A Look at Transnational Crime from a National Security Perspective

Andrew Trabulsi, entrepreneur, consultant, and co-editor of Warlords, Inc.: Black Markets, Broken States, and the Rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur, joined me on Covert Contact (episode 42) to discuss the growing impact of transnational crime and how it intersects with destabilizing forces ranging from empowered individuals, to terrorist organizations, to rogue governments.

The key question at the heart of this discussion is our response. How can large bureaucratic organizations, such as the U.S. intelligence community, position themselves to counter incredibly nimble (and increasingly empowered) actors who are unconstrained by law or ethics? We just scratch the surface here but this episode will be followed by several more focused discussions with Andrew as we search for answers. You can listen to the episode here.

This episode is part of a longer discussion that will span two episodes. The second will be released as episode 44 sometime in mid-April. Subscribe to Covert Contact on iTunes (or elsewhere) to have episodes delivered directly to your device as soon as they are released.


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Podcast: What Did Russia Gain in Syria?

Regular Blogs of War and Covert Contact contributor William Tucker joins me after a long break to discuss Russia’s intervention in Syria. Why are they there, what were their true motives, what have they gained, and where does this action fit in the context of Russia’s long-standing adversarial position with NATO and the West? We also look at Russia’s conflict with Turkey, structural weaknesses influencing their behavior, and prospects for improving their relationship with the West along the way. You can download or stream the episode from CovertContact.com and subscribe on iTunes (or the podcast platform of your choice).

Podcast production has been challenging lately but I am working to up the tempo. Two more episodes featuring Andrew Trabulsi have been recorded and are in the editing phase and additional guests are in the pipeline. As always, I’m interested in your feedback, topic suggestions, and making new contacts. Get in touch via encrypted email, the contact form, or Twitter.


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Marie von Clausewitz: A Biography of a Wider Experience

I have just completed a book review of Vanya Eftimova Bellinger’s biography of Marie von Clausewitz, which you can check out on H-War very soon. For a variety of reasons, I was keen to write this review. First, it was a work of military history by a woman and about a woman. Given how infrequently that happens, it was important to me to interact with the work intellectually and professionally. Second, although not officially a Clausewitzian, my thesis focused on strategic culture and I have worked in academic strategy at regular intervals both in the civilian and military schoolhouses. But the most compelling issue to me was the unshakeable identification with Marie. As I have written elsewhere I was for a long time a military spouse. And so I felt strongly that I would have something particular to offer to the discussion of this biography.

Prior to reading, what I had understood about the book and Marie’s life from advanced notice and Bellinger’s article in the Journal of Military History (which I am happy to note has been selected for the Society for Military History’s Moncado Prize), was that she was a key part of Carl’s work and a keen intellect in her own right. Constrained by the context of her time and culture, she had applied her strength to supporting and sustaining and expanding her husband’s career. As the book makes abundantly clear, she did this with vigour and success. For Marie, this path was her only choice. For me, it was driven by the exigencies of military service in the 1990’s and post 9/11 context. There was simply too much moving around to make my career a priority. Continuing my academic pursuits fit best in this format, but at many points even this was constrained by the demands of Marine Corps service. And I will note that at those moments I perversely relished the irony that conflict was an obstacle to my work as a military historian.

What I did not expect was quite how much the book would affect me. Reading the letters, her views, the life they shared, I came to realise that I knew Marie. There were portions of this work that I felt personally, that I understood because it had been my life as well. In times of barracks separation and wartime contingency, her experience was little different from mine. I too travelled to the camps and lived in the garrison outposts. We spent as much time apart as together. I wrote, if not letters, endless emails. As a historian of his endeavours, we discussed his work. And if not by social convention but by the reality of contemporary service, I also understood something of what it meant for her to subordinate her ambition to the martial life of another. I suspect that many military wives could read this book and feel the same.

Understanding this, as military historians and military personnel read this book, I feel compelled to counsel them not to look beyond Marie to Carl and the strategic lessons. In fact, forget Carl. There is more than enough already written about the man and his work. There is precious little, by contrast, on the military wife. Take this opportunity to consider Marie’s life, to understand that experience and what it reflects about the uncounted, often unheard masses of spouses who form a critical bulwark of defence. While much lip service is paid to the family, a real reckoning of their sacrifices, burdens, and efforts does not exist. Marie’s life may seem unique for having been married to one of the great figures of military history and for her contribution to his work. But in many respects she could be any wife of a military officer in the Western tradition of the last several centuries.

The history of the military wife is long – and poignantly coming to an end as the new era of the more broadly conceived military spouse emerges. As more women and openly gay men serve, husbands will begin to fill the ranks. It will be interesting to see how this fundamental change alters the landscape of military service in society. In many respects their experience will vary little from their feminine forebears, though I daresay it will be understood differently by men, as spousal subordination has traditionally been a gendered phenomenon. Fascinating times ahead, indeed, and I look forward to the day the biography of Mr. General Jane Doe is published.

Jill S. Russell is a military historian whose interests lie in contemporary security affairs. She has recently submitted her doctoral dissertation on logistics, subsistence and American strategic culture. She has worked as a defence consultant and in the American professional military education system. You can find her writing at Kings of War, Strife Blog, and CCLKOW, and on Twitter at @jsargentr.


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Ungoverned Spaces: What Threat do they Pose?

Since the attacks of 9/11 there has been much research and policy work done on ungoverned spaces.  An early discussion of ungoverned spaces occurred in February, 2004 when the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, provided a statement for the record to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence [1].  His 2004 definition of the term spoke to “geographic areas where governments do not exercise effective control….Terrorist groups and narco-traffickers use these areas as sanctuaries to train, plan and organize, relatively free from interference.”  From a U.S. perspective, the idea that ungoverned spaces pose a threat to U.S. interests is continued today in the 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy [2] which states that “[a]n array of terrorist threats has gained traction in areas of instability, limited opportunity, and broken governance.”  This article will discuss the term ungoverned spaces; what it means, its ties to human nature, how ungoverned spaces in and of themselves are not a threat, as well as outline a broad concept for action and identify one additional consideration.

The English philosopher and physician John Locke put forth the idea of perfect freedom as mankind’s natural state in 1689 [3].  With Locke’s ideas as a basis, it follows that mankind will seek this natural state, thus avoiding government, or any force that attempts to govern it, whenever possible.  This is evident today where people migrate from an oppressive country to a less oppressive one or when people in the U.S. move from one state with restrictive laws to a different state with less restrictive laws.  You likely did the same thing when you were a kid, always preferring to stay overnight at the friend’s house whose parents were lax and allowed you to misbehave in any number of ways.  Therefore, if seeking ungoverned, or more precisely less-governed spaces is part of mankind’s natural state, how are these spaces a threat?

The most wide-ranging definition of “govern” from Merriam-Webster [4] states “to control, direct, or strongly influence the actions and conduct of [some thing or group].”  Note that this definition is not related to government per se but instead on influencing actions. From a national security perspective, this could be one country trying to govern the actions of another country or group to ensure they do not pose a threat to the former’s interests.  Based upon this, it isn’t the space lacking governance itself that is the threat, but more correctly the behavior of the people that occupy that space.  Accepting that as true, while the behavior of the people within the ungoverned space may pose a threat, addressing it by military action alone cannot positively impact its driving factors [5].  In an effort to address these driving factors, the 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy [6] proposes “work[ing] to address the underlying conditions that can help foster violent extremism such as poverty, inequality, and repression.”  The 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy [7] goes on to say that the United States “will continue to work with partners and through multilateral organizations to address the root causes of conflict before they erupt and to contain and resolve them when they do.”

Taking the above factors into account, a combined approach is clearly necessary.  Immediate threats posed by the behavior of the people that occupy the ungoverned space are likely best addressed through military action.  Diminishing the ability of the people in the ungoverned space to train and equip their organization is likely best addressed by military, intelligence, and law enforcement actions. Addressing the factors that drive the people to choose this behavior is both a civilian government and community-based endeavor. 

The friction points with any such combined approach are capability and patience.  While many nations have military personnel who can deploy and either conduct offensive operations or train partners, a similar capability to address driving factors does not presently exist. What nation has the “Good Governance Mobile Training Team” on standby for overseas deployment to teach other countries to govern in a manner that does not drive their people to take up arms?  Even if this capability did exist, what country has the patience to utilize it for twenty, thirty, or even more years in order to address these driving factors?

An additional consideration worthy of note is that the ungoverned space threat model assumes that a person travels to the ungoverned space only to receive training and then travels to another location to conduct an operation.  This may have been the case for the 9/11 attacks, but what about less-sophisticated plots?  Three individuals already within your country who have cellular phones and rifles can wreak havoc.  In such a case, where is the ungoverned space?  I submit that the ungoverned space was actually their minds.  Rather than having a mind governed by constructive thoughts put in place by family and community and encouraged to grow in an environment of good governance, it was ungoverned space and thus able to be influenced by violent extremist ideologies.     

[1] Jacoby, L. E. (2004, February 24). DIA Director Statement for the Record to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Retrieved February 13, 2016, from http://7.iwar.org.uk/homesec/resources/threats-2004/jacoby.pdf

[2] Obama, B. H. (2015, February). National Security Strategy. Retrieved February 22, 2016, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2015_national_security_strategy.pdf

[3] Locke, J. (1689). Two Treatises of Government. Retrieved February 13, 2016, from http://www.csus.edu/indiv/s/simpsonl/hist162/locke.pdf

[4] Merriam Webster Definition of “Govern” 3a. (n.d.). Retrieved February 14, 2016, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/govern

[5] Program on Extremism | Center for Cyber & Homeland Security | The George Washington University. (n.d.). Retrieved February 14, 2016, from http://cchs.gwu.edu/program-extremism

[6] 2015 National Security Strategy.

[7] Ibid.

Phil Walter has served in the military, the intelligence community, and the inter-agency. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not contain information of an official nature. He tweets @philwalter1058 and blogs at www.philwalter1058.com. This is a companion piece to episode 40 of the Covert Contact podcast.


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