Pirates: not quite the swahsbuckling heroes our movies paint them

Sad Tidings From The East
I read two op-ed pieces today about Pirates and the internet news is full of stories too. One of the pieces is by Robert D. Kaplan in the New York Times and hits the hot button pretty much on the head:

The big danger in our day is that piracy can potentially serve as a platform for terrorists. Using pirate techniques, vessels can be hijacked and blown up in the middle of a crowded strait, or a cruise ship seized and the passengers of certain nationalities thrown overboard. You can see how Al Qaeda would be studying this latest episode at sea, in which Somali pirates attacked a Maersk Line container ship and were fought off by the American crew, even as they have managed to take the captain hostage in one of the lifeboats.

So we end up with the spectacle of an American destroyer, the Bainbridge, with enough Tomahawk missiles and other weaponry to destroy a small city, facing off against a handful of Somali pirates in a tiny lifeboat. This is not an efficient use of American resources. It indicates how pirates, like terrorists, can attack us asymmetrically. The challenge ahead for the United States is not only dealing with the rise of Chinese naval power, but also in handling more unconventional risks that will require a more scrappy, street-fighting Navy.

The much shorter and less interesting piece in the Washington Post does at least suggest that:

Bringing partner countries into the fight would ease the burden on major military powers, including the United States. It’s not easy to sustain a major warship, especially in hostile waters. “Where do you get gas? Where do you buy fresh fruit?” Kraska asked. “You can only keep a single ship at sea for so long.”

More thoughts on it
It would be worthwhile putting the piracy into some perspective and in that regard the current issue of Foreign Affairs has an interesting article by the same Robert D. Kaplan that discusses naval rivalry in the Indian Ocean:

The greater Indian Ocean region encompasses the entire arc of Islam, from the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago. Although the Arabs and the Persians are known to Westerners primarily as desert peoples, they have also been great seafarers. In the Middle Ages, they sailed from Arabia to China; proselytizing along the way, they spread their faith through sea-based commerce. Today, the western reaches of the Indian Ocean include the tinderboxes of Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan — constituting a network of dynamic trade as well as a network of global terrorism, piracy, and drug smuggling. Hundreds of millions of Muslims — the legacy of those medieval conversions — live along the Indian Ocean’s eastern edges, in India and Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.

And a nice Q&A with him, here.

The sad truth of these events is that eventually, the pirates will be defeated (as I wrote this, I got news of this story, detailing the freeing of their current captive and the killing of three of their number). They will eventually overstep the mark and a force will be roused to clear them from the waters they inhabit. That may be sooner than we think. Of copurse even swift action and a scouring of the sea, will not resolve the anarchy on land that allows them to operate, so there may be pirates for some time to come!


** UPDATE **
It is worth reading these posts over on Coming Anarchy Stop Calling Them Pirates and Kaplan’s Latest for more thoughts.
They also point to Political Warfare and Harpers. If you want some background try International Crisis Group of the BBC. The ICG links to a great article from the International Herald Tribune which leads of with:

Strange how an African country can be moving from prolonged chaos to violent collapse and no one in the world notices until a couple of European boats get seized by armed gunmen.

War-ravaged Somalia is in the worst shape it has been in for years – which, for this devastated country that has not had a proper government for nearly a generation, is really saying something.

The Coming Anarchy – Kaplan's piece and the blog

Eoin Purcell

The warning bell
All that digging in the archives lead me to Kaplan’s fabulous February 1994 piece The Coming Anarchy which attempted to shake off the lethargy and myopia that had spread across the Western World with the downfall of communism and the seemingly rapid spread of democracy to the former soviet satellites.

Kaplan offered what he (or the sub editor) nicely headed:

A Premonition of the Future

West Africa is becoming the symbol of worldwide demographic, environmental, and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real “strategic” danger. Disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms, and international drug cartels are now most tellingly demonstrated through a West African prism. West Africa provides an appropriate introduction to the issues, often extremely unpleasant to discuss, that will soon confront our civilization. To remap the political earth the way it will be a few decades hence—as I intend to do in this article—I find I must begin with West Africa.

There is much more unsettling stuff there that seems relevant even now from his points about Côte d’Ivoire:

Consider “Chicago.” I refer not to Chicago, Illinois, but to a slum district of Abidjan, which the young toughs in the area have named after the American city. (“Washington” is another poor section of Abidjan.) Although Sierra Leone is widely regarded as beyond salvage, the Ivory Coast has been considered an African success story, and Abidjan has been called “the Paris of West Africa.” Success, however, was built on two artificial factors: the high price of cocoa, of which the Ivory Coast is the world’s leading producer, and the talents of a French expatriate community, whose members have helped run the government and the private sector. The expanding cocoa economy made the Ivory Coast a magnet for migrant workers from all over West Africa: between a third and a half of the country’s population is now non-Ivorian, and the figure could be as high as 75 percent in Abidjan.

During the 1980s cocoa prices fell and the French began to leave. The skyscrapers of the Paris of West Africa are a facade. Perhaps 15 percent of Abidjan’s population of three million people live in shantytowns like Chicago and Washington, and the vast majority live in places that are not much better.

Not all of these places appear on any of the readily available maps. This is another indication of how political maps are the products of tired conventional wisdom and, in the Ivory Coast’s case, of an elite that will ultimately be forced to relinquish power.

Chicago, like more and more of Abidjan, is a slum in the bush: a checkerwork of corrugated zinc roofs and walls made of cardboard and black plastic wrap. It is located in a gully teeming with coconut palms and oil palms, and is ravaged by flooding. Few residents have easy access to electricity, a sewage system, or a clean water supply. The crumbly red laterite earth crawls with foot-long lizards both inside and outside the shacks. Children defecate in a stream filled with garbage and pigs, droning with malarial mosquitoes. In this stream women do the washing. Young unemployed men spend their time drinking beer, palm wine, and gin while gambling on pinball games constructed out of rotting wood and rusty nails. These are the same youths who rob houses in more prosperous Ivorian neighborhoods at night. One man I met, Damba Tesele, came to Chicago from Burkina Faso in 1963. A cook by profession, he has four wives and thirty-two children, not one of whom has made it to high school. He has seen his shanty community destroyed by municipal authorities seven times since coming to the area. Each time he and his neighbors rebuild. Chicago is the latest incarnation.

Fifty-five percent of the Ivory Coast’s population is urban, and the proportion is expected to reach 62 percent by 2000. The yearly net population growth is 3.6 percent. This means that the Ivory Coast’s 13.5 million people will become 39 million by 2025, when much of the population will consist of urbanized peasants like those of Chicago. But don’t count on the Ivory Coast’s still existing then. Chicago, which is more indicative of Africa’s and the Third World’s demographic present—and even more of the future—than any idyllic junglescape of women balancing earthen jugs on their heads, illustrates why the Ivory Coast, once a model of Third World success, is becoming a case study in Third World catastrophe.

President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who died last December at the age of about ninety, left behind a weak cluster of political parties and a leaden bureaucracy that discourages foreign investment. Because the military is small and the non-Ivorian population large, there is neither an obvious force to maintain order nor a sense of nationhood that would lessen the need for such enforcement. The economy has been shrinking since the mid-1980s. Though the French are working assiduously to preserve stability, the Ivory Coast faces a possibility worse than a coup: an anarchic implosion of criminal violence—an urbanized version of what has already happened in Somalia. Or it may become an African Yugoslavia, but one without mini-states to replace the whole.

Now that’s a long quote but when you read these stories from the recent past you see just how clear sighted the article was. Now the country has regained some sense of normalcy in the last twu years but the tensions remain.

And the blog
The blog is an interesting discussion forum based on the ideas and concepts the Kaplan brought forth in his article, but Kaplan does not contribute there and he is not involved in any way. He is more of an inspiration. There is no end of variety to the topics covered so I won’t try and elaborate except to say that this is by far my favourite on a review.

So much to think about sometimes is there not?

Technology moves rapdily (even now)

Eoin purcell

Sometimes silly ideas catch my eye
For a very short while I was enamoured by the idea that our 50 years was moving slower in a technology sense than previous blocks of 50 years. For a while I agreed with the concept thoughtlessly and then I realised it was hokum.

Change never happens in exactly the same way and often the most incredible changes of the past block of years are things we rarely account for. And even allowing for that sometimes we take enormous change and see it as mundane because we lack the right perspective. Rob over at snowbooks posts today on the very point:

The CRAY-1A had a 12.5-nanosecond clock, 64 vector registers, and 1 million 64-bit words of high-speed memory.” All very impressive I’m sure, but my current mobile phone could give it a very serious run for its money – and probably beat it for many types of calculation.

Well worth reading.

I’d also advise reading The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton which although it doesn’t make the same point I’m making is nonetheless an excellent perspective on innovation and technological advances. You can buy that here*.

Rob’s got me thinking

*Non affliated so I don’t make any money!