Mercenaries, pirates and other loveable rogues; or, how the desire to make a quick buck can change strategic outcomes

Money makes the world go round. For all that this is an ancient, not to mention disputed, adage, it’s hard to deny it stems from certain cold hard truths. Even for nation states, entities supposedly formed to defend the rights and interests of a group of culturally and linguistically related people, the whole sorry exercise frequently collapses into a money-making scheme. Mafia links to government leaders, a ‘revolving door’ between corporate boardrooms and national parliaments, even dictators who simply strip their countries’ assets and shift them into offshore accounts (yes, #Panamapapers, but also many other egregious examples stretching back much farther) – all of them demonstrate the simple yet powerful allure of the Almighty Dollar. Or Pound Sterling, or Yuan, or Euro, or Ruble, or… You get the idea.
Certainly this can have significant, and often devastating, effects on a state’s development, and even survival. How do you fight a war when your military is not properly trained, armed and equipped due to endemic corruption? (1) The less obvious damage, to education, healthcare, infrastructure etc can be even more damaging and long lasting. Corruption, as a result of sheer human greed, is a catastrophic problem for states around the globe.
But what about those who take a more direct approach to money making, and their impact on global strategic outcomes?
There is a reason that creators of fiction, whether novels, movies or even video games, love a certain type of character. I refer to the swashbuckling pirate captain, the salt spray swirling around him as he stands on the bridge of his ship, bearing down on his next unfortunate victim. To the bandolierswathed mercenary, hard eyes and stubbled jaw, rifle clutched in sinewy hands as he stalks through the African bush. To the wily mafia boss, sharp suit and dark glasses, sipping expensive Scotch in a wood-panelled office, bought with his ill-gotten gains.
These are all stereotypes, of course. The pirate captain rarely had a career of more than a few years before death in one form or another caught up with him. William Kidd, one of the archetypal examples of the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, had a run of less than five years before he was arrested in Boston, sent back to England and eventually hanged for his crimes (2). The mercenary is often killed in combat, his being a particularly perilous job, or captured and tried as a criminal rather than treated as a prisoner of war, since mercenaries are afforded no such rights even under UN regulations (3). And the mafia boss is as likely to be killed by his rivals, within or without his own organization, as to be arrested by the law enforcement agencies of the state, still the most powerful enemy against which to risk pitting yourself, at least in most corners of the world.
What then is the point of discussing such actors in the context of global strategy? Well the fact is that, far from the pop-culture caricatures they may usually be portrayed as, all of these figures can, and have, and will, be used by states themselves to further grand strategic objectives. Sometimes this brings stunning success with airtight plausible deniability, or absolutely minimal cost, or even both. Other times it ends in total, abject failure and recrimination.
Either way though their presence and actions are worth factoring in to any discussion of global strategic history, forecasts or policies.
Take pirates. Even now there are worries that the lull enjoyed in the past few years, in particular off the Somali coast, may soon end, and of the colossal costs this could have for global trade (4). How strategically significant this may prove is difficult to calculate given the myriad different variables involved. Historically, however, piracy has been used very clearly as a strategic tool, characterized by the same level of cynicism as any other field of international relations. The corsairs of the Barbary coast, the scourge of Mediterranean shipping for many centuries, survived for so long in no small part due to the various Christian European powers using them as de facto proxy forces in the constant European wars and power games of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this fashion the European naval powers, especially England and France, used just enough force and diplomacy to convince the rulers of the corsair cities that they were not worth the trouble, thus shifting the pirates’ attentions to the shipping of weaker powers and making their own commerce more effective. ‘Just enough corsairs to eliminate our rivals, but not too many’ was the ideal balance, as summed up by the French in a 1729 memorandum (5).
Privateering, the practice of commissioning civilian vessels to act against one’s enemies in times of war, was the Age of Sail’s equivalent of modern military contracting. By simply granting a captain a commission allowing him to attack enemy shipping and receive rewards for doing so a nation could effectively offload many of the costs of naval warfare onto these private ships, allowing for a massive expansion of their naval activity as long as the war continued. The problem, as was often foreseen by naval officers at the time, was that once the war in question ended some such privateers, or at least portions of their crews, would be reluctant to return to the harsher and less profitable work on merchant ships or whatever life they had left behind. These men would often continue their maritime adventures without official sanction, becoming pirates in some cases effectively overnight. This could lead to varying degrees of international friction as countries were often slow to rein in their own (former) privateers while being quick to launch vigorous diplomatic complaints when other nations’ citizens turned pirate.
These lines were often blurred anyway as, apart from the apparent ease of conscience and behaviour with which some men, and indeed entire crews, would drift back and forth between commissioned privateer and freebooting pirate, the issuing of commissions and the uses to which they were put were often vague. The commission under which Henry Morgan, arguably the most famous of the privateers to ply their trade in the late seventeenth century, committed some of his most famous feats against the Spanish was not signed for him until several months after the Treaty of Madrid had established peace between Britain and Spain. That the treaty was signed in July of 1670 and Morgan’s famous sack of Panama, a Spanish colony, did not occur until January 1671 gives some indication of the kind of lapse involved (6).
Morgan’s later knighthood and triumphal return to the West Indies as an authority figure, and his insistence on always sailing with a commission from the Governor of Jamaica, demonstrate that the truth surrounding such figures in history is rarely as clear as either principled patriot or bloodthirsty criminal. More modern examples abound of figures who, though labelled as mercenaries, and undoubtedly working as professional soldiers for forces other than those of their own nations, have much more nuanced justifications and motivations for their actions than a love of either money or violence.
Two notable examples come to mind. Mike Hoare was a former British Army officer who raised and commanded a multinational mercenary company, 5 Commando, during the Congo Crisis of the 1960s. After independence from Belgium the country descended into a melee of political and military chaos, including an Eastern secessionist movement calling themselves the ‘Simbas’, inspired by Maoist ideas. As part of the complex political dealings involving Belgium, the US, the UN and the Soviet Union, the
neophyte Congolese government decided to raise a mercenary outfit of experienced, hardened Western troops who would fight for cold hard cash rather than any of the complex political agendas involved. 5 Commando proved controversial but effective, utilising shock tactics against the rebels and pushing into battles with vehicles and heavy firepower rather than retreating, which terrified the hitherto unstoppable rebel militias, used to fighting poorly-motivated government troops. Eventually they, along with Belgian paratroopers, were instrumental in retaking the city of Stanleyville from the Simbas and freeing several hundred (mostly European) hostages.
A few years later a German named Rolf Steiner emerged in the forefront of the vicious Nigerian Civil War, training and fighting on the side of the secessionist region of Biafra. He was one of many Western mercenaries who flocked to the war, but one of only a handful who stayed on when they realized that, contrary to the ill-disciplined and drug-addled rebels of the previous decade’s African wars, the Nigerian federal troops they faced were well trained and equipped, often by the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic. After the loss of the war, and falling out with the Biafran leader, Steiner moved on to southern Sudan (now South Sudan), where he tried to help the people there stand up to the regime in Khartoum. He was captured, imprisoned and tortured, only being released after intervention by the West German government.
Whether Steiner should really be termed a mercenary is up for debate, as he did not profess to be motivated by money, and even took Biafran citizenship during that state’s short, turbulent existence. This again serves to illustrate how such people cannot be simply labelled as one or another type of actor. Nor can their impact, whether pirates of old or mercenaries of more recent times, be easily measured in terms of strategic impact. International criminal networks often intertwine with political goals, and terrorist and insurgent organizations are often funded by criminal enterprises, as well as relying on black market suppliers for arms and equipment. Crime and politics, as always, are never far removed from one another.
The recent focus on terrorism, and groups such as Islamic State and Boko Haram which dominate Western news feeds about the actions of non-state actors, has served also to distract from the other breeds of nonaligned armed actors plying their trades in jungles, mountains, cities and high seas. We would do well to neither ignore nor underestimate them. Their strategic impact can be highly significant, and there is no reason to think they will disappear any time soon.
1. http://www.transparency.org/news/feature/nigeria_corruption_and_insecurity

2. Earle, Peter The Pirate Wars (London: Methuen, 2004), pp.119 – 120.

3. http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/44/a44r034.htm

4. http://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/somali-piracy-is-down-not-out/ar-BBrvpix

5. Earle pp. 72 – 3

6. Earle, pp. 94 – 5

Come on Britain, don’t screw this up

Britain’s bizarre relationship with Europe has reached a new apex in the upcoming referendum on EU membership. Rhetoric abounds on trade, immigration, the European Convention on Human Rights, ‘taking back control’ (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean), and much else, and media coverage is reaching saturation point as the vote itself looms. All of which is doing a fantastic job of overshadowing what should be the central tenet of the debate around leaving the European Union.

It’s a really stupid idea.

In part, I think, this stems from the weird and fallacious tendency that Britain, and its inhabitants, have of viewing Europe as somehow ‘optional.’ The tiny strip of water separating the UK from France (which we in our hubris like to call the ‘English Channel’ and the rest of Europe call La Manche) has done more than stop the Wehrmacht marching right on in, and several other armies before them. It has given the British psyche an air of detachment concerning European affairs which simply cannot be allowed to stand in the world we now inhabit. ‘When I was in Europe…’ or some variant is uttered so often by the British that we seem to forget we live in Europe as a permanent state of affairs. Europe is not a load of sunny Mediterranean towns, French farmers on strike and slightly mysterious Slavs trying to shape democracy out of post-Communism. It’s us, it’s here, and it always has been.

This psychological tendency to separate ourselves may have worked, in a strange way, when firstly the British Empire stood firm, as far as anyone could tell, with the Royal Navy ruling the High Seas and protecting British trade and interests wherever they were threatened, and secondly there were constant wars on the European continent (there’s the distinction we keep meaning to make and lazily half-making). The UK, much as it would like to be, is no longer a Great Power in any of the traditional senses of the word, and this arrogance about the global clout of the UK is the root of a large part of the rhetoric and paranoia evident in those who speak of ‘Brexit’ like it’s some great next step in the national evolution. The first of these two points is a simple exercise in history. The power of Britain collapsed after the Second World War, the Empire torn apart and the country’s budget exhausted, and the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as global players to fill the vacuums of the Old European Powers. This is a fait accompli, one so old it should not need explaining, yet the country and its leaders seem constantly to think the rest of the world regards them with the importance of centuries past.

The second point is no less important. Wars in Europe have not occurred on what can be generally termed a ‘large scale’ since the Second World War. Not to gloss over the horrendous suffering caused by the wars in the Balkans in the Nineties or in Ukraine right now, the massive destruction of events such as the Thirty Years War, or the Napoleonic Wars, or the World Wars of the last century has not been seen in Europe for decades. This period of abstention from wholesale slaughter on the continent is without precedent in recorded history, and almost exactly coincides with the existence of the European Union. While a certain post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning is tempting here, and it is certainly over simplistic to ascribe the lack of large-scale wars in Europe to the EU alone, only an idiot would deny any correlation at all between the existence of the EU in its various forms and the admirable restraint of its member states in killing each other, as they have tended to do regularly in the past.

The ‘otherness’ with which Britain tends to view itself in relation to Europe is also a problem here. Just as Britons tend not to see the UK as part of Europe, so they do not always see themselves as European, at least not in the way many Europeans from continental countries do. If the British truly thought of themselves as European then I seriously doubt the country would consider jumping ship entirely in the way it now seems poised to attempt. Rather it would wish to use its clout, and its votes and influence in the key organs of the EU, to adjust and negotiate for change where it sees it is necessary. Effectively storming out and saying ‘I don’t want to be in your stupid club anyway’ is more than unproductive. It’s childish.

Which raises another question which Leave campaigners seem to enjoy pretending either doesn’t exist or won’t matter. What is the In/Out debate and referendum doing to Britain’s image in other European countries? We supported the Bush administration’s wildly unpopular (and, it turned out, misjudged) war in Iraq. We nearly ripped off a chunk of our own country in the Scottish independence referendum. Now we are apparently fighting among ourselves over whether to remain in one of the largest regional organizations in the world, of which the UK is a founding member. Is everyone in the ‘Vote Leave’ camp so monumentally arrogant that they cannot see the political ramifications of such a move? The fact is that some of the Leave camp’s points are certainly valid. The EU needs reform in certain areas, it needs better focus and a leaner, more executive structure in others. All of these goals are achievable, and if done correctly will lead to a more efficient, effective union. How does one of the founding members walking away from the table entirely help to achieve any of this?

The fact that Leave has some valid points should not come as a shock to anyone, and it would be remiss of any who disagree with the idea of leaving the EU to dismiss everything the other side has to say. Consolidating everything under the EU into monolithic entities, such as an EU Army or an EU Intelligence Agency, is not productive. Duplication of effort, resentment from other regional organizations which exist parallel to the EU between some or all of its members, and reluctance of member governments to contribute time, money and resources to such projects are all valid arguments against some such ventures. Again, however, Britain’s answer to the problem seems to be to run away and hide rather than debate the pros and cons within the EU. Time and again the fact that Britain, or at least certain sectors of it, want to use any displeasure at all with the way things seem to be going as an excuse to leave keeps popping up with undeniable regularity.

The arguments for leaving also completely ignore a generational issue. Young Europeans, including many Britons, see themselves as just that – Europeans. We want to be part of an integrated, trans-national European community, with distinct identities but shared cultural values, shared curiosity about each other’s countries and cultures, the opportunity to travel freely and work in any other European country, to marry and raise a family with partners from other European countries and even move between them as work or personal issues dictate or allow. This European-ness of many young people is a relatively new and still developing aspect of European culture, but the EU helps enormously in facilitating travel and communication between young Europeans (and older Europeans who are open-minded and adventurous enough). This aspect of the EU is incredibly important, and will continue to be long after the older British generation, which polls repeatedly tell us are much more likely to vote Leave, are dead.

The EU is not perfect, so let’s help to improve it. Many European countries still struggle with issues such as migration, economic development, internal political insecurity and fears of external security threats. A regional organization which, at its best, tries to build a sense of community, of mutual support and shared beliefs and ideals while also supporting open and active engagement with the rest of the world is a brilliant idea. It’s an idea that has been evolving, growing and maturing for decades, and continues to do so. It’s an idea that the UK was part of from the start, so let’s continue to be a part of it. It’s not just a case of the EU being worse off for the UK’s absence. The UK will be worse off for the EU’s absence, and nothing about it that Britain doesn’t like at the moment is going to be changed if we walk out. I identify as a British European, and that will stay the same whichever way this referendum goes. What will change is the ease with which I can travel or move there, and the way that the rest of the EU sees us. What will also change is the level of respect I hold for my own country and its farsightedness. There’s a lot on the line, and one chance to get it right.

Come on Britain, don’t screw this up.

A divided world is what terrorist groups want – why are their enemies allowing them to create one?

‘Divide and conquer’ is a mantra that needs no introduction. Throughout history, in many forms, the idea of splitting a unified enemy to weaken and ultimately destroy them has been used time and again. Kingdoms, empires, nations, armies – all have fallen before the effective application of that single concept. So why are Western politicians, and indeed their constituents – us – allowing the Islamic State and other extremist groups to utilize it with such devastating effect?

There seems to be a general failure to recognize that the goal of the horrendous, mass-casualty attacks orchestrated by IS in Paris in November, as well as the more recent bombings in Brussels and Lahore, was not the killing of civilians. Terrorist attacks are not military actions – their physical effect is not their primary goal. The increasing tensions being exploited by extremists of both sides, whether Islamists in the Middle East and elsewhere or Donald Trump and his ilk in the West, are exactly what such attacks are intended to create.

The European refugee crisis resulting, primarily, from the Syrian civil war has only made it easier to inflame tensions along perceived cultural fault lines. The invasion of Afghanistan by the US and its allies in the wake of the September 11 attacks was not a failure for Al Qaeda; it was a grand strategic success, a realization of the beginning of a drawn-out existential confrontation between their twisted idea of Islam and the godless Western foe. The Paris attacks, and the subsequent terror alerts and other attacks inspired or spawned by them, are the same strategy being employed in a different setting, and Europe is by and large sleepwalking right into the same trap.

Islamophobic and anti-immigration populist figures have been ascendant in politics on both sides of the Atlantic, whether Trump and his idiotic cries for a ban on all Muslims travelling to the United States and a database of all existing Muslims in the country, or the likes of Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland and its opposition to any imposed quotas for EU states to admit refugees. Kaczynski himself has claimed that Muslim migrants threaten Poland’s ‘Catholic way of life’ and PiS has been identified as belonging to the same block of Central European governments as Slovakia and Hungary in opposing the relocation of migrants.

These attitudes, apart from a deplorable lack of basic humanitarian instinct, fail on a strategic level to appreciate the nature of the enemy Europe faces in Islamic State. The welcoming of huge numbers of refugees, particularly by Germany, was a catastrophe for IS as it completely neutralized their ideological narrative of Europeans, and non-Muslims in general, as existential enemies to be abhorred and destroyed. Welcoming and resettling refugees takes money, time and compassion, all things that many members of the European community seem unwilling to provide, but they will all be needed in the long term to defeat as asymmetrical an enemy as Islamic State. Despite the opposition of many European governments, and the lack of a cohesive and rapid strategy from the EU itself to deal with the crisis, refugees have time and again been welcomed by individual countries, towns or groups of European citizens. The damage this does to the extremist narrative is huge and should not be underestimated.

This is not to say that military means are unnecessary or even unwarranted, but they must be employed logically, with clear goals identified at strategic, operational and tactical levels. They must also be employed as part of a broader campaign including asymmetrical efforts in intelligence-gathering, coalition-building and regional political dialogue to ensure that not only are groups such as IS and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front defeated in the field, but they can never again find fertile enough ground to re-emerge as destabilizing entities. In short, it is not possible to defeat such foes by bombing parts of Syria ‘over there’ and putting up fences on borders ‘over here.’

As with all conflicts, strategy is key, both understanding that of your enemies and having a coherent one of your own. Unfortunately for the West, the overarching picture which emerges from a cursory glance at the major events of the Syrian crisis is one in which it is reactive, with little initiative of its own. The refugee crisis caught Europe off guard, and it is nowhere near over. The rise of Islamic State, traceable in its immediate form to well back into the Western occupation of Iraq and the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq, also seemed to come as a shock, despite the protestations of strategists, academics and others that such an entity was an almost inevitable consequence of Bush-era Western involvement in the region. Strategic foresight is sadly lacking, at least where high-level decision making is concerned, and if this is not remedied then the next major catastrophe, whatever it may be, will catch the West equally off balance.

The refugee crisis now threatens to tear apart many of the fundamental bases of the EU, including the Schengen Zone of free movement and the very membership of the UK in the bloc. Across the Atlantic the debauched populism of the US primaries shows how, as so many times throughout history, it is easy for ruthless politicians to score points by creating a narrative of ‘them versus us.’ This plays right into the hands of extremists on both sides, and only weakens any hopes for moderate politics and informed, rational decision-making to triumph as the driving force of the next few years. Putting up fences on the borders of the Balkans will not stop refugees arriving as long as Syria continues to be torn apart, any more than Donald Trump’s call for a wall on the Mexican border will stop immigration there. The trend towards a less-divided world, so optimistically viewed at the end of the Cold War, is at risk of an alarming and rapid reversal.

The fact remains that the battle against IS, the refugee crisis, increasing Russian aggression under Putin’s regime and the very political and social unity of Europe are all inherently interlinked. Understanding this fact, and then understanding how and why it is the case, is crucial to formulating any workable and effective strategy for a long-term solution to the humanitarian misery which continues to develop unchecked. No campaign is truly winnable purely by force, whether that force is from a warplane or a razor-wire fence. Divisions need to be bridged, not barricaded, and where bombs do need dropping – and sometimes they do – they need to be part of a much more holistic approach than we are currently seeing. Perhaps if welcoming and supporting refugees was viewed more often as a strategy against jihadist extremists there would be less antipathy towards the legions of displaced persons currently languishing on borders around Europe.

I will end this post with some simple facts.

Over 3000 Yazidi women and girls are still being held in sexual slavery by Islamic State, under a twisted theological regime which elevates rape as spiritually beneficial. In 2015 more than 3770 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration. To put the European crisis into context countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have already taken in huge numbers of migrants from Syria and Iraq –over 685,000 in Jordan alone by mid-2015, swamping a country with a population of 6.6 million.

These are all inherently interlinked, and the failure to recognize this when formulating policies will only allow all of them to worsen. Terrorism, war, migration and human rights violations all feed into and off of one another. Both individual countries and regional blocs like the EU would do well to consider this when formulating policies and strategies if they genuinely want to mitigate their effects on themselves and those helplessly caught in the maelstrom of these events.

Venturing into the Blogosphere

The idea of starting a blog hardly needs explaining. We all have thoughts, occasionally even profound ones (so we like to think, or at least I do), so why not publish them for the entire world to read and marvel at?

Or so goes the plan.

I have no idea if anyone will read this, but if so, welcome! My name is Alex, I’m British, and I think, and read, quite a lot about international affairs, security, etc, so it was a natural choice of topic. I have a masters degree in the field (International Security and Terrorism, University of Nottingham), which I took as much to indulge my interests as to further my professional standing but also helped to shape and mature my views on complex issues.

International security is a critical concept for anyone to understand in the 21st Century, at least on a basic or general level. The ease of travel, trade and the movement of people, goods and money across countries and continents – ‘globalization’ as it is often termed – means that, like it or not, we all more frequently and interdependently connected than ever before, whether we like it or not. This brings not only benefits in many forms but also the inevitable doppelganger, often in the forms of terrorism, armed conflict and organized crime. I think it’s very important for people to be aware of these issues, to discuss and debate them, and to consider the broader context of any individual event. In short, an important area to address.

That said, I’ll try to keep what I post here less stiff and academic than the papers I wrote as a student – writing should be accessible and convey information in an accurate and engaging way, or so go my beliefs, so I will do my best to stick to that. If I veer occasionally into self-indulgent prose forgive me, but I hope to strike a good balance between accessibility and doing justice to the seriousness of the issues I want to discuss.

I will post things here as I have the time or inclination to write them, and make sure that I think they’re up to scratch. I’ll also post some older pieces that I’ve previously had published on other sites, but I’ll be sure to highlight the date they were written so that their relevance (or lack thereof) to current events is obvious.

Anyway, my first ‘real’ post will follow shortly So, again, welcome, and I hope that this will be as interesting for people to read as it is for me to write.