Academic journal article Military Review

The New Legs Race: Critical Perspectives on Biometrics in Iraq

Academic journal article Military Review

The New Legs Race: Critical Perspectives on Biometrics in Iraq

Article excerpt


THE UNITED STATES MILITARY faces a dual challenge in stability operations currently underway in Iraq. First, it must meet an immediate need by securing its own forces against an increasingly active and effective insurgency. Second, it must pursue the long-term political objective of state building, or democracy promotion and construction, transforming Iraq into the first domino of the heretofore elusive democratic peace in the region. (1) Unfortunately for the military, the proposed solutions to maintaining force safety in a dangerous political setting and fundamentally altering that setting are often mutually exclusive.

Biometric technologies represent, at best, a one-dimensional solution that not only fails to take into account one side of the dilemma, but also inhibits progress on the other side. Biometric technologies address the compressed timeframe under which the U.S. military operates in Iraq by bringing vanguard human identification and tracking capabilities to bear on a highly fluid and increasingly sophisticated insurgency operating among a population of over 26 million civilians. However, several political and social theories, including critical, realist, and structuration, suggest that the introduction of biometric identification and surveillance in Iraq will produce dubious results that make democratization less likely. These results range from a wider gap in civil-military relations in Iraq to the haunting prospect of a biometrically facilitated mass slaughter.

I propose that biometric solutions to U.S. stability operations requirements highlight a fundamental paradox of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Mounting time constraints, caused by both the speed of the insurgency and American domestic political pressure, force the military to choose short-term tactical expediency over long-term political success. Biometrics offer a symptomatic nexus of the military's dilemma from which to analyze the paradox posed by larger, longer-term American political goals and the more temporally and spatially limited contexts in which they are to be achieved.

Smaller and Faster

Overtime, U.S. stability operations objectives have changed very little. In operations in Mexico, Panama, the Philippines, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq, recurring themes have included "population control in general, suppression of residual resistance, resettlement of displaced noncombatants, rejuvenation of supply and distribution systems, infrastructure repair and institutional reform. "(2) While in contemporary discourse "democracy promotion" and the "battle for hearts and minds" have been liberally substituted for more explicit lists, the fundamental ends of stability operations remain the same. (3)

What distinguishes the current generation of operations from prior incarnations is the greater compression of temporal and spatial contexts in which U.S. forces operate. Iraq's densely populated cities, such as Baghdad, Fallujah, and Najaf, provide havens for insurgents who can move with great fluidity through urban environments. More historically distinctive, the ubiquity of cell phones and increased Internet access also facilitate faster coordination and communication among all Iraqi inhabitants. The nature of asymmetric attacks, mainly by suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), inherently constricts the time the military has to assess and meet the insurgent threat. Constructing bombs in backrooms can be done individually and with scant indication of imminent danger compared to massing troops and weaponry along a front. Furthermore, since they can blend in with the citizenry in a highly populated urban setting, insurgents effectively shrink the military's space--an attack can come from any one person anywhere.

Biometrics: Promise, Problems, and Body Parts

From a tactical perspective, biometric technologies offer a tantalizing chance to check the enemy's temporal and spatial flexibility--to know where he or she is at any time. …

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