Mamdani's Text of Remarks at the 2nd Tana High Level forum on Security in Africa-Bahr Dar, Ethiopia-20-21 April, 2013

22 Apr, 2013,

Text of Remarks at the 2ndTana High Level Forum on Security in Africa – Bahr Dar, Ethiopia – 20-21 April, 2013

Mahmood Mamdani, MISR, Kampala

My main point is going to be this: there is a history to organized crime, and there is a politics to it.  We need to be aware of both.


Organized crime became a global problem during the Cold War.  Why? 

Organized crime developed in the context of counter-insurgency – drug lords were privileged partners in the Cold War – they received political protection in return for financial and other contributions to covert operations.  This arrangement had its genesis in the opening years of the Cold War, in the port city of Marseilles in France, where the CIA collaborated with the Mafia to fight left wing trade unions and the CP.  The relationship then developed in three key theaters of the Cold War: Indochina, Afghanistan and Central America.

Laos:  Laos was a neutral zone in the Cold War when the American war in Vietnam began in 1964.  A treaty between Washington and Moscow specified that neither side would introduce ground troops in Laos.  Faced with North Vietnamese infiltration through Laos into South Vietnam, the US devised a double strategy.  The first part was a brutal air war. For more than a decade, the US Air Force dropped the same tonnage over Laos, 2.1 million tons, that Allied powers dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II.  It then supplemented this air power with a secret army of 30,000 Hmong--a highland tribal minority whose only cash crop was opium. The arrangement was that Hmong officers loaded CIA helicopters not only with recruits for the CIA’s covert war, but also with opium.  When the commander-in-chief of the Royal Lao Army, General OuaneRattikone, opened the world's largest heroin laboratory, the Agency looked the other way.

Heroin from these Laotian laboratories was smuggled into South Vietnam. A later White House survey confirmed that 34 percent of US troops were addicted to heroin by 1971. The interesting point is that all were supplied by America’s covert warfare allies. After US combat forces left Vietnam, Southeast Asian syndicates followed the troops home and were, by 1974, supplying a quarter of US demand with Golden Triangle heroin. 

Afghanistan:  When the U.S. first announced that it would materially support resistance to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Dr. Musto, a Yale University professor who was also a medical member of the White House Drug Council, resigned.  He later told Alfred McCoy, another Yale University researcher who went on to write a major book on the subject, “I told the [White House Drug] Council that we were going into Afghanistan to support the opium growers in their battle against the Soviets.  Shouldn’t we try to avoid what we had done in Laos?” 

Here is how the drug economy operated in Afghanistan.  Whenever the mujahiddin came to control an area, they imposed the growing of heroin as a “revolutionary tax” on peasants.  The opium was collected by opium lords in Afghanistan and sold to heroin lords who controlled the processing laboratories across the border in Pakistan.  The opium and the heroin lords were among the most important leaders of the Afghan anti-Soviet struggle. The Pakistani army provided transport from the border in the same sealed convoys that brought weapons to the border.Opium was produced in Afghanistan, and ferried across the border to Pakistan where refinaries processed it into heroin.  Opium production in Afghanistan was insignificant when the anti-Soviet War began in 1979.It reached a whopping 71% of global production in 1990, the year after the war ended.

The key beneficiary of CIA funds was a warlord called GulbuddinHikmatyar.  The most radical of the political Islamists, GulbuddinHikmatyar was also Afghanistan’s major druglord.  He alone controlled seven heroin refineries across the border in Pakistan.  GulbuddinHikmatyar’s group received more than half of all CIA-provided arms in the course of the Afghan War. The largest battle in the Afghan jihad took place in 1988-89.  It did not pit the mujahiddin against the Soviet army or the Afghan government; it pit two mujahiddin drug lords against one another.  On one side was MullaNasim who controlled the largest opium fields in the valley; on the other was GulbuddinHikmatyar who controlled the heroin labs across the border in Pakistan.

Central America:  The collaboration between the contras and the Medallin Cartel in Central America resembled the setup in Afghanistan.  Like in Afghanistan, the CIA provided legal cover: from roughly the time the CIA began organizing the contras in Nicaragua, a Presidential directive affirmed that no CIA “asset” could be convicted on drug charges.  The directive was only repealed after the Afghan War, quietly, under the Clinton Administration.


Having incubated organized crime in the crucible we know as the Cold War, the US went on to declare a war on organized crime.  The notion of a War on Organized Crime, like the War on Terror, obscures the politics and as it does the overall consequences of that war.

Africa is today the focus of global attention.  It is no longer on the margins.  The principal contestants for Africa’s resources – China and the US – are busy defining Africa’s problem from their vantage point.  Each would like to provide the solution to Africa’s problems.

From China’s point of view, Africa’s main problem is development.  The Chinese also claim that their competition with the West is not ushering in a 2nd Cold War, for this is not a military contest.  The cutting edge of competition is economic, not military.  For China, neither the state system nor internal relations are barriers to economic relations.  This is not so for the US.  In the American case, economic relations a consequence of political relations.  Market relations are heavily politicized.  The contrast is clear: China trades with everyone, but the list of countries subject to a US economic embargo keeps growing every year.

From the US point of view, Africa’s main problem is security.  Africa needs to rethink its internal and external relations with security in mind as the primary concern.  When it comes to organized crime and organized violence, the US solution is two-fold: military contest followed by court cases.  The one thing common between the military and the judicial process is this: in both cases, the winner takes all.

I want to suggest we think of an alternative process: a political process.  If you think back of the Cold War cases that I just summarized, you will realize that in no case was an alliance with organized crime official US policy.  In every case, the alliance was forged by US agencies that specialized in covert operations, in particular the CIA.  Even when it came to covert operations, the agencies involved justified the alliance in each case as a tactical necessity: in each case, the alliance was said to be in the interest of a higher good, say, fighting communism.  My point is that covert operations lacked accountability.  The agencies did not have to justify their actions to anyone but themselves.  Public inquiries followed only when its unintended consequences became clear and the public demanded accountability for covert operations.  You will note that my information comes from the US inquiries conducted by elected agencies – the Kerry Committee in the Senate, the White House itself – when these came under public pressure.


In every case, whether the problem is extreme violence or organized crime, let us begin by understanding the issues that drive the developments in question, be the question that ofnarco traffic in Guinea Bissau or northern Mali or that of violence unleashed by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. 

Both the War on Terror and the War on Organized Crime are narratives that mask the socio-economic and political relations that produce and sustain political violence and organized crime.  The point of these narratives is to justify particular solutions, in particular the waging of war and the holding of criminal trials, to deal with problems which are essential political.  I have suggested that two winner-takes-all solutions, both war and criminal trials tend to exacerbate rather than solve the political problems they are intended to solve.  This is why we need to be critical of them.

But critique is not enough.  You can be critical and still lack independent thought.  Our objective should be to produce a counter-narrative that will shift focus from spectacular stand-alone events to issues that drive cycles of violence and networks that we call organized crime.

These days we do not get tired talking of the need for “African solutions to African problems.”  What do we mean by this?  Is this mantra meant to justify the same militarized solutions so long as these are implemented by Africans?  Or is it a call for cultivating an independent mind set, one that is African because it is shaped by African experiences.  Our primary need, I suggest, is to formulate a narrative that will make sense of our experience.