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Endless Intervention: The Great Danger of Convergence
Bryan T. Baker
The modern national-state is the king of the jungle, but organized criminals, terrorists, traffickers, and insurgents have infiltrated this Leviathan, reducing its vigor and vitality in parasitic fashion. Some scholars see this illicit convergence as capable of bringing down the entire Westphalian system, ushering in a Hobbesian epoch full of violence and fear. While convergence is a threat to US national security and the Westphalian system, the degree of that threat has been overstated; a greater danger of convergence is its ability to draw the US into another seemingly endless series of interventions abroad, some of which may be morally questionable. In this essay I will argue that the threat of convergence to the Westphalian System has been exaggerated. Then, using the FARC and Colombia as a case study, I will argue that convergence is already being used to justify morally questionable interventions.
How Dangerous Is Convergence?
Distinguished researchers Hilary Matfess[i] and Michael Miklaucic[ii] argue that the Westphalian system is weak and vulnerable today because terrorists, insurgents, and transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), are increasingly challenging state authority by exploiting the permissive environments of sovereign states.[iii] According to these authors:
“The last ten years have seen unprecedented growth in interactivity between and among a wide range of illicit networks, as well as the emergence of hybrid organizations that use methods characteristic of both terrorists and criminal groups. In a convergence of interests, terrorist organizations collaborate with cartels, and trafficking organizations collude with insurgents.”[iv]
This phenomenon has been extraordinarily difficult for national-states to counter, because such states are not well suited to counter such complex and sophisticated non-state threats. This is due to how national-states initially formed. Dr. Charles Tilly, in his groundbreaking work, Coercion, Capital, and European States, argues that the national-state emerged as the dominant type of state in the world system because it was the most efficient at making war with other types of states. This was due to the advantages the national-state had in coercive power and in bringing resources to bear in wars. Due to these advantages, most states eventually adopted this model of organization as a survival mechanism.[v] Thus, the national-state emerged from a natural selection process that equipped it to counter other sovereign states—not illicit non-state actors. Though the national-state is infinitely more powerful than most illicit groups—as a lion is more powerful than a parasite—these groups evolved specifically to exploit the national-state system. Characteristics that are meant to keep a national-state safe from other national-states—such as state sovereignty, massive military power, and a plethora of natural resources—are all exploited by illicit groups to achieve their goals, while providing little utility to the state in its attempt to combat them.
Though dealing with illicit groups has always been an issue for national-states, Matfess and Miklaucic contend that convergence—or “the interactivity and hybridization of diverse illicit networks”[vi]—drastically raises the stakes. Like a parasite that takes control of its host, these scholars argue that growing convergence among such groups will lead to hybridization, and the capture of entire states. This will result in criminal national-states that do not conform to the rules and norms of the Westphalian system, but instead embrace an “ecosystem of crime and violence [that] threatens us all and much of the progress we have seen in recent centuries.”[vii]
Their thesis is not without its critics. Some argue, for instance, that highly ideological terrorist organizations tend to not want to work with criminal groups who are typically motivated by greed or the desire for power. Likewise, criminal groups who prefer to stay under the radar would be wise to avoid association with terror groups that intentionally draw attention to themselves through high profile attacks that elicit powerful responses from powerful states.[viii] Such analyses fail to recognize that world history is full of unlikely partners allied in the face of a common enemy; the US and USSR in World War II is a case in point. Thus, though these illicit groups may have widely varying goals and ideologies, and though they may despise other illicit groups, an assortment of factors can and does forge alliances of opportunity between such organizations.
Other detractors, like John Fishel, claim that insurgency, terrorism, and organized crime have co-existed throughout recorded history, and that their modern manifestations are very similar to those of the past.[ix] As proof for his thesis, Fishel puts forward piracy sponsored by Rome, the Barbary States, and the British Empire. He also mentions the Ku Klux Klan, their “low-grade guerilla warfare,” and their reign of terror in the South during Reconstruction. Taking Fishel’s comments on the KKK a step further, we can see this was clearly a convergent group that had both economic and political reasons for committing acts of violence that were committed with the tacit approval of Southern state governments. But an example of convergence that Fishel does not mention is perhaps even more telling. Could not the British in the 1770s have labeled American patriot groups like the Sons of Liberty as “convergent” groups of crime and terror? The Sons of Liberty were smuggling illicit goods to avoid British customs duties while committing acts of political violence (terrorism?) against British tax collectors.
Matfess and Miklaucic believe that such assertions are naive and discount modern enablers like transportation advances, communication and information technology, and the unprecedented profits to be found in the illicit markets of the modern world. These allow illicit groups “to avail themselves of lethal technology, military-grade weaponry, real-time information, and professional services of the highest quality, including legal, accounting, security, and paramilitary services.”[x] For Matfess and Miklaucic these modern enablers dramatically raise the stakes. They argue that this convergence between illicit groups really could bring down the Westphalian system and usher in a Hobbesian new world order based on violence and fear.[xi] This fear is overblown. First, as stated above, world history is full of examples of convergence; not much is new here beyond the technology advances, which the ‘good guys’ also benefit from. Second, parasites rarely kill their host.[xii] Why would illicit groups want to bring down a Westphalian system which they have learned to exploit so successfully? Furthermore, the Westphalian concept of state sovereignty actually protects criminal leaders who manage to gain control of a state by protecting them from foreign intervention and giving them a near monopoly on illicit (and licit) activity in their territory.[xiii] Therefore, while convergence is a real threat that the US should counter, it is not Armageddon. The idea of convergence does invoke fear, however, and it is the fear of convergence that poses the greatest threat to countries like the United States.
Exploiting the Threat?
During the Cold War, the United States justified a multitude of military interventions and proxy wars abroad—some justified, some not—by citing the need to contain communism. The United States also sent piles of development aid (itself, or through International Monetary Fund or World Bank loans) to its developing world allies in the cause of containment. Often, this aid wound up in the accounts of dictators that were guilty of egregious human rights abuses in their home countries; said rights abuses were largely ignored by America because countering the Soviet Union trumped all else, or because the US wanted natural resources from said countries.[xiv] William Easterly, renowned development economist at New York University, contends that the Global War on Terror (GWOT) is the new communism—that America will overlook an assortment of human rights abuses perpetrated by its allies, if said allies are willing to cooperate in the GWOT or provide the US with natural resources.[xv]
This already troubling phenomenon becomes increasingly problematic in a world of convergence, where an assortment of illicit activities are likely to be viewed by US decisionmakers through the GWOT lens. The result could be another half-century of morally questionable US interventions abroad. In order to explore this idea further, I will consider an instance in this century where the US has already overlooked rights abuses in order to tackle a convergent illicit group and gain natural resources.
Rights Abuses in Colombia
The FARC[xvi] is commonly referenced in papers on convergence because the group conducted guerrilla warfare, terrorism, drug trafficking, and a host of other illicit activities. The group also had ties to an al-Qaeda affiliate[xvii] and to the Hugo Chavez regime.[xviii] According to renowned insurgency scholar Bard O’Neil however, the FARC should be characterized as a classic Egalitarian Insurgency—one that sought to create a new social, political, and economic system based on distributional equality.[xix] This insurgency was the result of extreme social, economic, and political inequality in rural Colombia,[xx] as well as the fact that wealthy landowners frequently sent death squads to attack the poor and take their land.[xxi] Though the FARC did utilize terrorism, such tactics are common in civil war and do not automatically make a group commensurate with al-Qaeda. Also, while the FARC largely funded their insurgency through the drug trade,[xxii] the FARC’s motivations for fighting were based on grievance, not greed. Perhaps the best evidence in support of this assertion is the fact that, despite earning billions from the drug trade,[xxiii] FARC leaders spent decades in the jungle living in primitive conditions and enduring constant hardships.[xxiv] This is in stark contrast to the gaudy mansions and decadent lifestyles of those, like Pablo Escobar, who were in the drug business for non-ideological reasons.
Thus, while this insurgent group did utilize some of the techniques of terrorist organizations and drug cartels, they were something very different, say, from the so-called Islamic State or the Mexican drug trafficking organizations. Yet, when the US government (USG) went after the FARC through Plan Colombia, the action was largely sold to the American people as a counter-narcotics initiative.[xxv] Then, a few years later (after 9/11) the US government began labeling the group as “narcoterrorists” so that efforts against the FARC could be grafted into the Global War on Terror.[xxvi]
In order to sell the image of the FARC as narcoterrorists—as opposed to egalitarian insurgents—the US government launched a propaganda campaign at home and in Colombia.[xxvii] In this campaign, US Secretary of State Colin Powell informed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the FARC should be classified in the same category as al-Qaeda, Senator Bob Graham claimed that the situation in Colombia warranted making it the main theater in the Global War on Terror, and the head of US Southern Command labeled drugs a ‘weapon of mass destruction’.[xxviii] The campaign worked. In July of 2002 the US Congress passed a $28 billion counterterrorism bill that included $35 million to support efforts in Colombia.[xxix]
Thus far in this paper, the FARC has been cast in a relatively sympathetic light. But the group, of course, was guilty of all sorts of kidnappings, massacres, acts of terrorism, and drug related activities. Why then, was US intervention against the FARC ill-conceived? First, all of those illicit acts—though terrible—were in response to legitimate grievances against a state that had failed to live up to its basic responsibility of maintaining a state monopoly on violence. Second, in supporting the Government of Colombia (GOC) in its war on the FARC, the US was indirectly supporting right-wing death squads—which, by the way, were also heavily involved in the drug trade and frequently committed acts of terror—that regularly colluded with the GOC in the war against the guerrillas.[xxx] By the 1980s, these paramilitary groups were committing a majority of human rights abuses in Colombia; one study in 1999 by Human Rights Watch showed that 78% of human rights abuses committed were attributable to these paramilitaries.[xxxi] Therefore, in aiding the GOC, the US was tacitly allied with groups that were arguably even worse than the FARC.
If the FARC was not really an international terrorist organization like al-Qaeda, and if other groups were committing more human rights abuses than they were, why was the US so keen on attacking them? Senator Graham’s argument for classifying the FARC as a terrorist organization on par with al-Qaeda provides an answer. In October of 2001, Graham claimed that out of the nearly five hundred terrorist attacks committed against the United States in 2000, 44% percent occurred in Colombia. What Graham failed to disclose was the fact that the vast majority of said attacks were bombings of oil pipelines associated with US companies; not a single US citizen was killed in the attacks he referenced.[xxxii] If US motives for involving itself in Colombia’s civil war were not already clear enough based on Graham’s statement, things became abundantly more so in late 2002 when the Bush administration asked Congress to authorize $94 million in order to assist the Government of Colombia in protecting oil pipelines in the country so that American oil supplies would be secure during the Global War on Terror— US Special Forces troops were subsequently sent to train GOC forces to protect said pipelines.[xxxiii] Now, this author will admit that there were also good reasons to intervene against the FARC. The fact remains, however, that this intervention was morally questionable, and that it was largely justified based on the idea of convergent threats.
According to Scott Helfstein and John Solomon—scholars writing for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, “Appending the label ‘criminal’ or ‘terrorist’ on a particular organization that may or may not always be consistent with its raison d'être, objectives and motives could create problems for countering such groups in the future.”[xxxiv] This statement appears prophetic in the FARC’s case. Though the group technically no longer exists as an insurgency, FARC demobilization camps around Colombia are experiencing massive depopulation; the former guerrillas are disappearing,[xxxv] and allegedly joining Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and other illicit groups that are carving up the FARC’s former territory.[xxxvi] This is because the root causes that led to the creation of the FARC were never fully remedied. The Colombian countryside remains impoverished, violent, and at times isolated from the state. Furthermore, land inequality actually worsened over the life of the FARC insurgency; Colombia currently has the most unequal land distribution in Latin America with “the largest one percent of landholdings concentrat[ing] 81 percent of land, leaving only 19 percent of land distributed among the remaining 99 percent of farms.”[xxxvii] So what will demobilizing FARC fighters do, become farm laborers for Colombia’s ultra-rich? Of course not, that would be contrary to everything the group fought for. Thus, they will take their martial skills to other organizations. Had the US and the GOC dealt with the FARC as they deserved to be—as belligerents in a civil war with legitimate grievances—and had grievances been redressed, Colombia may very well have experienced peace. Instead, Colombia will just have to deal with the same security problems in their latest manifestations.
While convergence certainly poses a threat to US national security, the US must be careful to evaluate every group’s raison d'être before joining the fight against them. Or, to be clearer, Congress should duly conduct this evaluation before authorizing funding for future interventions, even if US government agencies are adamant in their internal classification of a particular group. The linkages of convergence can make almost any illicit group appear to be narcotics-based or terror-based, but such labels may not adequately reflect the reason the group exists in the first place—said labels may be applied and exaggerated to secure congressional funding or public support for intervention. This can result in combating symptoms, instead of the root causes that brought that group into existence in the first place. It can also result in the dismantling of one group, only for it to be replaced by those that are far worse—for convergent groups are not only parasites, they’re Hydras.
Brown, Kimberley. "Why Are Former FARC Rebels Leaving Reintegration Camps?" Colombia News | Al Jazeera. March 30, 2018. Accessed April 02, 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/03/farc-rebels-leaving-reintegration-camps-180327141706796.html.
Bruce, Victoria, Karin Hayes, and Jorge Enrique Botero. Hostage nation: Colombia’s Guerrilla Army and the Failed War on Drugs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
Colombia's Challenge: Addressing Land Inequality and Consolidating Peace | Oxfam International Blogs." https://blogs.oxfam.org/en/blogs/17-07-06-colombias-challenge-addressing-land-inequality-consolidating-peace.
Felter, Claire, and Danielle Renwick. "Colombia's Civil Conflict." Council on Foreign Relations. January 11, 2017. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/colombias-civil-conflict.
Easterly, William. The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. New York: Basic Books, a Member of the Perseus Book Group, 2015. Pg. 6, 9, 105, 118
Felbab-Brown, Vanda. Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War On Drugs. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2009.
Fishel, John T. "Afterword." In Gangs, Pseudo-Militaries, and Other Modern Mercenaries: New Dynamics in Uncomfortable Wars, by Max G. Manwaring, 167-82. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.
Forero, Juan. "New Role for U.S. in Colombia: Protecting a Vital Oil Pipeline." The New York Times. October 04, 2002. https://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/04/world/new-role-for-us-in-colombia-protecting-a-vital-oil-pipeline.html.
Helfstein, Scott, and John Solomon. Risky Business: The Global Threat Network and the Politics of Contraband. Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 2014.
"Lincoln's Spot Resolutions." National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed March 31, 2018. https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/lincoln-resolutions.
Leech, Garry M. The FARC: The Longest Insurgency. Halifax: Fernwood Pub., 2011.
Matfess, Hilary, and Michael Miklaucic, eds. Beyond Convergence: World without Order. Washington, D.C.: Center for Complex Operations, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, 2016.
"'Mexican Drug Cartels Are Rearming Colombia's Demobilized Guerrillas'." Colombia News | Colombia Reports. February 06, 2018. Accessed April 02, 2018. https://colombiareports.com/mexican-drug-cartels-rearming-demobilized-farc-guerrillas/.
Miklaucic, Michael and Brewer, Jacqueline, eds. "Convergence: Illicit Networks and National Security in the Age of Globalization." National Defense University Press. April 01, 2013. Accessed April 02, 2018. http://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/Article/717659/convergence-illicit-networks-and-national-security-in-the-age-of-globalization/.
Nordqvist, Christian. "Parasites: Types, in Humans, Worms, and Ectoparasites." Medical News Today. February 16, 2018. Accessed April 02, 2018. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/220302.php.
O'Neill, Bard E. Insurgency & Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005
Paulo, Robin Yapp in Sao. "South American Drug Gangs Funding Al-Qaeda Terrorists." The Telegraph. December 29, 2010. Accessed March 31, 2018. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/colombia/8230134/South-American-drug-gangs-funding-al-Qaeda-terrorists.html.
"The FARC and Colombia's Illegal Drug Trade." Wilson Center. November 25, 2014. Accessed March 30, 2018. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/the-farc-and-colombias-illegal-drug-trade.
Tilly, Charles. 1992. Coercion, Capital and European States, A.D. 990 - 1992. Revised edition. Cambridge, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. Pg 9
"United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect." United Nations. Accessed April 02, 2018. http://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/about-responsibility-to-protect.html.
[ii] Michael Miklaucic is the Director of Research, Information, and Publications at the Center for Complex Operations.
[iii] Matfess, Hilary, and Michael Miklaucic, eds. Beyond Convergence: World without Order. Washington, D.C.: Center for Complex Operations, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, 2016. Pg ix.
[iv] Matfess and Miklaucic ix
[v] Tilly, Charles. 1992. Coercion, Capital and European States, A.D. 990 - 1992. Revised edition. Cambridge, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. Pg 11 and 17
[vi] Matfess and Miklaucic x
[vii] Matfess and Miklaucic ix-x
[viii] Matfess and Miklaucic x
[ix] Fishel, John T. "Afterword." In Gangs, Pseudo-Militaries, and Other Modern Mercenaries: New Dynamics in Uncomfortable Wars, by Max G. Manwaring, 167-82. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.
[x] Matfess and Miklaucic x-xi
[xi] Matfess and Miklaucic xiv
[xii] Nordqvist, Christian. "Parasites: Types, in Humans, Worms, and Ectoparasites." Medical News Today. February 16, 2018. Accessed April 02, 2018. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/220302.php.
[xiii] "United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect." United Nations. Accessed April 02, 2018. http://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/about-responsibility-to-protect.html.
[xiv] Easterly, William. The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. New York: Basic Books, a Member of the Perseus Book Group, 2015. Pg. 6, 9, 105, 118
[xv] Easterly 118
[xvi] Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo, will be referenced in this paper as simply ‘the FARC.’
[xvii] Paulo, Robin Yapp in Sao. "South American Drug Gangs Funding Al-Qaeda Terrorists." The Telegraph. December 29, 2010. Accessed March 31, 2018. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/colombia/8230134/South-American-drug-gangs-funding-al-Qaeda-terrorists.html.
[xviii] Miklaucic, Michael and Brewer, Jacqueline, eds. "Convergence: Illicit Networks and National Security in the Age of Globalization." National Defense University Press. April 01, 2013. Accessed April 02, 2018. http://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/Article/717659/convergence-illicit-networks-and-national-security-in-the-age-of-globalization/.
[xix] O'Neill, Bard E. Insurgency & Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005. Pg. 20
[xx] Felbab-Brown, Vanda. Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War On Drugs. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2009. Pg. 77
[xxi] Bruce, Victoria, Karin Hayes, and Jorge Enrique Botero. Hostage nation: Colombia’s Guerrilla Army and the Failed War on Drugs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Pg. 22
[xxii] Felbab-Brown 79-80
[xxiii] "The FARC and Colombia's Illegal Drug Trade." Wilson Center. November 25, 2014. Accessed March 30, 2018. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/the-farc-and-colombias-illegal-drug-trade.
[xxiv] Leech, Garry M. The FARC: The Longest Insurgency. Halifax: Fernwood Pub., 2011. Pg. 72
[xxv] Leech 77
[xxvi] Leech 87
[xxvii] Leech 87
[xxviii] Leech 86 and 87
[xxix] Leech 87
[xxx] Leech 106-107
[xxxi] Leech 105-106
[xxxii] Leech 86
[xxxiii] Forero, Juan. "New Role for U.S. in Colombia: Protecting a Vital Oil Pipeline." The New York Times. October 04, 2002. https://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/04/world/new-role-for-us-in-colombia-protecting-a-vital-oil-pipeline.html.
[xxxiv] Helfstein, Scott, and John Solomon. Risky Business: The Global Threat Network and the Politics of Contraband. Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 2014. 20
[xxxv] Brown, Kimberley. "Why Are Former FARC Rebels Leaving Reintegration Camps?" Colombia News | Al Jazeera. March 30, 2018. Accessed April 02, 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/03/farc-rebels-leaving-reintegration-camps-180327141706796.html.
[xxxvi] "'Mexican Drug Cartels Are Rearming Colombia's Demobilized Guerrillas'." Colombia News | Colombia Reports. February 06, 2018. Accessed April 02, 2018. https://colombiareports.com/mexican-drug-cartels-rearming-demobilized-farc-guerrillas/.
[xxxvii] "Colombia's Challenge: Addressing Land Inequality and Consolidating Peace | Oxfam International Blogs." https://blogs.oxfam.org/en/blogs/17-07-06-colombias-challenge-addressing-land-inequality-consolidating-peace.