Feature Story

Mission Impossible

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Mission Impossible - Organized crime erodes the legitimacy of the state from the local population with global consequences. What can we do? 

Yesterday the world commemorated 15 years since the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks took place in the United States. That horrific day directly affected the lives of the nearly 3,000 people who died and the 6,000 injured. It also unleashed a chain of events that would significantly change the world for years to come. Most notably it fundamentally shaped the democratic paths of many nations. Afghanistan is arguably the clearest example.

While violence and instability already affected much of Afghanistan’s recent history, particularly since the 1973 military takeover, the system installed in 2002 has been fragile at best. First under the leadership of Hamid Karzai, the government that replaced the ousted Taliban government after the US-led multinational intervention has been largely ineffective in safeguarding security and providing development. The current government, under the power sharing agreement between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, has not been much better. Rural areas have been particularly affected. There, the Taliban has slowly but surely been able to regain territorial control

There are good reasons for this. The UN Office for Drugs and Crime estimates that the Taliban’s opium trade generated 155 million USD in 2009 alone. This makes it one of the largest organized crime syndicates in the world. Corrupting public officials to control the country’s trafficking routes is a small expenditure for the Taliban. But it takes a huge toll on the Afghan fragile democratic architecture. The chaotic 2014 elections are a case in point.

Two new reports released today by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime shed light on these trends. With case studies from Afghanistan, Somalia, Niger and Colombia, the research illustrates how organized crime erodes the legitimacy of the state from the local population. The Taliban’s targeted provision of essential services has been a successful strategy. When your children are thirsty, you do not care who is providing the water. It could be the state, the Taliban, or whoever is willing and capable to do so. 

The reports also discuss the central–local power dynamics and how organized crime moulds them. Evidence suggests that decentralization alone does not fundamentally increase or decrease political corruption from organized crime. In cases like Colombia where localities enjoy high levels of autonomy, political corruption has thrived in some municipalities. Alas, the same happened in Afghanistan where all political power orbits around Kabul. The common link in those particular localities seems to be scarce state capacity and strong local patronage networks. Political corruption and state fragility are the by-products.

As violence in Afghanistan escalates, and the National Unity Government is on the brink of political breakup, these local political intricacies need to be considered in any realistic policies to counter organized crime. In Niger, for example, integrating some marginalized communities and maintaining relatively equitable resource sharing mitigated some of the most troublesome effects of organized crime on political life. At least thus far. The challenge now is that stagnant development does not continue forcing communities at the borders towards religious extremism. 

In Colombia, on the other hand, the approach focused on improving local oversight over elections and political parties. Special prosecutors and investigators now have a mandate to deal with electoral crimes. Political parties and their executives are furthermore responsible for vetting candidates with links to organized crime. All these strategies, their achievements and failures, remind us that state legitimacy requires a fine balance between development, oversight and transparency. As Afghanistan continues its reconstruction these efforts are more important than ever. Global security in a post-9/11 world is intimately tied to its success.

About the Author

FORMER Senior Programme Officer
Catalina Uribe Burcher

Catalina Uribe Burcher was a Senior Programme Officer in the Political Participation and Representation Programme. Uribe Burcher focused on money in politics, integrity and the threats that transnational illicit networks pose to democratic processes.