The Economics of Insurgency from Ireland to Israel

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The IRA is having a problem putting down its guns, even though most of those it claims to represent have long since turned against violence. Over in Spain, the militant Basque separatists of the ETA present the same problem. NATO plans to disarm Albanian rebels in Macedonia appear somewhat optimistic, despite last week's political peace agreement. And the Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad appear to have no shortage of young Palestinians willing to blow themselves up in order to make a bloody political point.

Is there a connection? While each armed conflict arises out of unique political circumstances, the economics of insurgency may be similar all over the world. In a nutshell, it's not really a middle class pursuit. Give a young man a gun and show him how to use it, and unless you can later show him a viable career alternative you may have a devil of a time wresting it away from him. After all, besides the passionate embrace of a political cause and the testosterone thrill of meting out violence, insurgency often also represents a viable career path to those otherwise mired in grinding poverty.

Take Colombia, for example: A young boy or girl in rural Putumayo has the choice between the despairing poverty of peasant life, cultivating coca for sale to narco-traffickers, or joining the wealthiest guerrilla army in history, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia which is believed to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars every year from "taxing" the narcotics industry. They're well-fed, well-armed, and are even reported to take seaside vacations in Panama. Life in the FARC can be dangerous, of course — it is, after all, an army at war. But not necessarily more dangerous than peasant life in the war zone, and at least in the FARC you're armed. It's hardly surprising, then, that despite the government's multibillion-dollar U.S.-backed counterinsurgency efforts, the guerrilla army has no shortage of recruits.

The success of Macedonia's insurgency may lie partly in the fact that when Albanian nationalists in Kosovo first sent a guerrilla army into the impoverished former Yugoslav republic, they found a huge pool of young Albanian men willing to join up. They were driven by a long-held sense of political and cultural grievance against the Macedonian authorities. But for many, the decision may have been made easier by the mass unemployment that left little hope of finding a job. Guerrillas always imagine themselves in heroic terms, and they have a sense of purpose that beats sitting around waiting in vain to find work. Macedonia's problems may be primarily political, but the absence of economic growth — and the hope of a better life through hard work and entrepreneurship — may make it a lot harder to solve those political problems now that many young men have tasted life under arms.

The poverty and despair of daily life in the West Bank and Gaza certainly makes young Palestinian men more receptive to the monstrous promises made by Hamas and Islamic Jihad that suicide bombers earn a their way into a kind of heavenly VIP lounge, complete with the bizarre guarantees of salvation for 70 of their relatives and the right to have their way with 70 virgins in paradise. And yet the fundamentalist movements of Afghanistan and Egypt are a reminder that the most extreme distortions of Islam tend to gestate in situations of the most extreme social and economic conditions.

Even for the non-suicidal insurgent, the allure of arms often trumps the bleak career alternatives of civilian life. From Sierra Leone and Angola to Mozambique and Somalia, many of Africa's Cold War-era guerrilla armies simply mutated into bandit gangs whose only purpose was to protect and extend their business interests.

The longer an insurgent's career, the more difficult it becomes to contemplate disarming — and that's precisely the problem with the IRA and ETA. Ireland and Spain today are two of the fastest growing economies of Europe, and young people reared in the increasingly prosperous EU culture are increasingly disdainful of separatist struggles, much less those pursued by arms. The hard men of the IRA and ETA are relics of a past era, but it's not hard to see why they cling to that past. When a nationalist movement moves from insurgency towards politics, the power tends to shift from those who're good with their fists to those who're good with words. And as the current standoff over the long-silent IRA weapons shows, the hard men are sometimes reluctant to cede the role they play in an armed insurgency.

Still, the wider economic context in Ireland and Spain has marginalized the men of war. Eventually they simply become a nuisance factor. But the economic context in the Balkans and the Middle East, for example, is quite different. Macedonia's fragile peace has plenty of potentially fatal flaws that could cause its collapse, and the stagnant economy hardly provides a reassuring foundation for the brave new state envisaged in the political agreement. And while economics has little direct impact on the fact that Israel and the Palestinians are moving daily further away from a return to the peace process, the near-total collapse of the Palestinian economy makes prospects for its revival even more remote.