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May 5, 2009 / Tom Hill

Trading Crime for Conflict

Acquiring allies through unconventional means can be a useful practice ...

Acquiring allies through unconventional means can be a useful practice. Imagine if the bandits had won their allegiance first ...

I’ve been reading over the Afghan NGO Safety Office’s report on violence data for the first quarter of 2009 (kindly sent over to me by Jeni). They mention that one feature of the significant growth in violence in the past few months has been a growth in the number of ‘criminal actors’ conducting violence on behalf of ‘conflict actors’. Criminal violence has been a sustained trend in Afghanistan but now they are increasingly operating on an apparently sub-contracted basis for the macro-conflict groups. This echoes previous cases of militant groups hiring adept criminal organisations to carry out their armed operations, which the Italian Red Brigades were suspected of doing with the Mafia in the 70s.

However, we don’t really know how these criminal actors have ended up fighting on behalf of Afgan insurgents. We might assume that they have been ‘contracted’ on a business basis, but their involvement, and the negotiations and deals leading to it, is likely to be far more complex and nuanced. What this does tell us is that the insurgents in Afghanistan are highly skilled in acquiring allies that expand their reach and capabilities, allowing them to increase their grip over the initiative in their area of operations. Others (including contributors to this blog) may disagree,  but I would say the implication is that there are many opportunities for the Afghan government and coalition to do the same that are being missed. Making deals with shady organisations is, well, shady, but state-building/stabilisation is about knitting together a society, bringing disparate authority structures into a peaceful set of relationships. Furthermore, as previous posts here have suggested, there is a spectrum of criminal actors, with some exhibiting far more palatable and even desirable governance traits than others. But either way, not getting out and about and leading the way in conducting negotiations with representatives of local authority structures (of all kinds) can be akin to leaving an arsenal door ajar for the insurgents.



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  1. Adrian Johnson / May 7 2009 10:53

    There is also another interesting angle to this. To what extent is the existence of these ‘criminal’ gangs and organisations epiphenomenal? I do not think there is anything inherently lawless or criminal in Afghan society (or indeed in any society). But if we look at the circumstances an average young Afghan male may find himself in, to me it appears devoid of opportunity.

    So either you co-opt these formations by out-bidding your opposition in a market for support, or you provide them an alternative path of economic enrichment, social prestige and political power. My hunch is that given the weakness of the central government to extend its writ into outlying areas, it will have to be the first option.

  2. Tom Hill / May 7 2009 11:20

    Thanks Adrian. I agree and think that the question of the opportunity structure is a central consideration. This relates to my previous post on militancy in Guinea-Bissau and how criminal enterprise opportunities can undermine insurgent recruitment. The criminal organisations themselves can offer your ‘alternative path of economic enrishment, social prestige and political power’. The tricky bit is finding ways to bring the right kind of organisations into the fold without too much in the way of disastrous effect.

    On the potentiall huge benefits of dealing with seemingly nasty but influential characters see the diary entry at Small Wars Journal by Nick Dowling on his observations in Nangarhar province

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