Much of the twentieth century was dominated by the competition between rival ideologies for structuring political life. Democratic capitalism ultimately triumphed over fascism in 1945, then over Communism in 1991. But this triumph did not presage “the end of history,” as some optimistically wrote. A more accurate portrayal of what lay in store was “the coming anarchy.” The end of the Cold War exposed the fragility underlying the Westphalian, rule-based system of sovereign states, particularly in those scores of states born during the decolonization era of the mid-twentieth century. Nearly 25 years after the demise of Communism, no fewer than 65 of the 193 United Nations member states are rated as “high warning,” “alert,” or “high alert” in the 2015 Fragile States Index, and only 53 are rated “very sustainable” through “stable.”
In his forward to the 2015 National Military Strategy of the United States, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey tells us, “Today’s global security environment is the most unpredictable I have seen in 40 years of service. . . . We now face multiple, simultaneous security challenges from traditional state actors and transregional networks of sub-state groups—all taking advantage of rapid technological change.” The Military Strategy “addresses the need to counter revisionist states that are challenging international norms as well as violent extremist organizations (VEOs) that are undermining transregional security,” and central to our task “is strengthening our global network of allies and partners.” In the current post-“Big Footprint” era, when international and U.S. national security depend ever more on our partners throughout the world, the persistent fragility of so many states—and, indeed, of the state system itself—is troubling.
If our national and international security rests on a foundation of effective partnerships, then the epic challenge of the twenty-first century must be to sustain and strengthen effective sovereign partners to share this burden. But we find that the contemporary state is under duress, challenged by millenarian religious movements, divisive identity-based conflicts, pervasive anarchical violence, and what Dr. Brzezinski called the “global political awakening.” Some argue that the state is in decline, and even that we are entering a new Dark Ages.
Among the most insidious challenges to the contemporary state is the corrosive capture and use of illicit power, which both weakens the state and creates among populations the perception of inefficacy, incompetence, and, ultimately, illegitimacy. Part 1 of this book presents case studies of illicit power, and the domestic and international responses to it, in a range of states. These nine country case studies cumulatively alert analysts and practitioners to the gravity of the challenge posed by illicit power. Following these, the four chapters in Part 2 describe fundamental characteristics of illicit power structures, and the elements of the operational environment that enable illicit power to succeed, as well as those that enable the international community to counter it. The outcome of the struggle between illicit power and legitimate, accountable governance in any state hinges on the competition between them over these enablers. Part 3 gives four approaches to mitigating illicit power, which the international community must become adept at using and flexibly adapting to the specific conditions faced in particular environments. Part 4, the book’s concluding section, offers insights that help clarify both the nature and the gravity of the challenge that is illicit power, as well as the most effective approaches to mitigating it.
Power captured and applied illicitly corrupts legitimate efforts to resolve conflict, make and maintain peace, and build effective states. Illicit power is no recent intruder in the affairs of states and men. But the unprecedented access of criminals, terrorists, and insurgents to lethal technology, military-grade weaponry, staggering sums of money, and world-class professional and technical services—including legal, financial, information and communications technology, and security—constitutes a game changer. In most of the cases examined in this book, the possessors of illicit power have been able to challenge the fundamental roles and legitimacy of the countries where they reside. Most notably and dangerously, the agents of illicit power have in some cases successfully challenged the state’s monopoly of the legitimate use of coercive force. Note that we refer here not only to the state’s monopoly of force, which is only in the rarest cases absolute, but to its monopoly of the legitimate use of that force. The legitimacy that the state alone should enjoy can be so compromised by illicit power that it migrates to any entity that can reliably provide rudimentary public services, such as basic security.
What do we mean by “illicit power”? The use of power, whether economic, political, or military, by unsanctioned structures, organizations, or networks, operating outside the parameters of law, national custom, or broad public acceptance, is illicit. Illicit power structures are entities that seek political or economic power through the use of violence, typically supported by criminal economic activity. The leadership of these structures may be within, or parallel to, the state, or they may constitute an armed opposition to it. Illicit power structures operate primarily outside the framework for establishing and maintaining the rule of law. Moreover, they erode that framework, although they frequently maintain activities and operations within the legal and licit sector as well. They are often referred to as “nonstate armed groups,” but this term is insufficient since it would exclude illicit organizations such as the Janjaweed in western Sudan, the Interahamwe in Rwanda, and the criminal patronage networks in Afghanistan, none of which can fully be detached from the state.
Indeed, illicit power structures may be embedded within the state or may be an armed opposition to the state. A perverse iteration is that both the state and its violent opposition may be illicit power structures, colluding to profit from conflict and insecurity in war and transitions. This book uses “illicit power,” “illicit power structures,” and “illicit networks” to describe unsanctioned agents and organizations that pursue and use power to secure and protect parochial interests without regard for the larger public welfare. Included are terrorist, insurgent, and criminal organizations and agents. Importantly, unlike sanctioned agents or the state itself, illicit power is not accountable to the constituency of the territory where it operates or to the representatives of the rule-based system of states, as represented by the United Nations or other intergovernmental bodies. Illicit power acts with state-corrupting, system-eroding impunity.
The terms “illicit,” “illegitimate,” “illegal,” and “informal” are sometimes used interchangeably and, thus, are often confused. In this book, we understand informal power structures to include a broad range of socially and culturally embedded hierarchies, which often existed long before the formal state institutions of modern government, or which are created as a way of consolidating power within specific factions or groups. They may be licit or illicit, and they may both complement and compete with formal governmental organizations. Illicit power structures are frequently but not always informal structures in that they are detached from the state, but “informal power structures” is a broader category that may include tribal, religious, clan, and local municipal structures.
We also distinguish illicit power from illegitimate power, since communities that benefit from illicit power will often regard its exercise as politically legitimate. Illicit power structures may even obtain power through legitimate electoral processes, or they may have their exercise of power legitimized by ill-advised elections organized by the international community (as in Bosnia). Even though illicit power structures may be regarded as legitimate by any identity group that benefits from their patronage, they will almost certainly be considered illegitimate by those that do not. Consider, for example, the Sinaloa drug trafficking cartel, which provides employment, security, and many rudimentary services to numerous Mexicans who may deem it a legitimate provider. Yet even within its area of operations, the majority views it as a criminal organization. Moreover, the cartel is not accountable to anyone or any authority other than its own membership. It acts with impunity; thus, it is an illicit power structure.
Finally, we distinguish illicit power structures from illegal power structures. The law in the form of constitutions, statutes, treaties, written regulations, and other formal instruments often lags far behind political, social, and economic developments. This is especially true in developing countries, where, for example, until very recently there were no laws prohibiting corruption, money laundering, or membership in prohibited organizations. Certain behaviors may undermine state performance and even state legitimacy without being illegal under the current laws of the given state. Yet these behaviors by illicit power structures must be countered even though the current law is inadequate—in some cases by legislating appropriate statutes, but more often through applying a broad range of transparency and accountability techniques, both public and private.
Diplomats, senior soldiers, policymakers, and development professionals have been aware of the presence and malignant impact of illicit power for decades. And yet, they have systematically chosen to sideline its careful examination, preferring instead to focus on more traditional forces within the international system. After being preoccupied throughout the Cold War with the Communist bloc and its proxies, Western powers next turned their attention to despotic, disruptive, and especially failed or failing states once the Communist world imploded in 1991. NATO enlargement, democratic expansion, and trade liberalization displaced the struggle against Communism. Ironically, liberalization of finance, labor markets, travel, communication, and rapid privatization in many ways enabled the growth and diversification of illicit power structures and networks.
The last vestige of the illusion of Westphalian universality on which the modern international system was optimistically built dissipated in the 1990s. The veneer of the Yugoslavian state dissolved, revealing strong and tangled currents of power in pursuit of brazenly parochial interests: Serb interests, Croatian interests, Kosovar interests. A world away from Europe, the first popularly elected president of Haiti in a generation was overthrown by a military coup representing conservative political forces unwilling to lose the perquisites of the status quo. Another world away, the clearly stated will of the Timorese people was subverted by armed militias in league with their former Indonesian overlords.
Even though illicit power has been one of the predominant obstacles to peace, stabilization, and state building, the international community has routinely overlooked this threat and, hence, been ill-prepared to confront it. In two cases in this volume, the failure to recognize this risk brought UN missions to the brink of failure. In Sierra Leone, the United Nations engaged in “best case” analysis, presuming that the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) intended to comply with the Lomé Peace Agreement. But when UN peacekeepers encroached on the RUF’s control of diamond-mining districts in 2000, it took 500 peacekeepers hostage. The result, according to case study author Ismail Rashid, was that the UN Mission in Sierra Leone “tottered on the brink of collapse.” In Haiti, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide exploited gangs in the Port-au-Prince ghetto of Cité Soleil as instruments of political warfare. In 2006, two years after the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) had deployed, these gangs carried out a campaign of kidnappings, murder, rape, and extortion that nearly derailed both the recently elected government of René Préval and MINUSTAH.
It is the failure to recognize the threat and take the challenge seriously that makes illicit power insidious. The new world order that so many hoped would succeed the long and frightening Cold War and replace violent ideological competition was devolving instead into the coming anarchy—a reality that many have willfully ignored. Humanitarian disaster after humanitarian disaster, some manmade, others natural, repeatedly drew in and continue to draw in the United States and the Western powers, who typically show up with no real understanding of the underlying power currents in the countries they are entering. Even development professionals, often with significant knowledge of the in-country environment and supported by host-country nationals, still lacked sufficient insight to understand the violent currents of illicit power.
Some prescient analysts, such as Stephen Stedman, did detect the pattern of this troubling trend across a wide geographical, cultural, and economic range. He recognized the malignant agents of illicit power as absolute, limited, or opportunistic spoilers in peace processes. According to Stedman, no compromise, agreement, or deal can be reached with an absolute spoiler, for whom the adversary’s very existence is a form of illegitimacy. A limited spoiler, on the other hand, has specific finite demands, which, if met, may lead the spoiler to potentially successful peace negotiations. The opportunistic spoiler will continue to impede or subvert negotiations until a point is reached at which the costs to the spoiler of remaining outside the emerging agreement framework exceed the benefits of continued disruption.
Other analysts, such as David Keen and William Reno, recognized the perverse yet rational incentives of conflict economies. Spoilers evolved into conflict entrepreneurs, whose commitment to ending conflict was subordinate to their lucrative exploitation of the conflict. Meanwhile, world leaders’ eyes remained fixed throughout the 1990s on tectonic events taking place in Russia and Eastern Europe. The ever-inflammatory potential of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute preoccupied the final year of the Bill Clinton presidency. The health of the international system as a whole remained a forest hidden behind several very large and problematic trees.
Then, on September 11, 2001, a profound discontinuity occurred, one of those historic singularities in time to which one can attribute much of what follows: the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States. The subsequent Global War on Terror was partly based on the realization that U.S. national security was threatened as much by state weakness and the illicit power structures that weaken states and take advantage of state weakness as by strong adversary states. The National Security Strategy of the United States, published in September 2002, gave central emphasis to the threat of illicit power: “Shadowy networks of individuals can bring great chaos and suffering to our shores for less than it costs to purchase a single tank. Terrorists are organized to penetrate open societies and to turn the power of modern technologies against us.”
When, on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush proclaimed that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” there was widespread expectation that this indicated the imminent end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and an end of the second Iraq war. It was neither. The armed forces of the dictator Saddam Hussein had been decisively defeated, but powerful illicit power structures and networks arose to sustain—and, indeed, vastly intensify—the conflict that the U.S. invasion had ignited in Iraq. As case study authors Phil Williams and Dan Bisbee write, “The invasion itself, combined with the ineptitude of the occupation authorities, created several distinct but powerful strands of resistance, which erupted as a complex insurgency.” By mid-2004, it was clear that major combat operations in Iraq had not ended, for a previously unrecognized adversary (or set of adversaries) had emerged. Meanwhile, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan was encountering a resurgent Taliban, supported by the Haqqani Network (described by Gretchen Peters in this volume) and by Pakistani military intelligence.
In toppling the Taliban and Saddam Hussein regimes, the U.S. armed forces performed admirably, both in Afghanistan and Iraq. The armed forces of both regimes were defeated within weeks, yet the wars raged on for years. The U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) received a “war-fighter challenge” from the field, to provide insight into the nature of the emerging illicit power structures and networks that were proving so persistent and increasingly lethal. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—the official agency responsible for managing America’s international humanitarian relief and economic development program—was struggling to provide effective relief in the so-called nonpermissive environments of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Development workers, often lacking relevant intelligence and analytical tools that would permit sophisticated network analysis, frequently found themselves caught in the crossfire between rival illicit power structures, or subverted in their efforts by illicit forces invisible to them. Even the United Nations, with its wealth of experience in peacekeeping and humanitarian work in the world’s most conflicted locations, was caught in the vortex of violence that consumed Iraq. Humanitarian agencies and organizations were likewise in uncharted territory: at the same time reluctant to associate openly with U.S. or international military forces, and, in many cases, dependent on them for security. Thus, the war-fighter challenge was compounded by the diplomatic, development, and humanitarian challenges.
That compound challenge, emerging from the defense, diplomacy, development, and humanitarian communities, led to the initiation of a project in late 2005, cosponsored by USJFCOM and USAID, to examine the nature, beliefs, motivations, and morphology of illicit power structures. This book is the legacy of the intellectual capital generated by that project. The project was robustly supported by experienced practitioners from across the U.S. interagency, the United States Institute of Peace, and the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre. It sought to peel away the veil of traditional institutional paradigms, reveal the underlying currents of power (both licit and illicit), and give practitioners clear guidance for countering illicit power. Only by developing a more sophisticated understanding of illicit power structures could one reduce their ability to subvert legitimate efforts at stabilization and reconstruction. Until then, illicit power would continue to capture development resources, use public resources in the service of parochial interests, and displace legitimate state functions and institutions. Although the effort ultimately timed out, foundering on the seemingly infinite permutations of illicit power, it was an attempt to develop a taxonomy or typology of illicit power structures, classifying them according to their worldview, motivations, operational modalities, and morphologies.
Regardless of the idiosyncrasies of any particular illicit organization or network, the fundamental issue at stake is accountability. States are, or should be, accountable both to their citizens and to the international community of states. Illicit power structures, organizations, and networks are accountable only to themselves. They have no commitment to the broader public good beyond their parochial interests. And to the extent that they succeed in carving out operating space within a polity, they erode that polity’s legitimacy by creating accountability-free zones, or zones of impunity. When undermined by agents of illicit power that are unaccountable, the state cannot succeed and will eventually recede into irrelevance or near irrelevance, as is occurring in many countries in Central America, Africa, and the Middle East today.
To counter the subversive effects of illicit power structures, we must (a) convert them to licit structures, (b) deprive them of their power, or (c) dismantle them. In Afghanistan, attempts were made to co-opt warlord leaders and their networks into the state-building enterprise, in the hope that they would become constructive contributors to the undertaking rather than continue serving their parochial interests with impunity. As Carl Forsberg and Tim Sullivan write in this volume, “By co-opting leaders from the most powerful ethnic and mujahideen-era constituencies, the settlement provided a basic framework that has kept Afghanistan’s ethnic fissures beneath the surface over the succeeding thirteen years.” Ismail Rashid explains that in Sierra Leone, a plan was developed aimed at “severing RUF from its Liberian strategic center of gravity, particularly the planning and arms support provided by Taylor. It also aimed to restrict RUF profits from the illegal diamond trade through Liberia and Guinea,” thus depriving RUF of its source of power. In the case of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Lieutenant General (Ret.) Tej Pratap Singh Brar and Thomas Marks tell us “A last stand on a narrow stretch of northeastern beach ended in annihilation” of their structure.
Even after decades of experience with illicit power structures and networks, this volume shows that the international community rarely, if ever, approaches the challenge with a unanimously agreed strategic objective or a coherent plan to counter illicit power. Independent and autonomous agencies, national, international, and nongovernmental, primarily focus their resources on the objectives of their individual mandates and competences. Only on rare occasions does unity of effort, let alone unity of command, exist. Illicit power is reluctantly (and, usually, belatedly) recognized as a significant challenge, and even then it is typically addressed as a law enforcement matter rather than an international security challenge, as shown clearly in the Sierra Leone and Haiti cases. The resources assigned to address the problem of illicit power are frequently inadequate or inappropriate to the strategic challenge posed. Thus, when we ask, “What was the international community’s plan?” the true answer is, there was none. The problem of illicit power has typically been addressed as an afterthought—often only when a much sought-after peace agreement or stabilization effort was already lost.
Efforts to categorize the manifestations of illicit power have been beneficial and instructive, even if only to demonstrate the enormous variety of the phenomenon. Stedman’s typology remains valuable even though limited in descriptive detail. Scholars Richard Shultz and Andrea Dew, in their insightful analysis of contemporary warfare, describe the possessors of illicit power as insurgents, terrorists, and militias, but their purview did not extend to transnational criminal organizations. Withholding value judgments, John Arquilla characterizes the “masters of irregular warfare” as “insurgents, raiders, and bandits.” There are others, but all fall into the same trap: mirror imaging. We analysts, scholars, practitioners, and policymakers assume for illicit power structures and networks the same kinds of organizational logic and imperatives that motivate us in our own organizational behavior: loyalty, conventional notions of membership, and formal identification.
But sanctioned organizations are accountable and have a tangible formality (manifest in articles of incorporation, rules and regulations, reporting requirements, membership logs, and so on), which illicit power structures and networks do not have. There certainly may be codes of conduct or other informal rules governing behavior, but there is a fundamental difference in essence between structures that rely for their legitimacy on impunity and the successful protection of parochial interests, and those that operate within the parameters of public interest, accountability, and sanctioned legitimacy. So although analytic templates can be useful, we must avoid overreliance on taxonomies, typologies, and categories, for regardless of their complexity, they can never fully account for the sheer variety of illicit power. Nor must we permit ourselves to misanalyze the adversary or the operating threat environment because we assume attributes reflecting our own familiar paradigms for organizational behavior.
To effectively mitigate the disruptive and malignant effects of illicit power structures, organizations, and networks requires a substantial tolerance for compromise and trade-offs. A frequent mistake that often leads to ineffective policy is the assumption that all good things go—or even can go—together. We assume, for example, that policies to promote democratization and policies to promote stability will work in harmony. But this is not always the case, and efforts to accomplish both simultaneously may run aground due to inherent tensions between the two goals. To accomplish both peace and justice in or after violent conflict is, in some cases, too much to attempt at one time—and indeed, they may even be incompatible at any one time. Take, for example, the case of Colombia. Peace negotiations in Havana between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), beginning in 2012, have struggled with the problem of justice. How should the many crimes committed by both sides in a multigenerational struggle be accounted for? The Colombian people, victimized their whole lives by the struggle, demand justice in the form of retribution—jail time for convicted “war criminals.” But neither the Colombian armed forces nor the FARC cadres will willingly accept incarceration, and either can threaten to return to conflict. Some form of compromise will be required. In Sri Lanka, the armed forces accomplished decisive victory over a longtime tormentor, the LTTE, but only at the cost of massive collateral damage. Although no juridical judgment has been reached, the verdict of the international community has clearly been that measures taken by both adversaries defied international norms and acceptable behavior in war. Yet Sri Lankan leaders made a calculated judgment, based on experience, that nothing short of comprehensive military victory would prevent LTTE from carrying on the armed struggle. These are symptomatic of the inescapable moral ambiguities encountered when dealing with illicit power.
The temptation to intervene in conflict and transition situations is powerful and often justified. As international norms evolve and egregious abuse of power is no longer acceptable, such doctrines as the “responsibility to protect” (or R2P) have emerged, and the concept of “responsibility while protecting” suggests a set of principles and procedures to govern such interventions. Would-be interveners must realize, however, that their interventions can catalyze local reactions, including the emergence of illicit power structures. The case study of the Jaish al-Mahdi, by Phil Williams and Dan Bisbee, offers a clear lesson: this organization arose in response to the U.S. intervention in Iraq, which many in Iraq saw as illicit. Also, the infusion of significant financial resources into a conflict environment can reinforce or facilitate the operations of illicit organizations and networks, providing them with critical resources that undermine the state.
The effort to better understand the use of illicit power and its agents must be sustained. The cost of failure is simply too high. The human cost of terrorism vastly exceeds the number of terrorism-caused fatalities—although that number alone tells a horrible tale. According to one source, “On average, there were 1,122 terrorist attacks, 2,727 deaths, and 2,899 injuries per month worldwide in 2014.” And the scourge is expanding geographically: “The number of countries experiencing more than 50 deaths rose to 24 in 2013; the previous high had been 19 in 2008.” Although this book is not about terrorists per se, their criminal violence is a brutal manifestation of the use of illicit power. The illicit economy was estimated in 2011 to have amounted to “some 3.6 percent of GDP (2.3-5.5 percent) or around US$2.1 trillion in 2009.” If we accept Paul Collier’s estimate that civil wars cost at least $50 billion, and since “on average around two civil wars break out each year . . . the phenomenon is a $100 billion a year problem.” These rough estimates give a notion of the financial cost of activities frequently attributable to illicit power structures and networks. They indicate a substantial direct cost, as well as the obviously related opportunity cost. These figures exceed and clearly undermine total official development assistance, which amounted to $135 billion in 2013.
The investment in development, democratization, stabilization, and reconstruction, not only by the United States but by the international community as a whole, has been substantial, yet all is at risk. The FARC in Colombia, as Carlos Ospina points out in this book, continues to threaten state legitimacy in areas under its control, jeopardizing years of state building and investment in Colombia. Unmitigated impunity and the exercise of illicit power compromise state legitimacy, as occurred in Haiti when the gangs of Port-au-Prince terrorized the city. Ultimately, this brings us back to the self-interested problem of global security partnerships. The corrosive and debilitating effects of illicit power on struggling states mean that potential partner states cannot be relied on. Iraq and Afghanistan are only two examples of states in which literally billions of dollars of have been invested in the past decade, yet neither can be relied on to effectively support international security and our national security interests. The systemic risk posed by inaction or negligence regarding illicit power is that the domain of the rule-based system of states, within which the United States and many other countries have flourished, contracts, while the “coming anarchy” expands.