Congressional letter is out Horror in Caquetá
Dec 172009

I had hoped to finish an entry about the 2010 foreign aid bill, which Congress passed over the weekend. But I’ve run out of time and must go to the airport in in a little while for a brief trip to Peru.

So, nothing new here. But on the website of Foreign Policy you can read a just-posted article based on our latest report on Colombia’s “Integrated Action” programs:

I hope to post from Lima if time and Internet access allow.

22 Responses to “Traveling”

  1. Camilo Wilson Says:

    Mr. Isacson,

    Your article in Foreign Policy is excellent. Having worked on the ground in both Colombia and Afghanistan, I more than concur with you. I could give several reasons why “success” is highly improbable in Colombia, not to mention Afghanistan, where the situation is so totally different as to render comparisons between the two settings as mostly trivial as regards usefulness in designing programs or strategy in South Asia.

    The US is now assessing its experience in Colombia and coming up with “lessons learned.” Many of those lessons, which derive for a US involvement spanning a period of 10 years, point to fundamental mistakes that should not have been made in the first place. Having qualified people—people who know the setting on the ground—both at a technical and policy level would have allowed the US to avoid those mistakes.

    Mostly for political reasons relating to US domestic politics as well as to US foreign policy, Colombia allowed the US a wide margin of error over this 10-year period. The human suffering in Colombia, including the massive and continuing violation of human rights—not to mention the economic costs to the US—went largely ignored by those in power in Washington and Bogota. The US will not enjoy this margin in Afghanistan.

    If there’s any one lesson that I would recommend to the US in Afghanistan, it would be to think locally—(and so many different localities, so many valleys that differ in human and geographical ways!)—in Afghanistan, but also to think regionally. I strongly doubt that the US—neither its people nor its Congress—are prepared to stay the course in Afghanistan in order to achieve stated US objectives. That course will likely prove to be long, bloody, and very costly.

    Australian counterinsurgency specialist David Kilcullen (who has advised the US) advocates a new lexicon for meeting post 9/11 threats. He argues for abandonment of the concept of a “war on terrorism.” Kilcullen’s approach to counterinsurgency is very anthropological. As he puts it, “Since the new threats are not state based, the basis for our approach should not be international relations (the study of how nation-statesd interact in elite state-basedf frameworks) but rather anthropology (the study of social roles, groups, status, institutions, and relations within human population groups, often in nonelite, non-state-based frameworks). [p. 296, "The accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One".]

    One has to understand the “local.” (Americans are not very good at that.) And true, “integrated action” is important. But let’s not be naïve: In Afghanistan, that “integration” will have to be valley by valley, district by district, even village by village. And, of course, it will have to be sustainable. And a different sort of integration will be required at the regional level. And that, too, must also be sustainable.


  2. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Adam I know you are a fan of “Mr Jones” so I thought you might as well enjoy this short vid:

  3. chris Says:

    Colombia and Afghanistan are completely different… Afghanistan shouldn’t even exist as a nation state. It’s tribal politics. That’s why no one makes any progress over there. Each to his own mentality.

    Same problems in Africa… just different way of doing things. You can’t apply western system to it. They have to change… over time.

  4. chris Says:

    I missed this one.

  5. Kyle Says:


    Perfect time to be in Peru and not DC.

  6. común Says:

    Let’s see, we have country A with a weak central government having limited control over vast areas of countryside. Country A is ruled by a corrupt elite trying to fight a vicious insurgency that is fueled by drug profits, and which has a safe haven in neighboring country B who appears to tolerate the insurgency and which does not have friendly relations with country A. Because U.S. training of its military has not produced the desired results yet, country A has had to enlist the help of ruthless warlords (who are also fueled by drug profits) to fight the insurgency.

    Yes indeed…Colombia and Afghanistan are completely different.

  7. Kyle Says:

    Comun, I’m sorry but that is a gross over-simplification. It’s like saying a humvee and a prius are the same because they both have four wheels and an engine. Also, I would question your reasoning for the appearance of paramilitary groups in the Colombian context (Because U.S. training of its military has not produced…).

  8. Chris Says:


    I don’t know where you came up with the idea that a FARC safe haven in either country surrounding Colombia is comparable to Al Qaeda’s or the Taliban’s safe haven in Pakistan. I would argue that for the latter, Pakistan is the home country and they’ve been invading Afghanistan this whole time.

    In Afghanistan nobody is enlisting the help of ruthless warlords… they are/have been in control since forever… that’s the way things function over there. Every village has its chief; every district its warlord. Nothing… absolutely nothing happens without their consent. People will not move unless he agrees to it. So, you HAVE to give them what they want (ie bribe).

    Vietnam is a much better comparison… the current Afghan government exists only as long as the US government remains, period. A quick withdrawl will result in capitulation and ouster by hyper-violent means. So, everything the US government is doing right now is a public image campaign meant to convince everyone that it is in control… it will work with Taliban soon to ensure a somewhat non-violent transistion out of the region. At that point the Taliban will take over the bribing of warlords. I believe the sticking point is Al Qaeda… the US will want the group eliminated… the Taliban can do it… will it? The key is that the US must present the illusion of longevity (hence all of the development and training). It must convince the Taliban that it can stay forever, and that a return to power deal is much more attractive than a stay and fight to protect Al Qaeda in the mountains strategy. A lot more pressure is on Al Qaeda to produce tangible results right now than on anyone…. the more time that passes without another major attack… the less valuable Al Qaeda is.

  9. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Maybe this article should enlight the debate here

  10. común Says:

    “In Afghanistan nobody is enlisting the help of ruthless warlords… ”


    Perhaps not on the same level as in Colombia, however I would be very surprised if warlords have not been paid off for protection of U.S. military supply routes:

    “Congress will probe bribes to Democratic Afghan warlords. FOX News is reported: Congress is investigating allegations that U.S. tax dollars are being paid to warlords and the Taliban for security on supply routes used to truck food, water, fuel and ammunition to American troops in … ”

    or to help fight the Taliban:

  11. Kyle Says:

    Not really…I learned that guy has missed a boat on various points and can take things out of context. Also, Vietnam is another terrible example. Thus I will ask, does there need to be a comparison? Can Colombia just not be Colombia? I understand the methodological implications of comparison. But if any comparison needs to be done, really, it should be of regions or places within Colombia. Cross-national comparison will erase much of context that has allowed some situations to be the same and different, within and without of a state. Lastly, to reiterate, let’s learn from the mistake of the washington consensus/World Bank/IMF in the 1990s: different places and different and thus will require different solutions. Afghanistan and Colombia are very different. Will some of their very surface level dynamics look similar? Yes. But that’s about it. If we develop policy from the causes of certain phenomena, then we should look at the causes of the war in Colombia and that in Afghanistan. I’m sure we’ll find very different answers.

  12. Chris Says:

    Vietnam to Afghanistan… not Colombia. But I agree that comparisons should be used carefully…

  13. Chris Says:

    if somebody’s strategy is crafted on a comparison… as an adversary, you need only study that same comparison to defeat their strategy.

  14. Kyle Says:

    My apologies Chris. With regards to the second piece you posted, if US policy in Afghanistan were based on a comparison of Colombia, then, well, the Taliban would have it even easier. A poor policy against them, and then they could look at Colombia policy and predict…

  15. común Says:


    In response to your comment that “In Afghanistan nobody is enlisting the help of ruthless warlords… ” I would find it difficult to believe that the warlords from the Northern Alliance, who played a crucial role in the overthrow of the Taliban regime, are no longer on the payroll of the Karzai government in some form or fashion. In fact, Karzai’s first Vice President, Mohammad Fahim, is an “ex-warlord” with extensive ties to private militias in Afghanistan.


    PS: my other reply to Chris appears to have not passed muster with the moderator. Please use this one instead.

  16. Kyle Says:

    Hey, terrible news out of Colombia:

  17. Kyle Says:

    Or for those who only speak english:

  18. Chris Says:


    Re-read my post, or perhaps I should re-write it. I didn’t negate what you just posted. The “warlords” are going back and forth, they have no allegiance to the US/Karzai govt/Taliban, whatever. That’s the problem…

  19. Kyle Says:

    I think there’s more of a problem than just warlord allegiance…major problems

  20. Chris Says:

    Totally agree. I’m just limited to sound bites on these posts during work.

    Bottom line, no significant correlation between Afghanistan and Colombia, and US govt isn’t solving either anytime soon… or ever will.

    Conspiracy theory: Do US politicians really, deep down, want to solve these problems. I mean… we solve these problems and weak nations now become stronger. Strong nations have greater leverage on negotiation table for any random subject which equals less US influence and thus less $$$. Furthermore, what would the defense industry do?

  21. común Says:

    Hey Chris,

    I respectfully disagree with your “no significant correlation between Afghanistan and Colombia”. Moreover, I find the idea you seem to be promoting that we cannot apply lessons from history to craft better policy (”if somebody’s strategy is crafted on a comparison… “, etc.), somewhat naive. Why study history then? Or was you point more nuanced than I am making it out to be?

    As for your conspiracy theory, I will say this (and this is speculation on my part): there are folks in both Afghanistan and Colombia who have profited handsomely from US aid $$$ (one additional point of correlation, perhaps?).

    Happy holidays to you, Adam, and all.

  22. Chris Says:

    Study history and apply lessons observed, but be careful… each and every situation is unique and it’s the subtle differences that determine the final outcome. That’s all I am trying to say.

    A constant correlation applicable to all of our (USG) foreign endeavors (and every other nation–just smaller).

    I am afraid that it will take a catastrophic event to change the way things operate (not optimistic of society’s ability to come together to change en masse peacefully).

    Happy Holidays!

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