Organized crime, illicit economies, civil violence and international order: More complex than you think

An Afghan boy works on a poppy field in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Parwiz
Editor's note:

This essay analyzes the multiple threats that organized crime and illicit economies pose to states and the international order, with a particular focus on the security dimensions of the crime-conflict nexus. It also examines various pathways out of the conflict-crime nexus, including defeating militants without suppressing illicit economies, suppressing crime and illicit economies without ending conflict, and state co-optation of illicit economies. This piece was originally published by Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.


Several years ago in the south of Afghanistan, the core of the Taliban’s insurgency effort, the Taliban hammered up posters offering to protect villagers against government attempts to eradicate the illegal poppy fields and seize opium stocks. The Taliban insurgents left a cell phone number to call if a government eradication team sponsored by the United States showed up. In one village near Kandahar, the villagers caught on to a sting operation in which a counternarcotics agent posed as an opium trader. After his visits to the village to buy opium were followed by raids on the villagers’ opium crops, the villagers phoned the Taliban. The Taliban instructed them to invite the suspected informant back, capture him, and force him to call the police. When the police arrived in the village, the Taliban ambushed them, killing several policemen, including the police chief. The Taliban scored a success against the government and limited its presence in the area. Crucially, this episode fortified the relationship between the local population and the Taliban, even though the village residents had previously shown no pro-Taliban feelings. The Taliban used its protection of the illegal poppy economy to greatly increase its legitimacy with the local population and reduce the legitimacy of the Afghan government, accusing it and its U.S. sponsor of killing people with hunger by destroying their poppy fields.

This story from Afghanistan illustrates the complex relationships between illegal economies and organized crime, on the one hand, and civil wars, military conflict, and international order, on the other. Many studies too simplistically posit a unidirectional relationship between state strength and criminality and the effects of illicit economies on international order. Their standard argument: Illicit economies weaken states, fuel internal conflict, and undermine international order. They also cause undesirable international spillovers: the trafficking of illicit commodities and, perhaps, fueling of conflict in other countries. Hence, the logic goes, if illicit economies are suppressed, the internal conflict recedes, the state is strengthened, and international order is reinforced. Yet these relationships are far more multidirectional and multifaceted, and many of the policy recommendations derived from their simplistic characterizations are not only ineffective but outright counterproductive, as the opening story reveals.

This essay problematizes and revises the asserted causal relationships and provides empirical evidence from Latin America, South and Southeast Asia, and Eastern Africa. It shows that what is internationally illegal may be seen as highly legitimate by local populations, and that the sponsors of the illegal can become potent power brokers and political actors. In analyzing the multiple threats that illegal economies and organized crime pose to the state and to international order, this essay also highlights that negative externalities and undesirable spillover effects can also be caused by government policies, not just the illicit markets and civil wars. Paradoxically, internal stability and even international order are not necessarily weakened by a state hosting an illicit economy; sometimes stability and order can be strengthened by the illicit economy. This essay also analyzes the various pathways out of the crime-conflict international disorder nexus, given the highly complex dynamics, and offers policy implications.

  • Footnotes
    1. I am grateful to Sarah Chayes, an aid worker in Kandahar at that time, for the information on the sting operation in the Kandahar village.