Summary of the workshop The Urbanisation as an Instrument of War

After the workshop The urbanisation as an instrument of war (L’urbanisation comme instrument de guerre. Paris, 7 april 2016), I would like to share a brief summary of the presentations that we had the pleasure to hear.




Oliver Belcher (Durham University, Dpt of Geography)

Anatomy of a Village Razing: Counterinsurgency and Community Violence in Afghanistan

In the autumn of 2010, the US military conducted an operation code-named “Dragon Strike” in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. During the operation, several villages in Arghandab, Zhari, and Panjwai districts were razed in what was described as an act of “self-defense” by the U.S. military who were confronting IEDs and losing casualties during daily patrols in the villages. One particularly egregious example was the village of Taraki Kolacha in Arghandab province, where thirty-six structures and the surrounding pomegranate orchards were bombed to rubble in October 2010. In this presentation, I outline the circumstances that led to the razing of Taraki Kolacha, as well as the failed reconstruction effort by the U.S. military to rebuild a “model village” as compensation for the displaced villagers. The paper is based on extensive interviews with U.S. military and civilian advisors to the Afghan district and provincial governors, as well as tribal elders in Taraki Kolacha. I focus specifically on a novel technique used by the U.S. military and civilian advisors to draw property lines and reconfigure land rights in Arghandab as a way to reconfigure power relations between the villagers and Western-supported governors in the area.


Elie Tenenbaum (Centre des Études de Sécurité, IFRI)

From counterinsurgency to rural development: the Strategic Hamlet Program in South Vietnam

In February 1962, the government of South Vietnam, headed by catholic leader Ngo Dinh Diêm decided to engage in a counterinsurgency program that would prove his last endeavor: the strategic hamlet program. Inspired by a variety of influence, but most of all the British “New Villages” in Malaya, the strategic hamlets were supposed to reshape and polarize Vietnamese rural communities around self-defended modernized hamlets that would be capable of resisting any influence of the National Liberation Front (NLF). In this, it was an expression of a new vision of counterinsurgency – sponsored by the Kennedy administration in the United States – that would see social engineering and economic modernization as policy tools more adapted to the challenges of counterinsurgency than traditional security measures. However the program suffered from shortcomings and wrongdoings from its start and the downfall of the Diem regime in November 1963 only precipitated its total collapse.



Centres de regroupement en Algérie / Source:

Fabien Sacriste (Université de Toulouse, FRAMESPA)

Des regroupements ‘définitifs’ ? Le Commissariat à la Reconstruction et à l’Habitat Rural pendant la guerre d’indépendance algérienne (1954/1962)

Dans le contexte de la guerre d’indépendance, le « regroupement » désigne une pratique militaire et administrative consistant à déplacer des populations rurales vers des « centres de regroupement », encadrés et surveillés par l’armée française. Cette stratégie, censée limiter les rapports entre Algérien-ne-s et soldats de l’Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN), doit également aider l’autorité française à mieux contrôler, en la concentrant dans l’espace, une population coloniale qui lui échappe parce qu’elle vit en habitat épars. Massivement pratiqué – plus de deux millions d’Algérien-ne-s sont concernés à la fin du conflit –, le regroupement a surtout conduit à la multiplication de « camps de réfugiés » sur tout le territoire algérien. Pourtant, de 1959 à 1961, le gouvernement français présente ces regroupements comme autant de possibles « nouveaux villages » qui pourraient favoriser l’émergence d’une « Algérie nouvelle » – et permettrait ainsi de préserver la souveraineté française sur la colonie. Comment faut-il interpréter cette politique, dite « des Mille villages », compte tenu de son origine stratégique et administrative – et du fait que sa pratique, sur le terrain, reste essentiellement militaire jusqu’à la fin de la guerre ?

Créé initialement pour « reconstruire » Orléansville (Algérois) après le séisme de 1954, le Commissariat à la Reconstruction et à l’Habitat Rural (CRHR) reçoit dès 1957 la mission de coordonner la construction des « regroupements définitifs » – puis, après 1959, celle de participer, au côté de l’Inspection générale des Regroupements de Populations (IGRP), à la création des « nouveaux villages ». L’étude de cette institution, de ses idées et de ses actions, permettra de mieux cerner les différents enjeux de cette politique du « regroupement définitif » : associant déplacement forcé, urbanisation et développement rural, ils oscillent constamment entre légitimation et propagande, tentative de reprise en main par l’autorité civile d’une pratique surtout militaire, et (mais dans une moindre mesure)  croyance en l’idée qu’une transformation sociale et économique radicale du milieu rural est la seule solution au conflit algérien.


Samaneh Moafi (Goldsmiths College, Forensic Architecture)

The earth scorched: Environmental violence in the Ixil territory (Guatemala)

Between 1960 and 1996 Guatemala underwent one of the longest and most brutal of Latin America’s dirty-wars. The UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) estimated that more than two hundred thousand people were victims of massacres, extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances during the conflict, most of them indigenous Mayan peoples. In 97% of the cases of atrocities and human rights violations documented by CEH, the perpetrators were state security forces, military or military organized civil militias. The most violent period in the conflict took place in the early 1980s in the Mayan territories of the Guatema’s west highlands, peaking during the dictatorships of General Lucas Romeo García (1978-82) and General Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83). As the state vowed to wage a “war without limits” to eradicate rural guerrillas, Mayan communities were put under military occupation and subjected to consecutive counterinsurgency operations whose defining character was the indiscriminate killing of civilians and the wholesale destruction of indigenous villages and towns. One of the most vicious elements of this counterinsurgency was the widespread use of “scorched-earth” offensives. In the wake of systematic massacres perpetrated against unarmed civilians, the military went on burning hundreds of villages and agricultural fields, slaughtering animals, and clearing vast tracts of forests. The Ixil people, a Maya group native to the Quiché region, was one of the indigenous ethnicities most severely affected. The CEH estimated that 70% to 90% of Ixil communities that existed before the violence were completely destroyed, and concluded that “acts of genocide, which were inspired by a strategic determination that was also genocidal in nature”, had taken place.

In this paper, Forensic Architecture, a University of London based (Goldsmiths) research organization dedicated to the spatial analysis of human rights violations, provides a cartographic analysis of the violence inflicted by state security forces on the Ixil Maya people between 1978 and 1983, in particular focusing on the period of the dictatorship of Lucas García (1978-1982). The paper synthesizes disparate datasets into a coherent chronologicalspatial narrative of these events, describing the fundamental role that the built and natural environment played within forms of state-violence against the Ixil people. Information about military manoeuvring, sites of massacres, destroyed communities, and trajectories of displacement are geographically located and analysed in relation to territorial and environmental transformations. By placing multiple evidence in relation to each other in time and space, and analysing their impacts on the modes of inhabitation of the Ixil people, the following mappings present the matrix of an “environmental strategy” designed to dismantle, destroy and transform the social and cultural geography of the Ixil territory to suit the aims of state-control.













Pamela Colombo (Marie Sk-Curie, EHESS, Iris)

Vivre les espaces de vie forcée : une étude sur la vie quotidienne au sein des villages stratégiques en Argentine

Dès les premières années de la Guerre Froide, la population civile a joué un rôle essentiel au sein des politiques contre-insurrectionnelles : l’objectif n’était simplement de détruire les guérillas, mais de remporter aussi les « cœurs et les esprits » des populations. Dans cette communication, nous examinerons les effets sociaux de la construction des « villages stratégiques » en Argentine pendant la dictature militaire (1976-1983). Cette stratégie militaire a eu pour but principal la création de villages ex nihilo, pour y déplacer de force la population rurale vivant dans la zone contrôlée par la guérilla. L’urbanisation forcée permettrait en effet de rompre le lien entre les mouvements de guérilla et la population civile et ainsi de mieux contrôler la population.

Si ce programme de contre-insurrection a conçu les espaces urbains comme des instruments de guerre, quel type de subjectivité se développe alors quand la vie quotidienne est créée dans des espaces de vie contraints ? Comment les habitants s’approprient-ils ces villages ou y résistent-ils ? Quelles sont les caractéristiques d’un espace urbain pensé et conçu pour empêcher les populations de soutenir la guérilla ? Comment ces espaces sont-ils utilisés une fois les situations de guerre terminées ? En se basant en des entretiens approfondis avec les habitants des quatre villages créés par les militaires en la province argentine de Tucumán, on analysera notamment l’impact de l’urbanisation forcée en leurs pratiques spatiales et politiques actuelles.


Finn Stepputat (Danish Institute for International Studies)

Revisiting the concept of strategic villages in the Guatemalan civil war

This paper gives an overview of how the concept of strategic villages was put into practice as part of the Guatemalan army’s counterinsurgency programs between 1982 and 1992, and with what effects. Based on extensive fieldwork among Guatemalan refugees, returnees, and former members of civil patrols of self-defence from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, I distinguish between the relatively rare ‘strategic villages’ proper – called ‘development poles’ – and the more general militarization of the level of villages in areas of insurgency where the army organized ‘patrullas de auto-defensa civil’. As I argued in writings in the late 1990s, the army built on the local, modernized forms of organization at village-level that had been cultivated first by the Catholic Church and since then by the insurgency. In the wake of the war, development organizations and village populations have continued these efforts to ‘urbanize’ the countryside beyond the municipal capitals.

The question is how this analysis, informed by writings of de Certeau, Foucault and others, stands the test of time as new theoretical approaches have developed, and we have seen renewed versions of the strategic village concept being deployed in other contexts of counterinsurgency.

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