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What to do About ISIS? Constructing Strategy, Weighing Options

Friday, August 29th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

ISIS or the Islamic StateCaliphate” is the focus  of a great deal of discussion and demands for action from the United Statesand also inactionfrom many quarters.

What is to be done?

That is a famous question.  In matters of geopolitics and strategy, it is more fitting to begin with “Should something be done?”. We need to define the problem before rushing toward solutions. What is ISIS/ISIL/IS  and does it threaten the United States and American interests?:

An evolving offshoot of al Qaida, ISIS is a more radically takfiri, more ambitious and more impatient  jihadi/irhabi offspring than it’s parent. The so-called Islamic State holds sway over considerable Sunni Arab territory in both Syria and Iraq with a makeshift capital at Ar-Raqqah, Syria. Theologically, ISIS is the most extreme Islamist movement to arise since the GIA near the tail end of their 1990′s insurgency in Algeria, regarding the Shia and less radical Sunnis as apostates, deserving of death.  They have carried out genocidal massacres of Yazidis and Shia prisoners of war, tortured and mutilated prisoners and executed noncombatants and hostages like reporter James Foley. Ominously, ISIS may also be an apocalyptic movement, not merely a radical takfiri one, making it far less risk averse, even brazen, in its offensive operations and more intransigently fanatical on defense.

ISIS has been popularly described as an unholy mixture of “al Qaida, the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis”  and also as a terrorist army” by General David Petraeus. While it is true that their ranks probably contain the cream of the world’s Salafi terrorist-jihadi current, terrorism in the form of assassinations and suicide bombings has only been adjunctive to insurgent tactics and conventional combined arms operations. ISIS has shown impressive small unit discipline, the capacity to engage in maneuver warfare with heavy arms against the Kurds, Syrian Army, the Iraqi Army and rival Syrian rebel groups and even special operations skills. ISIS has moved aggressively on the physical, mental and moral levels of war to amass territory for their “caliphate” and consolidate their power and continues to advance, despite being rebuffed from Irbil by the Kurds and US airpower. ISIS is heavily armed with large quantities of advanced modern American and Russian weapons captured from the Iraqi and Syrian armies and is equally well funded, possessing in addition to significant revenue flows, the control of numerous dams and oilfields. Finally, in addition to their manifold war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, ISIS has also made broad, if vague, threats to strike New York, Chicago and Americans generally.

ISIS in a sense is the dream of jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri come to life and gone from strength to strength. If they do not have al-Suri in their ranks, they have his playbook and do not seem to shrink from employing stratagems and speed to achieve surprise.

Having assessed their capabilities, I think it is reasonable to conclude that ISIS is a threat to American interests because they are destabilizing the region, threatening the security of American allies and are regularly causing a grave humanitarian crisis far beyond the normal exigencies of war. It is less clear that they are a direct threat to the security of United States and to the extent that ISIS terrorism is a threat, it is a  modest one,  though greater to Americans and US facilities overseas. The caveat is that the strength and capabilities of ISIS have already grown faster and qualitatively improved more than any other non-state actor in the last forty years and are on a trajectory of further growth. ISIS is unlikely to be better disposed toward American interests if it grows stronger. CJCS General Dempsey, correctly attempted to convey all of these nuances in his remarks to reporters without overstepping his role into advocating a policy to shape our strategy, which is the responsibility of his civilian superiors.

This brings us to the cardinal weakness in post-Cold War American statesmen – an unwillingness to do the intellectual heavy lifting that connects policy and strategy by making the choice to articulate a realistic vision of political ends that are the desired outcome of a decisive use of military force.  The result of this aversion (which is bipartisan – I am not picking on the Obama administration here) is that a strategy is not formulated, much less executed and the military then attempts to remediate the strategic gap with the sheer awesomeness of its operational art. That does not usually work too well, at least on land, because contemporary American civilian and military leaders also do not like to inflict the kind of horrific mass casualties on the enemy that, even in the absence of a real strategy might still cripple through sheer attrition  the enemy’s will or capacity to fight.  The American elite today, in contrast to the generation of FDR, Eisenhower and Truman, have no stomach for Dresden – but defeating Nazis sometimes requires not just a Dresden, but many of them and worse.

However, let’s assume the best, that the Obama administration will, having learned from Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, construct a strategy to use force to accomplish victory – gaining coherent, specific and realistic political objectives. The President, having refreshingly admitted that there is no strategy at present, has freed up his subordinates to create one rather than digging in and defending the current policy that lacks one. Since the administration and nearly everyone else on Earth agrees that ISIS , in addition to being moral monsters, is a threat to at least some degree. the questions then become:

  • How much of a threat is ISIS to American interests or security?
  • What do we want the political end state to be in the Mideast if/when the threat of ISIS is contained, diminished or destroyed?
  • What is it worth to us to accomplish this outcome in light of our other, competing, American interests, in the region and globally?

Once those important questions are answered, the military leadership will have the proper policy guidance to give the administration the best possible advice on how military force could secure their aims or be used in concert with other elements of national power civilian leaders might wish to employ, such as diplomacy, economic coercion or covert operations. Moving forward without answering these questions is an exercise in flailing about, hoping that using sufficient force opportunistically will cause good geopolitical things to happen.

I will not venture to say how or if administration officials will answer such questions, but there are some broad military options the Pentagon might offer to further a strategy to contend with ISIS. Some suggested possibilities and comments:

These options are not all mutually exclusive and in practice some would blend into others. No option is perfect, cost free or without trade-offs. Attempting to find the strategy with no risks and no hard choices is a policy to engage primarily in ineffectual military gesticulations insufficient to actually change the status quo in Iraq and Syria ( and the eternal default strategy of domestic political consultants and career bureaucrats playing at foreign policy).

DO NOTHING:

Doing nothing, or non-intervention is vastly underrated as a strategy because it is passive. However, most of the greatly feared, worst-case scenarios will fail to materialize as predicted because the actors about whom we harbor grave suspicions usually become bogged down by their own friction, miscalculations, internal politics and chance. This is why calling every foreign menace, great and small, the next “Hitler” has lost much of its charge. Run of the mill tyrants and corrupt dictators simply are not Adolf Hitler and their crappy, semi-developed, countries are not to be equated with turning the industrial heart of Europe into a war machine. Avoiding a needless war of choice is usually the smarter play from an economic and humanitarian standpoint.  The drawback to this option is that every once in a while, the menace really is another Hitler, a Bolshevik Revolution or a less than existential threat that nevertheless, is politically intolerable for numerous good reasons.  ISIS barbarism probably falls into the latter category and doing absolutely nothing becomes risky in the face of a fast-rising aggressor and probably politically untenable at home.

CONTAINMENT:

Containing a threat with a combination of coercion, non-military forms of pressure and  limited uses of armed force short of all-out warfare is designed to prevent further expansion until the adversary loses the will or capacity to remain a threat. This defensive posture was the successful American grand strategy of the Cold War against the Soviet Union and is frequently invoked as a less costly alternative for proposed interventions. Admittedly, the idea of keeping Islamist radicals bottled up in a “Sunnistan” composed of the Syrian desert and northern Iraqi towns until they starve or are overthrown and murdered by locals has a certain charm.

Unfortunately, this option is not likely to work because the underlying analogy is extremely poor.  Containment worked in part because Soviet insistence on maintaining the USSR as a totalitarian “closed system” made them exceptionally vulnerable to Containment’s pressure which allowed them no lasting way to resolve their internal economic and political contradictions. ISIS is not the Soviets and their Caliphate is not a closed system, or even yet, a durable state.  Their jihadi cadres can melt away across borders and new recruits can make their way in, as can contraband, money and information. Physically containing ISIS would do nothing toward discrediting their ideas; more likely, their continued existence in the face of powerful Western and Arab state opposition would validate them.  In any event, sealing off ISIS would require the unstinting, sustained, cooperation of  Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf states, Turkey, the Assad regime, the Kurds and a large deployment of American troops. This is probably not doable except on a very short term basis as a prelude to a “final offensive” like the one that crushed the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

PROXY WARFARE:

Enlisting foreign local allies, be they loyalist paramilitaries or state military regulars of various countries offers numerous advantages as well as drawbacks. It provides boots on the ground that we can’t afford, while irregulars like Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militiamen would be highly motivated to fight. The Kurds are also (relatively speaking) well disciplined and trained compared to building units by throwing together ragtag tribesmen and down on their luck Iraqi townsmen looking for a paycheck. Adding overwhelming American airpower to the mix would greatly improve the fighting power of irregular light infantry, as was demonstrated recently when Kurdish and Iraqi forces repeled ISIS from Iraq’s largest dam. Proxy warfare offers a fairly decent chance to roll back ISIS but the downside is that proxies also have their own agendas and would range from “mostly but not entirely reliable” (Kurds) to “freebooting death squads” (Shia militias). As in Afghanistan, we would soon find our proxies were also in the pay of Iran and Saudi Arabia and attempting to play one patron off against the other. Recognizing Kurdish independence would most likely be part of the deal (not a bad thing in my view) which would require repudiating a decade of failed nation-building policy in Iraq ( also not a bad thing) and accepting partition.

LIMITED WARFARE: 

Limited warfare is often disdained because it can seldom produce a resounding victory but it is useful in playing to strengths (ex. relying on a robust air campaign) while  limiting exposure to risks and costs.  Overwhelming firepower can be applied selectively to prevent an adversary’s victory and impose punishing costs, eating up their men and material. Limited warfare works best in conjunction with simple and limited political goals and military objectives and poorly with grandiose visions ( like turning Afghanistan into a liberal democracy and haven of women’ rights). Limited warfare on land, particular grinding counterinsurgency wars that go on for years on end with no clear stopping point, are very difficult for democracies to sustain politically. The electorate grows weary and the troops come home, often short of a permanent political settlement. The likely preference of the administration, if it chose this option, would be an air campaign coupled with drones, CIA covert action and SOF, working in conjunction with local allies.

MAJOR WARFARE:

For existential threats, go heavy or go home. This is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine in pursuit of a decisive battle that does not merely defeat but crushes the enemy and compels him to submit to our will.  It would be extraordinarily expensive in blood, treasure and opportunity costs as the United states military is ill-prepared to re-deploy the bulk of the Army and Marine Corps to Iraq, supported by carrier groups in the Gulf. It is highly questionable that ISIS, whose fighters number somewhere between 10,000 – 20,000 would stand up and try to fight such an mammoth expedition head-on. They would retreat to Syria and dare us to invade that country also or go underground. It is also dubious that American leaders have the kind of iron-hearted will to fight what Gary Anderson accurately describes as “a combined arms campaign of extermination“. ISIS by contrast, demonstrates daily that it has no such scruples restraining them.

GRAND COALITION:

This differs from the previous option only in that it would bring all or most of the aforementioned armed enemies of ISIS together to corner and annihilate the menace once and for all. It makes eminent strategic sense but the ability to bring together so many incompatible parties and weld them into a coordinated military campaign requires political-diplomatic wizardry on the order of genius to pull off. It also requires a much greater sense of fear of ISIS than even their ghoulish brutality has generated so far to bring together Saudi and Shia, Turk and Kurd, Alawite and Sunni rebel, American and Iranian, as military allies.

The Obama administration faces a difficult dilemma in pondering the problem presented by ISIS. I don’t envy them but their task will grow easier and a resultant strategy more likely successful if they are willing to make ruthless choices in pursuit of bottom-line, clearly-defined American interests.

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The Controversial CTC Report

Friday, January 25th, 2013

The Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point released a report on domestic terrorism that raised hackles for a number of reasons. Despite the dismissals of liberal political pundits, the reasons for objections to the CTC report are legitimate but they did not need to arise in the first place and might have been avoided with a slightly different editorial approach or appropriate caveats (I just finished reading the report, which is primarily focused on the usual suspects). Here’s why I think the normally well-regarded CTC stumbled into a hornet’s nest:

First, in this foray into domestic terrorism analysis, the center chose to concentrate only on the threat of violence of the Far Right while ignoring other threats coming from the Far Left, infiltration by criminal insurgent networks from Mexico, notably the ultraviolent Zetas whose reach has stirred gang violence in Chicago and Islamist terrorism, either homegrown “lone wolves” or from foreign infiltration or subversion. In itself, this is understandable if the CTC plans a series of reports with a separate focus on different domestic threats; but without that context, it is a myopic analytic perspective, particularly given the demonstrated capabilities of various AQ affiliates or just south of the border, the criminal-insurgency of  the narco-cartels. Had all of these been addressed in one omnibus report, any complaints from conservatives were likely to have been muted or nonexistent. This is not to say that the radical American Far Right does not have a violent threat potential of it’s own worth studying; it does and it is real. But available evidence indicates it to be the least organized, least operationally active and least professionally competent in terms of terrorist “tradecraft” of the three.

The second and most problematic aspect of the report is an intellectually sloppy definition of a dangerous “antifederalist movement”  where noxious concepts like “white supremacy” and wacko conspiracy theories are casually associated with very mainstream conservative (or even traditionally bipartisan !) political ideas – coincidentally, some of the same ideas that contemporary “big government” liberal elites tend to find irritating, objectionable or critical of their preferred policies. Part of the equation here is that American politics are evolvng into a very bitterly partisan, “low trust” environment, but even on the merits of critical analysis,  these two passages are ill-considered and are largely responsible for most of the recent public criticism of the CTC:

….The antifederalist rationale is multifaceted, and includes the beliefs that the American political system and its proxies were hijacked by external forces interested in promoting a “New World Order” (NWO) in which the United States will be absorbed into the United Nations or another version of global government.  They also espouse strong convictions regarding the federal government, believing it to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights.  Finally, they support civil activism, individual freedoms, and self government

….In contrast to the relatively long tradition of the white supremacy racist movement, the anti-federalist movement appeared in full force only in the early to mid-1990s, with the emergence of groups such as the  Militia of Montana and the Michigan Militia. Antifederalism is normally identified in the literature as the “Militia” or “Patriot” movement. Anti-federalist and anti-government sentiments were present in American society before the 1990s in diverse movements and ideological associations promoting anti-taxation, gun rights, survivalist  practices,and libertarian ideas 

This is taxonomic incoherence, or at least could have used some bright-line specifics ( like “Posse Commitatus” qualifying what was meant by “anti-taxation” activists) though in some cases, such as “libertarian ideas” and “civil activism”, I’m at a loss to know who or what violent actors they were implying, despite being fairly well informed on such matters.

By the standard used in the first paragraph, Glenn Greenwald, Ralph Nader and the ACLU would also be considered “far right antifederalists”. By the standards of the second, we might be in physical danger from Grover Norquist,  Congressman John Dingell and Penn Jillette. No one who opposed the recent increases in income tax rates, dislikes gun-control or thought the DOJ may have abused it’s power in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz or in their stubborn refusal to prosecute Bankster racketeering is likely to welcome a report under the auspices of West Point that juxtaposes such normal and perfectly valid American political beliefs with neo-Nazism. A move that is simply going to – and quite frankly, did – gratuitously irritate a large number of people, including many in the defense and national security communities who are a natural “customer base” for CTC reports.

As I said previously, this could easily have been completely avoided with more careful use of language, given that 99% the report has nothing to do with mainstream politics and is concerned with actors and orgs with often extensive track records of violence. As the CTC, despite it’s independence, is associated so strongly with an official U.S. Army institution, it needs to go the extra mile in explaining it’s analysis when examining domestic terrorism subjects that are or, appear to be, connected to perfectly legitimate participation in the political process. This is the case whether the subject is on the Left or Right – few activists on the Left, for example, have forgotten the days of COINTELPRO and are currently aggrieved by the activities of Project Vigilant.

I might make a few other criticisms of the report, such as the need for a better informed historical perspective, but that is hardly what the recent uproar was about.

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Two Cheers for the State?

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

An excellent post from Adam Elkus – strongly recommended!

The State Problem In National Security Policy

….The report makes a lot of comments about the rise of individual autonomy, the empowering of regional network-cities, and technology’s acceleration of the power of non-state actors. Wired interpreted part of this as signaling a decline of the statewhich has been a popular theme since Martin van Creveld’s work on theTransformation of War. I think that is an accurate characterization of the parts of the 2030 report that talk about the empowerment of non-state actors and the rise of international networks. I’m less interested in the report, though, than in the general narrative of state decline in national security policy discourse.

We’ve heard that states are in decline, and both benign and malign networks and private actors are on the rise. This isn’t a new theme—if you look back a few decades the rise of multinational corporations and the multilaterals prompted a similar debate about sovereignty and power in the modern world. The state-centric defense practitioner is enjoined to move beyond caring about states and embrace a new reality.

…. What we have been dealing with, however, is an unfortunate tendency to write the non-state actor and transnational network out of the last few centuries of history. But he (or she) stubbornly refuses to go away. We can talk about some of the reasons why this might be the case in the international environment but it is also worth talking about why we often assume much more coherence and cohesion in our domestic environment than reality may justify.

….In Charles Tilly’s book Democracy, he argues that four processes are necessary to create and sustain a democratic state: the growth of state capacity by suppressing alternative sources of power, the reduction of categorical inequalities, and the integration of strong tie-based trust networks into public life. Warlords and kingpins that predate make it difficult for rights to be guaranteed. Categorical inequality lessens the ability of the people to meaningfully control their own destiny. And strong trust networks that cannot express themselves in political and social life also have the potential for predation and the erosion of state authority. Tilly casts these processes as never-ending in scope, and states are capable of backsliding on any one of them.

Very rich food for thought.

Trust networks are an interesting way to look at broader social networks and discern, at times, the presence of modularity (and therefore specialized skills, capacities, knowledge etc.) within a looser network structure (weak ties and links vs. highly interconnected sets of hubs with strong ties). We tend to graph these things in simple diagrams, like concentric circles with “al Qaida hard core” in the center, but really, they are more akin to clumping or clotting or uneven aggregation within a less dense field of connections.

Adam is also right that the irregular, the illegal, the tribal, the secret society, the rebellious peasant was largely ignored by nationalistic  historians in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century – and when they came back in vogue in the 1960′s with revisionist, labor, social, cultural etc. schools of historians, they tended to groan under the heavy yoke of dogmatic Marxist class analysis and then later the radical academic obsessions with race, gender and sexual orientation “oppression”. Too seldom, were these people and their doings found to be interesting in themselves so much as puppets for a very tortured, abstract passion play to exorcise demons and pursue petty grudges against other scholars.

In any event, Adam is worth reading in full.

 

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An Insurgency Coming to a Place Near You?

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has taken criticism for Chicago’s skyrocketing homicide rate which stands this year at a shocking 19.4 per 100,000 residents. This is roughly triple the murder rate in New York City, is worse than in perennially crime-ridden Oakland and is within shouting distance of  war-torn Afghanistan and Mexico, which are fighting vicious insurgencies. Even for Chicago, the current level of street violence is unusually brazen.

Chicago has always taken an ambivalent attitude toward it’s enormous, 100,000 strong, network of rival street gangs. Traditionally, part of the social fabric of Chicago’s ethnically divided wards, Chicago’s street gangs were far better organized and more ruthlessly disciplined than street gangs elsewhere, which allowed them a limited entree into participation in local politics. The Chicago Outfit from Al Capone’s day on controlled the votes in the old 1st Ward, ran several near suburbs like Cicero and recruited especially brutal sociopaths from the Forty-Two gang; the legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley in his youth had been a thug for the Hamburg Athletic Club, the Democratic Party’s election-time enforcers in the 11th Ward. In more recent decades, the Black P. Stone Nation/El Rukns were Federal grantees and a number of powerful street gangs today use the Black United Voters of Chicago as a front group and cut-out to make deals with local politicians and swing aldermanic races.

However disturbing the status quo may have been in Chicago, it is potentially changing for the worse. Much worse.

DEA BOSS: MEXICAN DRUG CARTELS ARE SO DEEPLY EMBEDDED IN CHICAGO, WE HAVE TO OPERATE LIKE WE‘RE ’ON THE BORDER’ 

The city may be nearly 2,000 miles from Mexico, but the country’s drug cartels are so deeply embedded in Chicago that local and federal law enforcement are forced to operate as if they are “on the border,” according to Jack Riley, special agent in charge for the Chicago Field Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Because of Chicago’s location in the heart of the United States, its large Mexican population and its abundance of street gang activity, drug cartels have designated the city as one of its main hubs of operation in America, Riley told TheBlaze in an exclusive interview. Inevitably, the increasing presence of cartels has also contributed to the Windy City’s skyrocketing violent crime rates, the DEA boss revealed.

“My opinion is, right now, a number of the Mexican cartels are probably the most organized, well-funded, vicious criminal organizations that we’ve ever seen,” said Riley.

Right now, at least three major Mexican cartels are fighting for control of billions of dollars worth of marijuana, cocaine and heroin in Chicago. That includes the ruthless Zetas and the powerful Sinaloa cartel, run by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, arguably the most wanted man in North America, and perhaps the entire world….

….“If I pitted the Italian organized crime groups against for instance, ‘Chapo’ Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel, it wouldn’t be a fight,” he told TheBlaze. “In my opinion, Chapo Guzman is the new Al Capone or Scarface to Chicago. His ability to corrupt, his ability to enforce his sanctions and to really do with an endless supply of revenue is in my opinion far greater than older Italian organized crime.”

….The drug trafficking organizations are based in Mexico but, he explained, they have operatives in various cities across the nation. In Chicago, local gangs are used by cartels as a means to get their products onto the streets without putting their operations at risk, all the while raking in massive profits from drug sales. Cartels move every drug you can think of, including cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines.

Overall, police records indicate Chicago’s murder rate is up 31 percent from 2011. Further, Mayor Rahm Emanuel in August requested federal assistance to combat violence and drugs. The Chicago Sun-Times reported on Aug. 31 that at least 82 people were injured or killed in shootings within a one week period, 10 in one night alone. Additionally, as of Aug. 23, there had been 351 shooting deaths so far in 2012….

Read the rest here.

The vast profit margin in illegal drug sales and the formidable manpower of Chicago street gangs have led the Mexican cartels to make a strategic choice to stay in the background, as hegemonic partners with local gangbanger street crews and not make the kind of flamboyantly ghoulish “narcocultas” attacks or DIY militarization typical of the Mexican criminal insurgency.  Sharing profits and letting locals run the major risks with law enforcement is a cartel strategy to avoid antagonizing the Federal government into treating their drug operations as ” international terrorism” with the draconian response that would imply, here, inside Mexico and further abroad. The same reason the cartels do not try to kill large numbers of American tourists or assassinate prominent Americans in Mexico, which they could easily do.

However, the cartels could shift from transnational organized crime activities to exporting narco-insurgency to America under a number of scenarios:

  •  Cartel vs. Cartel – a cartel losing to rivals in Mexico breaks the informal rule against high profile attacks inside the US by striking it’s enemies here, inviting a cycle of severe retaliation and drawing in local allies – Mexican Mafia, MS-13 etc.
  • Federal Squeeze – law enforcement gets really serious about systemically destroying a particular cartel, rooting out it’s illicit money stashed in the US banking system and legal investments and jailing everyone in sight under RICO and extraditing everyone else from Mexico. The narcos will employ “silver or lead” tactics to intimidate and co-opt local officials and whole communities and then escalate into symbolic terrorism.
  • US Intervention – American assistance to the government of Mexico against the cartels tips the balance in Mexico’s civil war to what the cartels see as an existential threat ( i.e. drone targeted killings) and the narcos respond with furious attacks against American soft targets intending to create high body count events.

There is nothing magical about the US-Mexican border that prevents the ghastly violence in Mexico from occurring here – it is a rational calculation by cartel leaders that such behavior is not worth the risk of a stand-up fight with the US military and intelligence agencies – the cartels are only just holding their own against the lesser capabilities of the government of Mexico However, if cornered and desperate, the cartels are capable of rapidly escalating the violence in specific American communities to 2006 -2007 Iraq insurgency levels – in places like Chicago. It could happen faster than anyone believes possible.

The political effect of this will be a riptide – and none of it to the good.

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Warlords Revisited

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

“The horror! The horror!

Charles Cameron sparked a discussion with his doublequotes post on two colonels, the late strategist John Boyd and the fictional monster,  Walter Kurtz from Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Vietnam War film homage to Joseph Conrad Apocalypse Now.  Kurtz is a disturbing figure, one who is recurrent in literature and history going back to Homer’s Iliad. A superlative warrior who excels above all others who nonetheless sheds all trace of civilization in his descent into barbarism. While the fall of a heroic individual can take many narrative forms, Kurtz is of a particular and dreaded kind of fallen man, the warlord.

Warlords are fascinating and repellent figures who seem to thrive best when the normal order of a society is breaking down, permitting the strong and ruthless to carve out their reputations in blood and infamy. As I have written previously:

Kent’s Imperative had a post up that would have been worthy of Coming Anarchy:

Enigmatic biographies of the damned 

“….Via the Economist this week, we learn of the death of an adversary whose kind has nearly been forgotten. Khun Sa was a warlord who amassed a private army and smuggling operation which dominated Asian heroin trafficking from remotest Burma over the course of nearly two decades. In the end, despite indictment in US courts, the politics of a failed state permitted him to retire as an investor and business figure, and to die peacefully in his own bed.

The stories of men such as these however shaped more than a region. They are the defining features of the flow of events in a world of dark globalization. Yet these are not the biographies that are taught in international relations academia, nor even in their counterpart intelligence studies classrooms. The psychology of such men, and the personal and organizational decision-making processes of the non-state groups which amassed power to rival a princeling of Renaissance Europe, are equally as worthy of study both for historical reasons as well as for the lessons they teach about the nature of empowered individuals.

….There are no shortage of warlords for such a study. Among the living we have Walid Jumblatt, the crafty chief of the Druze during the 1980′s civil war in Lebanon, the egomaniacal and democidal Charles Taylor of Liberia, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar the Islamist mujahedin commander and a large assortment of Somali, Colombian, Indonesian and El Salvadoran militiamen and paramilitaries. The history of the twentieth century alone offers up such colorful characters as “The Dogmeat General“, the ghoulishly brutal Ta Mok of the Khmer Rouge, “The Mad Baron” Ungern von SternbergCaptain Hermann Ehrhardt and Pancho Villa among many others.

What would such a historical/cross-cultural/psychological “warlord study” reveal ? Primarily the type of man that the German journalist Konrad Heiden termed “armed bohemians”. Men who are ill-suited to achieving success in an orderly society but are acutely sensitive to minute shifts that they can exploit during times of uncertainty, coupled with an amoral sociopathology to do so ruthlessly. Paranoid and vindictive, they also frequently possess a recklessness akin to bravery and a dramatic sentimentality that charms followers and naive observers alike. Some warlords can manifest a manic energy or regularly display great administrative talents while a minority are little better than half-mad gangsters getting by, for a time, on easy violence, low cunning and lady luck.

Every society, no matter how civilized or polite on the surface, harbors many such men within it. They are like ancient seeds waiting for the drought-breaking rains.

There are occasionally positive portrayals of warlords. Ahmed Shah Massoud, “the Lion of Panjshir” who fought tenaciously first against the Soviets, then later against the murderous Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s army of thugs and the Taliban’s fanatics, providing a modicum of civilized governance to ordinary Afghans wherever his power ran, until his assassination by al Qaida. The cagey and mercurial Walid Jumblatt, made the transition from Druze warlord in the 1980′s to Lebanese politician and something of an elder statesman.

In literature, Xenophon was the de facto strategos of the retreating Greek mercenaries in The Anabasis of Cyrus, cut a noble example, but like Massoud, this is a rarity. In recent fiction, Stephen Pressfield created as an antagonist in The Profession, General James Salter, a totemic and caesarian figure who takes on the great powers with his PMC forces with impressive ruthlessness. In the popular fantasy series of George R.R. Martin that began with The Game of Thrones, the notable warlord is the outlandish, cruel and somewhat demented Vargo Hoat, who leads a freebooting company of misfit brigands “The Brave Companions“, whose nonstop atrocities and ludicrous pretensions lead all the other characters to call them “the Bloody Mummers“.

Given the world’s recent experiences with the Lord’s Resistance Army, General Butt Naked and the uprisings in Syria and Libya, I think Martin and Coppola have captured warlordism in it’s most frequent incarnation.

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