Out of a lawless land…

12 September 2011


The tenth anniversary of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, which we observed yesterday, had many things to teach us. One of the lessons of 11 September that we apparently did not learn, and which we ought therefore to use the anniversary as a reminder for what we did not learn, is that a lawless land is a breeding ground for dangers. Once Afghanistan ceased to a proxy war within the Cold War, and the objective of sticking it to the Russians like they stuck it to us in Viet Nam was achieved, Afghanistan was left to drift.

September 11 was at very least a wake-up call that something must be done about Afghanistan’s lawless drift from mere battles among warlords to haven for international terrorism. Something was done about Afghanistan in particular, but the wider lesson applicable to the wider world was not learned. Afghanistan is at the moment the center of intense international interest. Even local figures can expect their actions to be noted in the international press. It may still be a war torn land, but it is a war torn land than knows that it is at the center of a moment of world history. I think that this makes more of difference that is usually thought, like the early experiments in industrial psychology when the researchers learned that the employees worked harder when they knew they were being studied, even when working conditions were worse as part of the study.

Afghanistan is now an object of study, and it enjoys all the advantages and all the disadvantages of being at the center of attention. Yet other parts of the world are left to drift. Most obviously, and most notoriously, Somalia has been allowed to drift. Somalia has not had a functioning government in more then ten years, and before that the power of the government was marginal at best. Somalia’s drift has left it vulnerable to a variety of ills. There are warlords who oppress the people, there are militants and extremists who want to impose their own vision of society, and there are pirates.

I‘ve written about the pirates on several occasions. One of the first blog posts I wrote that attracted a few readers was The Threat of Piracy: Red Flag in the Indian Ocean. A few ships of various nation-states have been dispatched to the region, but no decisive action has been taken. On the contrary, the pirates are moving on to larger prizes and far larger ransoms. There have been a few notable commando raids to free individual ships, but no action has been taken to get at the root of the problem.

This mystifies me, because it wouldn’t take much to set the pirates back on their heels. As I said, Somalia is a lawless land, adrift among the community of nations. It is almost certain that the major nation-states have intelligence assets within Somalia. One can be sure that the US has a few observers in place just to make sure that there are no organized terrorist training camps being administered within this lawless land, as happened in Afghanistan. But this is far too narrow a focus.

A little bit of open-source research will reveal where the pirates are mostly hiding. Their motherships could easily be tracked by spy satellites. They could be observed by AWACS planes, or whatever the Russians have that serves the same purpose. Sometimes one need not even dig to get to this open-source intelligence: sometimes it comes in the form of headlines or human-interest stories, as when it was reported that young women in Somalia were going to the towns known for piracy because they wanted to marry wealthy men.

Any nation-state could easily act upon this. Even with rudimentary intelligence, the main pirates could be identified, their locations identified, and their networks identified and a commando raid could be launched to capture or kill them. If the US was willing to enter into a (somewhat) functional nation-state for a capture-or-kill raid, it could with impunity go into a non-functioning nation-state like Somalia and virtually eliminate the pirate threat with a few raids. Of course, the problem would grow back again, but, as I wrote above, it wouldn’t take much to rock the pirates back on their heels.

It is possible that some nation-states have worked quietly against the depredations of pirates, but if they have done so, they have been unsuccessful. The presence of the pirates and the boldness and brutality of their raids continues to increase, as evidenced by the recent raid on a safari camp: Kenya shooting leaves British man dead and wife missing, presumed kidnapped.

If not nation-states, why do not private interests act? The major shipping companies have been paying ransoms in the millions. This easy source of money has encouraged the pirates. The money paid out for one ransom could finance a relatively devastating raid by mercenary commandos. Many private intelligence agencies now advertise corporate services (Strategic Forecasting does this, and I think Jane’s Defence also). Some intelligence could be procured in the private sector, mercenaries could be procured in the private sector, and if properly planned and executed, a privately funded raid against pirates could be as effective, and probably enjoy an equal degree of impunity, as any state-sponsored raid.

An obvious response to this is that the shipping companies have much to lose, including the lives of crews, should pirate raids turn punitive. This is true. That is why any action should be suitably devastating — to send a message — and it should preferably be collective, financed by the industry as a whole, so that pirates don’t seek to punish some particular company. Also, any private action should be undertaken on the assumption that further raids may be necessary to drive the point home, and that it may become necessary for some period of time to station commandos on ships passing near the region.

While all of this would be expensive, it would be less expensive than the ransoms that have been paid so far, and it would be less expensive than the ransoms that will be paid in the coming years.

The cost that cannot be counted, however, is the strategic shock that may someday come out of Somalia if the country continues to drift. We have all heard of “narco-states.” Somalia is at risk of becoming a pirate-state. If the peoples and nations of the world need only worry about continuing — even escalating — piracy, that would be one thing, and a rational risk to run. But this is a linear scenario. History rarely works linearly. Usually we are blindsided by history, and when we are, it is all-too-common to see in hindsight that a little preventative effort could have spared a great deal of heartache.

I am not making any specific predictions about what may someday come out of the lawlessness of Somalia, but I am speaking on the general principle that nasty surprises come out of lawlessness allowed to drift, just as Sept. 11 came out of Afghanistan. No reasonable person could have predicted with any precision what did come out of Afghanistan. Similarly, no one can foresee with any precision what may come out of Somalia. We have only the general principle, and the uncertainly of induction that it has happened in the past, and may happen again in the future.

Somalia ought hot to be allowed to drift. If the international community does continue to allow Somalia to drift, no good will come of it.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “Out of a lawless land…”

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  2. Many of the pirates were fishermen who were pushed out of their long established fishing areas. I forget the entire story but I read a lot about it a few years ago. This is the way they are protesting. And, of course, it will become permanent as a way of life for them quickly. Actions have consequences and the ability to assess future consequences has seemingly disappeared. It is all over, not just in lawless lands. But soon they will be also.

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