Scott Wilson is a first-rate journalist, fondly remembered for his time reporting from Colombia for the Washington Post (2000-2004). He frequently took to the field to cover Colombia’s conflict and human-rights issues in vivid detail. (A particularly stirring example was his 2001 investigation of a massacre by paramilitaries, while the security forces stood by, in the northern Colombian village of Chengue.) Wilson kept a consistently balanced eye on the delivery of U.S. aid and its effects.
He left Colombia in 2004, going on to cover the Middle East, but returned last fall for his first visit in four years. On page 1 of the “Outlook” section of Sunday’s Washington Post, Wilson published a lengthy piece about what he found.
Unfortunately, his analysis is surprisingly superficial. There is a growing genre of Colombia coverage in which a reporter who shows no evidence of having left BogotÃ¡ notes the prosperity of the capital (often including the great 5-star restaurants) and the ability to drive a car to MedellÃn in safety. The story will briefly note that “problems still exist” and that human rights defenders have complaints, then goes on full-throatedly to endorse U.S. policy and the Uribe government’s programs and behavior.
Wilson’s article engages heavily in that cheerleading, but goes further with a bold recommendation: the Obama administration should copy the Colombian model in Afghanistan.
If you want to roll back a homegrown insurgency inflamed by a pesky neighbor, millions in drug profits and a weak central government, Colombia offers a far better classroom for learning how to beat the Taliban.
Wilson then makes some recommendations that are actually very sound. In several cases, however, these recommendations bear little resemblance to what has been done in Colombia:
He recommends that strategists in Afghanistan put their focus on protecting people, not chasing insurgents all over the map. This is such common sense that it leaves one wondering why it was not the principal strategic goal from the very beginning. Wilson is correct that protecting the population has been a key objective of the Uribe government’s security policies, with their emphasis on expanding police presence in towns and getting the security forces deployed in population centers and along roads. Public security, however, has accounted for only a rather small fraction of U.S. assistance, which has focused mainly on counter-narcotics, oil pipeline protection, and supporting military offensives. Such “chase the guerrillas around the map” offensives, against which Wilson counsels, were a major element of what was attempted in Colombia over the past several years, particularly the U.S.-backed 2004-2006 “Plan Patriota” military campaign in southern Colombia.
Wilson recommends that the U.S. not internationalize the Afghan conflict by involving neighbors, particularly Pakistan, whose territory the insurgency uses as a safe haven. “Efforts to seal off border sanctuaries do not work and divert military resources from the central job of protecting civilians,” he writes. This may be sound advice, but the Colombian government has in fact sustained frequent arguments and occasional flare-ups with Venezuela and Ecuador about FARC presence in their territories – most notably, the March 1, 2008 attack that killed “RaÃºl Reyes” and the strong political disputes that followed evidence, recovered from Reyes’ computer, of contacts with neighboring governments. Colombia and the United States have, in fact, been quite interested in internationalizing the conflict. If anything, the Colombian experience proves Wilson’s point that a focus on border regions does not work.
Wilson recommends against forcibly eradicating poor farmers’ drug crops, whether opium in Afghanistan or coca in Colombia. He argues that “the administration should focus less on stopping the heroin trade and more on establishing functioning state institutions — from schools to health clinics.”
We applaud this recommendation as well, which we have found to be a very tough sell given the very entrenched hard-line attitudes toward international drug policy prevalent in Washington. But we’re mystified that Wilson believes that forced eradication is on the decline in Colombia:
Too often the government was present only in the form of U.S.-backed aerial herbicide spraying of coca crops, designed to eliminate the guerrillas’ main funding source. But it just ended up impoverishing the peasant farmers who grew the coca, as well as killing the small plots of food crops they planted alongside the drug-producing ones. So Uribe, despite U.S. opposition, scaled back spraying, too.
The Uribe government has in fact been an enthusiastic backer of spraying and other forms of forced eradication. Aerial fumigation in 2008 totaled 133,496 hectares in 2008, the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report tells us. That is a reduction from a high of 171,613 hectares in 2006, by far the most intense year of spraying on record. To some degree, this has resulted from reduced congressional funding for the program. But 133,496 hectares maintains levels that prevailed during 2002-2005, the first four years of Uribe’s government, showing the higher levels of spraying in 2006-2007 to have been the anomaly. The Colombian government has, meanwhile, dramatically increased forced manual eradication of coca, which is rarely coupled with development or even food-security assistance, to 95,732 hectares in 2008 from 42,111 in 2006 – thus “impoverishing the peasants who grow coca” in a different way.
Wilson finally recommends that more emphasis in Afghanistan be placed on robust demobilization programs to lure the guerrilla rank-and-file away with promises of leniency, job training and income support, and reunion with their families. This recommendation does reflect an effort that has succeeded in Colombia, starting with programs adopted in earnest starting around 2004-2005. Convincing young FARC recruits that they would be well-treated if they deserted – instead of tortured or disappeared as in the recent past – has reduced the FARC’s ranks, attracted people willing to give useful intelligence, and helped bring several thousand rural youth into a system where they could receive state services for the first time.
Wilson’s brisk analysis, though, leaves several questions unanswered.
Are human rights violations with impunity to be tolerated? Wilson’s article makes some outrageous claims about the Colombian military’s human rights record, including its past relationship with paramilitary groups.
I’d watched the paramilitary movement expand to the point where itÂ controlled vast amounts of Colombian territory, had seized the guerrillas’ drug smuggling networks and had elected dozens of sympathetic local and national politicians. The Bush administration kept the money flowing to Colombia’s army despite evidence of its complicity in paramilitary massacres.
The argument at the time, always made privately, was that the paramilitaries provided the force that the army did not yet have. The group served as a placeholder for the more professional U.S.-trained force that would come along years later.
U.S. officials, Wilson asserts here, privately acknowledged that they knew the Colombian army was complicit in paramilitary massacres, despite loud public declarations – and required State Department human-rights certifications to Congress – asserting the exact opposite. Wilson claims that U.S. officials not only knew it, but somehow saw the paramilitaries as a necessary evil or a “placeholder.”
Wilson then offers this:
Although reports of his close association with the paramilitaries mar his human rights record, Uribe has largely succeeded in disbanding them and extraditing their leaders to the United States.
We are frequent critics of Ãlvaro Uribe, but we have no proof that he himself has been closely associated with paramilitaries. (Many of his close political associates, however, are widely accused of that.) Wilson here goes farther than most of the U.S. and Colombian human rights communities with an extremely serious accusation, then changes the subject.
These revelations, if true, are the stuff of front-page scandal, not insights to be casually tossed off deep within an analysis piece. And they certainly leave us wondering how human rights and international humanitarian law would fit, if at all, in Wilson’s vision for how the Obama administration and the new Afghan army should operate.
How demobilized are the paramilitaries? Wilson offers high praise for the 2003-2006 demobilization ceremonies that brought a formal end to the paramilitary blocs that made up the old United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
The change that proved most important in reducing violence and undermining the guerrillas was his [Uribe's] decision to disarm the paramilitaries.
There is heated debate about whether the paramilitary demobilizations have done anything to “undermine the guerrillas” or has caused them to relinquish the “drug smuggling networks” and ties to “dozens of sympathetic local and national politicians” described above. Paramilitary leaders have relinquished almost no stolen land and assets as required by law, and mid-level leaders are re-forming new groups at such a rate that some estimates of their combined strength now exceed 8,000 members. Wilson’s piece does not even acknowledge this very troubling phenomenon.
Who is profiting from drugs in Colombia? “Colombia still produces tons of coca,” Wilson points out. What he does not mention is that Colombia produces at least as many tons of cocaine as it did when Plan Colombia began. Note this graph, from page 90 the last (June 2008) UN Office on Drugs and Crime report on Andean coca production [PDF]. (The UNODC, in a print error, reverses 2006 and 2007.)
If cocaine production has been stable, and prices have not dropped, who is getting the illegal profits? Paramilitaries, insurgents, a new class of narcotraffickers corrupting the state, or all of the above? What will happen if the same thing happens in Afghanistan? In Colombia, success against big cartels pushed the center of gravity of the most lucrative part of the drug trade – transshipment – into Mexico. The result has been an alarming spike in violence in Mexico. What would happen if U.S. anti-drug efforts similarly pushed Afghanistan’s huge heroin profits into another area of volatile Central Asia? Does it make any sense at all to replicate an anti-drug policy that has had this poor result?
Are the Taliban as weak as the FARC? I recently had a conversation with one of Colombia’s top security analysts, who is a strong supporter of Ãlvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy. I asked him why President Uribe had such quick success in reducing the FARC’s ability to kidnap, or to stage attacks on small Colombian police and military posts. His answer: “We were surprised too. It turned out that the FARC was weaker than anybody had thought.”
If the Colombian model is brought to Afghanistan, and the Taliban prove to be less of a house of cards than the FARC, what then?
What about intelligence? Wilson gives no credit to the quick results that Colombia achieved when it shifted more resources into intelligence against top guerrilla leaders. The Colombian security forces now have at least a rough idea of where many top FARC members are at all times, have captured or killed more top leaders since 2007 than at any other time, and have had great success in cutting off communications between commanders. The combination of demobilization programs for the rank-and-file and intense intelligence efforts to locate top leaders has been quite successful.
Would that work in Afghanistan? Can the intelligence capacity be developed to locate and isolate top Taliban leaders?
Shouldn’t there be a peace strategy? There is much debate in Colombia about whether the conflict with FARC can end with negotiations about anything other than surrender terms. Though negotiations of any sort may not happen in the next few years, the most likely end to the FARC conflict will be a negotiation that, in order to avoid prolonging a war of attrition for many years more, would include some political content, if only something along the lines of pledges for land reform.
Wilson, however, does not mention any role for dialogue or negotiations, either for or against. Whether talks make any sense in the Afghanistan context, then, is not clear.