it was crucial to consider the role of race and power as it intersected with masculinity in this violent context.

Imperial topographies: the British Embassy

Western assets are typically presented as key sites of risk within Afghanistan and elsewhere; embassies around the world are seen as symbolic targets, justifying heightened levels of security. The extreme levels of fortification of the US Embassy in Kabul were a case in point and are mirrored in many ways by the British Embassy which was also surrounded by seemingly impenetrable razor wire, vehicle chicanes, checkpoints and a wider HESCO festooned security landscape. However, the tendency to focus solely on these defences masks their deeply racialised elements.

Like many other embassies in Afghanistan’s so-called ‘international zone’ – itself a moniker redolent of ideas of imperial and liberal occupation – the British embassy configured security through concentric boundaries that radiated out from the main complex of buildings.

Comprised of relatively crude vehicle checkpoints and barriers, the outer ring was ‘manned’ by local Afghan men who were provided with little in the way of protection from the vicissitudes of the region’s weather or, crucially, violent attacks (either with weaponry and/or IEDs). Invariably it was these actors who were most vulnerable to death or injury from ‘enemy insurgents’, whose attacks were largely, yet violently tokenistic given their limited chance of overwhelming the inner sanctums of the embassy complex.

Identifiable through its numerous watchtowers or elevated observation posts was the second line of defence, occupied by those loosely referred to as ‘Ghurkas’. Unlike their more vulnerable Afhgan peers, ‘Ghurkas’ working shifts in the fortified, elevated observation posts would have a commanding view of any unfolding attack. The relative security afforded to the ‘Ghurkas’ (as well as their superior pay) is in part derived from their respected status as members of a ‘martial race’ replete with a lengthy track-record of honorable British military service.

The final or inner layer of security at this time involved former British military police and military personnel who were equipped with superior equipment, access to hardened shelters referred to as ‘safe rooms’ in the rare instance that the first two levels of security were breached, the use of B6 armoured SUVs, modern weaponry and lighter and more effective bullet proof vests.

In microcosm then, the British embassy’s policing arrangements were organized according to race whereby the Afghans’ disposability was taken for granted in contrast to that of the white policing contractor whose life was relatively protected in this security topography.

Disposable, undeserving bodies

What I have argued here is that the disposability of bodies is influenced by a number of factors; prime amongst them is race. Whether it be poorly paid Sierra Leonean security contractors guarding compounds in Iraq with unsafe and sometimes dangerous equipment, or Afghan guards in Kabul on the front line of insecurity, racialised logics of hierarchy persist.

Yet, at the same time these logics are applied selectively. Amputations and executions perpetrated by the Taliban as ‘punishment’ are said to belong to the brutal “dark ages”, while the use of similar kinds of violence by the Saudi Arabian authorities is elided in mainstream media and government circles. The disposability of (raced) bodies maps rather precisely on to Ruthie Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism where she argues that states produce groups vulnerable to premature death. In this sense, organising the world into deserving and undeserving bodies stands as a key point of continuity animating the violent interventions of the powerful militaries of the global North. There is no reason to think that the relative insecurities of these raced others – an integral dimension of this violence – is likely to change any time soon.


Paul Higate is Professor in Conflict and Security at the University of Bath. Paul served in the Royal Air Force for 8 years prior to coming into academia. His subsequent research has focused on masculinity and military culture across a range of contexts including peacekeeping, homelessness and private military security companies. In recent years Paul has been looking at militarism in the UK.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Sgt Ross Tilly RAF, MoD, Crown Copyright, 2015. Soldiers from the Royal Gurkha Regiment stood guard around the Cenotaph. Armisitice Day was marked by Servicemen and women from the Armed Forces, veterans and members of the public at the Cenotaph on the 11th November 2015.

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