On the Road: Updates on West Africa

While I’m traveling at the moment, I wanted to send a quick update on one of 2015’s steadily developing stories.

As Boko Haram gobbles up more airtime and political talking points, interested readers should keep their eyes in the upcoming AU Summit in Addis Ababa. Defense One has a helpful overview here.

For context on point three (AU efforts to address Boko Haram) Defense One also has a recent discussion with AFRICOM’s commander on the potential role for US forces in the battle to contain the regional terrorist group, with leadership calling for a full counterinsurgency plan.

This, however, comes just two weeks since my last piece tackling the changing role of US engagement in West Africa. Read the full treatment here.
With the Nigerian elections just over two weeks away, there is much more to come.

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The Trouble with Titles: On Perspective and Opinion

My op-ed was not intended —in a meager 800 words— to clearly render the entire landscape of UN peacekeeping. The goal was to illustrate how responsibility —and the empty rhetoric that follows its invocation— demands accounting.

On Friday afternoon, I published an op-ed highlighting *some* of the challenges associated with international peacekeeping. Specifically, the piece tackled the unequal troop contributions when comparing the members of the U.N. Security Council (US, UK, Russia, China and France) and countries such as India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Philippines, Bangladesh and Fiji. Troops contributions from the former group now constitutes only four percent of all U.N. troops, while the latter provide nearly 40 percent of UN personnel. This imbalance comes at a moment where conflicts are both increasingly asymmetrical and involve actors who pledge no allegiance to compacts of international law.

After the story made its rounds on social media, I received a few comments and critiques. While perhaps unnecessary to tackle them directly, I believe the topic is important enough —and chronically under-discussed— to warrant a short follow up.

On the title: For those familiar with the journalism world, titles are far more important and infinitely more hazardous than they might appear. But they are often the choice of an editor, not the author. In fairness, compelling readers with clickable, cogent, and captivating story titles requires a little bit of dark magic. But sometimes, the compelling can be compromising. In this case, when I submitted my final text to TIME, the story was titled: Prisoners of Peace. An hour later, readers saw this:

This headline ruffled some feathers:

For what it is worth (and this is clear for those who read the story), you’ll notice that I never use “poor” as a descriptor in the piece. Instead, I opt for terms like “developing countries” or the “global south” to broker the difference between the groups of countries I compare. These terms are not perfect and will (no doubt) upset those who, parsing language instead of intention, take offense for their own reasons. But to respond to @sallyyui directly: I agree.

“Poor” does not best describe the countries listed in the article. Few would (or should) argue that the differences between India and Rwanda, for instance, aren’t as significant as those between the United States and India. In addition, “poor” suggests that finance is the only measure of importance. Economics are part of the argument: poorer countries will have relatively less money to invest in military training, leaving their troops relatively less prepared than their counterparts. But money isn’t everything. Insofar as we’ve endorsed peacekeeping as a collective action with “international responsibility”, the burden of peacekeeping ought to be more equitably shared. This is an argument from principle.

On the question of agency: A friend/colleague suggested the piece may have sidestepped the question of agency. I agree. Posited as an op-ed, the story was intended to condemn. In this case, the indictment looked something like this: The West/developed countries is/are sitting back on its/their laurels while the hard work of peace is foisted upon the less fortunate in conflicts that are only growing more dangerous. This narrative shrinks the voice of these “victim” countries: it suggests the current imbalance is one where the less fortunate are merely “put upon” by the powerful — the cattle led towards the slaughter. This isn’t accurate.

For one, contributing troops has clear financial benefits for member states. Writing in African Affairs this spring, Danielle Beswick found that Rwanda’s 2010 participation in peace operations earned “reimbursements from the U.N. worth more than two-thirds of its defense budget” that year. These financial motivations complicate any “argument from principle” and belay the unfortunate moral architecture of international peacekeeping: states, regardless of their status, often look out for their own interests first —and opt to pull the levers of power at their disposal. After all, while Rwanda might contribute a greater number of peacekeeping troops than the United States, the Rwandan government also armed and directed factions of the M23 rebels in neighboring DRC —a group that U.N. troops (Rwandans included) were specifically deployed to pacify.

More to the point, just because Rwanda chooses to contribute troops, does not explain why their contribution (and the contribution of similar countries) must outstrip that of the West.  Inequality does not negate agency, inequality shapes agency. In the case of the United Nations, the inequality is clear.

On the question of understanding: A few hours after the story was published, I received the following response:

When I asked for elaboration, @DarcyPenrhyn responded with the following:

In fairness, @DarcyPenrhyn’s assertions are credible. A UN commander, often the most thankless job, must navigate the physical minefields of combat, as well as the metaphorical minefields of politics. These commanders are bound to the UN-issued mandate —and they are present thanks only to the grace of the host government and international backing (troops, money, etc…). These commanders also oversee troops from myriad countries, and these various groups arrive with specific restrictions on how they are allowed to be used. Some troops might not be permitted to patrol at night, others restricted to specific tasks in particular regions. In short, the logistics of a multinational peacekeeping operation can be crushing.

But @DarcyPenrhyn’s critiques pertain to a separate charge: that peacekeeping is, itself, an ineffective tool.
This is the most vital debate of all, and it is not without baggage. More importantly, though, it isn’t the central argument in my article.

But on that count, I’ll share a single thought: From Suez in 1956 to Rwanda in 1994, from 1960 Katanga (Congo) to this month’s mission in the Central African Republic, peacekeeping has been (and will continue to be) a half-measure —an expensive and increasingly risky band-aid hastily applied to slow the flow of blood while the staff seeks desperately for a competent doctor. Peacekeeping isn’t pretty, and it isn’t getting prettier. But so long as it persists, we ought not overlook it.

My op-ed was not intended —in a meager 800 words— to clearly render the entire landscape of U.N. peacekeeping. The goal was to illustrate how responsibility —and the empty rhetoric that follows its invocation— demands accounting. For what it is worth, today’s balance sheet —on the measure of troop contributions (among others)— reveals an increasingly worrisome debt.

Challenging Pirates in Tempestuous Seas

In keeping with the “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” argument, most countries have a non-engagement policy with pirates: paying a ransom is seen to incentivize the illegal activity — to give rise to a new wave of open-sea scoundrels eager to exploit the lucrative shadow world of transnational crime. But as the tactics used by the private sector are incompatible with the strategy taken by states, pirates are left to exploit the middle ground.

Two days ago, I wrote about the issue of piracy, specifically off the coast of Somalia. Known as the Gulf of Aden, this treacherous strip of blue water is traversed by nearly 20,000 vehicles each year. While only a small percentage of those vessels are attacked by pirates, the criminal enterprise is estimated to cost nearly $7 billion dollars annually —in ransom, insurance or surrendered goods. With piracy being an internationally recognized crime, it stands to reason that the response would be swift, coordinated and effective. However, piracy off the Horn of Africa persists —and exists— because the many of the proposed solutions are mutually exclusive.

Piracy primarily affects private vessels. While most of these boats are commercial, the goods in any one vessel can range from food stuffs to oil/natural gas resources. This variability means the potential losses —financially— also vary widely. For private companies shipping their goods through the gulf, insuring their property can be an exorbitant cost. After a rash of pirate attacks in 2008, these individual insurance premiums rose even further, making insurance rates almost unworkable.

Interestingly, the high cost of insurance persists despite the low likelihood of pirate attack —even in the 2008 spike, only 40 boats were affected. As a result, companies often decide to take their chance. The problem sharpens when their luck runs out.

When a boat is commandeered by a pirate group, the real money is in the ransom demanded for crew and goods. For obvious reasons, it is easier to extort cash from a private company that to dock the hijacked boat, unload the goods and resell the materials in a local market. *(Considering the state of the Somali economy, combined with the lack of infrastructure to transport anything quickly and easily to other grey or black market locations, ransom becomes standard operating procedure.)

Now, if companies have failed to purchase the overpriced insurance —and when you factor in the moral imperative to negotiate the safe return of their employees— companies often pay the ransom, reward the pirates, and free their ship. The only issue, however, is that this course of action is diametrically opposed the tact taken by states.

In keeping with the “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” argument, most countries have a non-engagement policy with pirates: paying a ransom is seen to incentivize the illegal activity — to give rise to a new wave of open-sea scoundrels eager to exploit the lucrative shadow world of transnational crime. But as the tactics used by the private sector are incompatible with the strategy taken by states, pirates are left to exploit the middle ground.

For nearly a decade, states have been trying to shrink this middle ground through a renewed security operations, particularly in the Gulf of Aden. Due to the importance of the region to the global merchant economy (the gulf is primary sea-lane for commercial shipments from east to west and vice versa) US, Chinese, and a constellation of NATO naval campaigns have assumed the costs of patrolling the international waters. But even as naval patrols and international security alliances work (at great cost to the sponsoring nations) to repel pesky pirates, the practice continues unabated.

Geographically, the extensive size of the sea makes effective patrolling nearly impossible, and has led most patrol vessels to merely escort commercial vehicles through the narrowest (“pinched”) stretches of the gulf. These inlets force larger ships to slow down, thus allowing quick moving pirate skiffs to board and commandeer the vessel. While most pirates flee as soon as naval vessels arrive, the deterrent effect of these patrols is still quite weak.

In part, this is due to the very triggers of piracy: a weak Somali state without a functioning (or followed) rule of law, means that pirates can abuse the legal system while remaining immune from its punishment; their shuttered economy cannot be addressed by an international naval strategy intent on rooting out the very pirates forced into the world of crime after their country’s insufficient infrastructure completely collapsed in the 1990s. And, if both the above are true, then the costs associated with being caught pale in comparison to the potential gains of successful pirating: where else would an impoverished Somali ex-fisherman find 30,000 USD?

For any spectator, and certainly for most analysts, the greater Horn region presents myriad challenges to security, order and growth —conditions necessary to create the institutional strength  many believe Somalia sorely needs. But the challenge of piracy highlights a harder moral, intellectual and political calculation: what can be done to crackdown on the practice today, if the causes of piracy will take decades to address?

While the answer isn’t clear, some ideas have been proffered. Those, however, will be tackled in a later post.