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14 November 2007

Enigmatic biographies of the damned

Via the Economist this week, we learn of the death of an adversary whose kind has nearly been forgotten. Khun Sa was a warlord who amassed a private army and smuggling operation which dominated Asian heroin trafficking from remotest Burma over the course of nearly two decades. In the end, despite indictment in US courts, the politics of a failed state permitted him to retire as an investor and business figure, and to die peacefully in his own bed.

The stories of men such as these however shaped more than a region. They are the defining features of the flow of events in a world of dark globalization. Yet these are not the biographies that are taught in international relations academia, nor even in their counterpart intelligence studies classrooms. The psychology of such men, and the personal and organizational decision-making processes of the non-state groups which amassed power to rival a princeling of Renaissance Europe, are equally as worthy of study both for historical reasons as well as for the lessons they teach about the nature of empowered individuals.

Prospective human factors and leadership analysts are not the only students which would benefit from a deeper pol/mil study of the dynamics of warlords and their followers in the Shan and Wa states. The structures which were left behind upon Khun Sa’s surrender were no doubt of enduring value to the ruling junta, and tracing the hostile connectivity provided to a dictatorial government by robust transnational organized crime is an excellent example of the kombinat model in a unique context outside of the classic Russian cases.

It is our profound hope that the study of such adversaries may also provided needed depth and contrast to the study of historical intelligence reporting regarding trafficking throughout the Golden Triangle, and the wider issues of Asian conflict dynamics, during the turbulent decades of the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s. It is rare to look deeply into the histories recounted by one’s adversaries in the non-state realm. But these were the fights that laid the evolutionary basis for the evolution of much harder non-state problems, and were waged on our side for the most part by organizations that were largely divorced from the classic core of the intelligence community for a very long time. These activities are no less worthy of examination, and the lessons learned from those struggles no less important to the teaching of future generations of intelligence professionals than any of the major cases of WWII and the Cold War.

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