Under international law, people who fight not in uniform and not as part of an organized military unit with a responsible chain of command are not “soldiers,” and if captured are not “prisoners of war.” They can be treated as “unlawful combatants,” which is to say treated very badly indeed. As applied to soldiers who take off their uniforms and keep fighting disguised as civilians, these rules are certainly just.
But it now seems likely that, in conquering and temporarily occupying Iraq, our troops are going to run into people not in uniform firing at them. The impulse will be to call such people “terrorists.”
Go ahead and do so, if it makes you feel better. But you’d better be ready to apply the same label to the un-uniformed Hungarians who threw Molotov cocktails at Russian tanks in 1956, to the members of the French, Norwegian, and Czech resistance against the Nazis, and to Francis Marion’s irregulars.
Independent of the justification for this war, people fighting in their own country against invading or occupying troops ought to be called “resistance fighters.” (Again, this doesn’t apply to soldiers or police who have simply shed their uniforms and kept fighting.) Only when they start shooting at civilians is it legitimate to call them terrorists.
As a legal matter, irregulars are not entitled to POW status. And of course someone wielding a weapon deprives himself of non-combatant status and can be killed in action just like a regular soldier. But that doesn’t mean that guerrilla fighters deserve to be treated, as terrorists deserve to be treated, like common criminals or worse.
Note that this has nothing to do with the “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” argument. Yes, terrorism has been used in some good causes, such as the overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and in fact some of what Marion’s irregulars did, such as burning the houses of loyalists, and some of what the Resistance did, deserved the label “terrorism.” Whether terrorism is ever justified is a different question. My point here is much narrower: shooting at soldiers who are invading or occupying your country (or for that matter shooting at the soldiers or police forces of a government you’re trying to overthrow) is not morally the same as terrorism, and doesn’t deserve the same treatment.
I don’t think that Afghanis out of uniform who shot at Russian troops were terrorists, and I don’t think that Afghanis out of uniform who shot at American troops were terrorists. The same is true in Iraq.