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September 29, 2011 / jeni

US Strategy to Combat Transnational Organised Crime: Progress, Not Perfect

The US government recently released its first Strategy to Combat Transnational Organised Crime (pdf). It’s an important milestone, reflecting not only the enhanced security threats emanating from TOC but the increasing awareness of the severity of such threats on the part of national governments.

Overall, the strategy says all the right things and offers a comprehensive and reasonable-sounding national response. If you are reading this blog, you can probably guess at the contents: drugs, Mexico, terrorism, drugs, cybercrime, arms, drugs, West Africa, intelligence-sharing, oh did we mention drugs? I would have liked to have seen some mention of additional illicit flows, such as timber, as well as the fact that eliminating one illicit activity often leads to the emergence of a substitute one — but in general I thought the Strategy (which is relatively brief) did an admirable job of covering the basics, in line with US interests. And I do believe the very existence of this concise and comprehensive Strategy — on top of significant bureaucratic and law enforcement initiatives — is a major sign of progress.

But of course, as a nitpicky academic, I have some quibbles.

First, there’s a slight tendency to accord TOC an agency and a top-down level of control that it does not always have — for example, by saying that it ‘takes advantage of failed states or contested spaces’ and ‘sets up shadow economies’. The Strategy does not really address the dynamic whereby localised or indigenous organised criminality emerges due to dysfunctional conditions and then links up with transnational networks.

This leads to a related critique, which is that the focus on transnational organised crime neglects a concurrent and major threat to US interests: namely, organised crime within a state in which the US has a vested military or strategic presence. In other words, organised crime poses a threat to the United States not only in its transnational forms but in its hyper-local varieties, if the latter inhibits security and stability in a country where the US maintains troops and/or conducts operations. I appreciate this particular Strategy was not intended to address this variable, but I think some mention of this additional security threat would not have been amiss.

Finally, it’s a shame that as an official US government publication, the Strategy has to toe the official line on the situation in Afghanistan. Or so I assume, as there is no other explanation for why the brief section on TOC in Afghanistan refers only to the drugs financing of the Taliban and other insurgents and offers no mention of corruption/criminality on the part of the Afghan government and security services (a security problem of equal magnitude).

Perhaps it’s only because I don’t have the highest of expectations for official policy in this area, but I think the Strategy offers a good initial framework for approaching the complex terrain of transnational crime. Its main defect is that it generally focuses on the problems for which we have some answers (such as terrorist financing and international drugs shipments) and neglects those for which we have no coherent response (Afghan corruption) or political will to address (the global arms trade). These latter challenges don’t cease to be security threats simply because they’re left out of our counter-strategies.

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