Colombia and Afghanistan are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of drug-funded insurgencies. Both nations have weak central governments and a flourishing narcotrafficking trade thus far unaffected by crop fumigation schemes. Osama Bin Laden hides in his caves with his Taliban cronies, taking shelter in Pakistan, while the FARC hides in the jungle and retreats frequently to Venezuela or Ecuador. Besides Iraq, these are the only two countries in the world where the U.S. is funding a counter-insurgency campaign – meaning that policymakers are increasingly scrutinizing Colombia to see what lessons, if any, could be applied to Afghanistan.
“The bumper sticker answer is address state weakness and impunity,” Adam Isaacson, an expert on Colombian affairs and director at the Center for International Policy, told me. “Get a government in there, and not just a military.”
While the U.S. wants to expand Afghanistan’s army from 92,000 to 240,000 soldiers, the military surge is increasingly being complemented with a surge in development aid. Farmers who can make a decent living growing pomegranates rather than poppies would undercut the Taliban’s profits from the opium trade, and would also hurt recruitment rates. The Obama administration seems well aware of the oft-repeated maxim that a war on terror can’t be won without waging a war on poverty.
Consequently, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has called agriculture “the top non-security priority for the United States Government in Afghanistan” and has pleged $20 million in aid. The U.S. military is also sending officers who show Afghan farmers how best to prune their peach trees, irrigate fields with drip hoses and paint tree trunks with lime to ward off pests.
Likewise, U.S. aid to Colombia has shifted somewhat from primarily funding the military and police to funding more development. 44% of the 2010 Colombian aid bill passed by Congress consisted of social and economic aid, with 56% assigned to the military and police (compare that with the bills passed in 2004, 2005 and 2006, when military aid was always at least 80%). For both Afghanistan and Colombia, the U.S. seems more committed than ever to tackling insecurity problems by addressing poverty.
The problem is that in Colombia a lot of that development aid gets eaten up by outside contractors (and corrupt middlemen, of course). ARD, a rural development contractor based in Vermont, has one of the biggest active contracts both with the Colombian government and with USAID. ARD administered $41.5 million for one USAID program meant to shift farmers away from coca production.
But despite all the good intentions, the fact is that using international contractors with huge overhead costs doesn’t translate into palpable changes on the ground for Colombian farmers.
“In any of these projects, staff and overhead is the number one expense,” Isaacson said to me. “ARD is not spending a lot of time in the field. And once you get to the campesinos, they’re getting seeds, maybe some farm machinery from a cooperative, but not much else.”
For both Colombia and Afghanistan, it’s great that the White House is acknowledging at all that insecurity issues go hand-in-hand with poverty and desperation. But when you have international contractors doing the jobs of the Colombian and Afghan Labor and Agriculture Ministries, poverty alleviation is neither sustainable nor effective.
“The ministries need to start doing their jobs,” warns Isaacson. “If it´s just a contractor working in a vacuum, don´t even bother.”
But what about the undeniable security gains that the Uribe administration has made against the FARC? Might this provide a model for Afghanistan? Colombia’s foreign minister, Jaime Bermudez, seems to think so. He recently announced that the state will send experts on illicit drug trafficking and insurgent demobilization to Afghanistan. Colombia’s success in modernizing its army and disarming thousands of former FARC fighters could very well provide a successful model for Afghanistan, he said.
Undoubtedly, the Afghan army needs to modernize as the Colombian army has done. As recorded in Mark Bowden’s indispensable book “Killing Pablo,” in the early nineties Colombia’s army was astonishingly incompetent, leading to the joke: “How many Colombian soldiers does Pablo Escobar need to escape? Four hundred – one to open the prison door, and three hundred and ninety-nine to watch.” Ten years ago Colombia barely had 25 helicopters that functioned at any given time, Isaacson told me. Now Colombia has one of the biggest helicopter fleets in the world.
Still, helicopters and all, the measures that brought military victory in Colombia now appear to be stagnating. FARC operations increased rather than decreased in 2009. Paramilitary and narco-related violence is also on the upswing. Afghanistan would probably see similar security gains if it did as Colombia did and expanded its helicopter fleet, created local security units and focused on “quality over quantity.” Ultimately, however, encouraging desertion and disarmament will probably prove more effective than big shock-and-awe military operations. More deserters will also lead to better intelligence, something that all the Humvees and helicopters in the world can’t buy.
But recruiting people away from the Taliban is also inexorably linked with recruiting people away from drug cultivation. And when it comes to finding an effective counter-narcotics strategy – well, the world is still scratching its head. Don’t look to Colombia, where the total amount of coca produced has not significantly changed in the past ten years. Fumigate one coca farm, and it will relocate someplace else. Arrest one drug kingpin and ten more will pop up like gophers. As Isaacson says, “Colombia’s narcotics strategy is a sad disaster.”
Both the Taliban and the FARC were initially hostile towards the drug economy and tried to enforce eradication within the territories they controlled. But by supporting the cultivation of poppy and coca, both insurgent groups discovered they were guaranteeing employment to beleaguered, rural populations that had been ignored by the central government for decades.
Ultimately, the FARC and the Taliban did the state’s job where the state was otherwise M.I.A. – no jobs, no courts, no roads, no presence. It’s a tall order, but if any lesson can taken from Colombia’s experience and applied to Afghanistan, it should be that long-term success in counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency campaigns means getting good governance into areas that are otherwise stateless.
Granted, there are sizeable differences between the Afghan and Colombian conflicts – the role played by tribalism and religious ideology, for example. Colombia was a democratic government for most of the twentieth century, while Afghanistan is pegged as “the graveyard of empires.” But the stabilization of both countries is ultimately in everybody’s best interests – which is why public policy makers will probably continue to compare the two.
And hopefully, Isaacon said to me, the lessons from Colombia for Afghanistan won´t be to “fumigate the hell out of everything and double the size of the military, the Taliban will shrink like the FARC and everything will be great.”
“The problem is in Colombia you’re already seeing that progress disappear,” he added. “There’s no reason to believe the gains made on the battlefield are sustainable.”