What Mancuso has said Left Behind in Caquetá
Jan 222007

Under certain conditions, the human brain functions just like a computer running Microsoft Windows.

What am I talking about? Just read the following and see what happens:

The United States’ top military official said Friday that American-backed anti-drug and counterinsurgent operations in Colombia — the world’s largest producer of cocaine — could serve as a template for Afghan efforts to fight drug production.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Colombia’s campaign to "rid certain areas of terrorists," followed by relief and jobs programs for the poor, was a "good model for (Afghan) President Hamid Karzai to consider as he looks at how to reduce the amount of drug trafficking in his country." (Source: Associated Press)

If you’re anything like me, your brain just crashed. Reading that incredible statement caused a total lockup. Like a frozen PC, the mind refuses to process any more inputs. Take a moment to re-boot – a mental "Ctrl-Alt-Delete" – before attempting any normal activity.

OK – now that you’re back, let’s ask the obvious questions.

Why would any serious person – much less the top-ranking military officer in the United States – view Colombia’s experience as a model to be repeated anywhere else, much less a country – like Afghanistan – that is several degrees poorer and less governed than Colombia?

When considering how to help Afghanistan’s fragile government confront a bumper crop of opium poppy, don’t U.S. government officials read their own data about how their "model" has fared in Colombia?

  • Plan Colombia began in 2000, with the stated goal of cutting Colombian coca-growing in half within six years. Since that year, the U.S. government has supported aerial herbicide spraying over 800,000 hectares (2 million acres) of Colombian territory. Despite this onslaught, U.S. government data show a net gain in coca cultivation in Colombia: 7,800 more hectares in 2005 than in 2000. (In the Andes, there were 23,600 more hectares in 2005 than in 2000.) In order to end up with more coca despite Plan Colombia’s increased fumigation, Colombian farmers planted 130,000 hectares more coca in 2005 than they did in 2000.
  • In the coca markets of rural Colombia, growers are getting about the same price for their basic coca paste that they were getting when Plan Colombia started. This means that despite massive spraying, their product is not getting scarcer – supply is meeting demand as well as ever. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime tells us that an average kilogram of coca paste sold for about $1,000 in Colombia in January 2002. That same kilo went for $910 by the end of 2005.
  • In rural Colombia, where residents of coca-growing zones have seen soldiers and spraying but little else from their government, anger and mistrust have only grown after six years of Plan Colombia. Reporting last week from Puerto Asís in the coca-growing department of Putumayo, journalist Mike Ceaser cited Diego Orozco Gomez, a government agricultural extension officer, who "complains that his is a difficult fight because he has persuaded farmers to switch to food crops, ‘and then the plane comes and fumigates them.’"
  • The predominantly military strategy has not weakened Colombia’s illegal armed groups. When it started, Plan Colombia focused its U.S.-funded military operations in the department of Putumayo in southern Colombia. In recent years, the United States has heavily supported "Plan Patriota," an ambitious military offensive in longtime FARC strongholds elsewhere in southern Colombia, particularly the department of Caquetá.

    After six years of military aid, fumigation, and only a trickle of investment in governance and job-creation, guerrillas remain strong in Putumayo and Caquetá. In the last week alone, a guerrilla ambush minutes from Putumayo’s largest city killed five police, while the FARC destroyed a dairy plant owned by a Nestlé subsidiary in Doncello, Caquetá.

    If the Colombian "model" has hardly weakened guerrillas, it has done even less to confront pro-government paramilitary leaders, whose political and economic power has only begun to be uncovered.

All of this leads us to ask, "Are they serious? Is this a widely held view in the Bush administration?"

My best guess is that yes, it is a widely held view – but not a policy decision yet. The Bush administration continues to debate whether fumigation and other elements of the mostly military Colombia model make sense in Afghanistan. And there are even a few tiny pockets of skepticism where officials quietly question whether the Colombia model has even made sense in Colombia.

General Pace is no skeptic, however. In Fiasco, his blistering book about the U.S. experience in Iraq, Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks portrays Pace as a supremely uncritical cheerleader, a "yes man."

Inside the military, [Gen. Richard Myers, Pace's predecessor] was widely regarded as the best kind of uniformed yes-man – smart, hard-working, but wary of independent thought. The vice-chairman, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, was seen as even more pliable, especially by fellow Marines. "The most damaging sort of mistakes that Rumsfeld has made have been on senior officer selection," said one Bush administration official involved in defense issues. "You wind up with smiling Pete Pace and smiling Richard Myers."

"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we will find the weapons of mass destruction," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said as Baghdad fell.

If this portrayal is correct, Gen. Pace is probably on the extreme end of the spectrum: those who, despite all the evidence, insists that the Colombia counter-drug strategy is somehow going well and should be repeated elsewhere. He is joined there by the longtime U.S. ambassador to Colombia, William Wood, who has overseen an intensification of the fumigation effort – and an increase in coca-growing – during his three-year tenure in Bogotá.

Wood, it was announced last week, is about to leave Bogotá to become the new U.S. ambassador in – you guessed it – Afghanistan. Wood’s nomination is virtually guaranteed approval in the Senate; he faithfully carried out the administration’s policies in Colombia while running the second-biggest U.S. embassy in the world after Baghdad.

But his nomination hearings and vote offer the Senate a great opportunity to do something it has done only very rarely since Plan Colombia began. Wood’s hearings will be a great occasion to hold a thorough and honest debate about why the United States has so spectacularly failed to achieve its anti-drug goals in Colombia, and how our hundreds of millions of anti-drug dollars might be spent more wisely and effectively.

U.S. hard-liners have been pushing Afghanistan to be the second country in the world to allow aerial herbicide fumigation. With Ambassador Wood on his way to Kabul, it may be time to buy stock in DynCorp, the company that has carried out fumigation in Colombia for nearly a decade.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government still holds little sway in what author Rory Stewart calls Afghanistan’s "places in between" (his book is highly recommended). Karzai has strongly resisted the idea of contractor aircraft anonymously fumigating opium poppy fields (and much else, probably) in areas where his government is already weak. He worries, correctly, that fumigation without development aid will add up to "counter-insurgency in reverse:" strengthening illegal groups and increasing popular anger and mistrust of the far-off government in Kabul.

Karzai should keep resisting. Afghanistan needs to be governed by institutions, not warlords, and its people need a legal way to feed themselves and their families. It must not repeat the unsuccessful and frustrating experience of Colombia – a policy prescription so incredibly misguided that it’s hard to respond with much more than "Ctrl-Alt-Delete."

2 Responses to ““Ctrl-Alt-Delete””

  1. teo Says:

    For more on how Gen. Peter Pace sees the military role of the United States in Colombia, see this press release from the U.S. Army.

    Note the lines toward the end of the piece: “But the training is a two-way street, [Army Maj. Shane Tarrant] said, because Colombians have been dealing with a criminal insurgency for decades and have learned some important lessons they, too, can share. ‘We’re learning from the tactics they’re using, and we take that and see where we can apply it in other theaters,’ he said.”

    Lets hope that application does not involve the kind of military-linked massacres recently made public by Salvatore Mancuso.

  2. jcg Says:

    I understand your reaction, Adam, as I also felt something akin to seeing the old, blue Windows error screens when I first read that headline and its accompanying text.

    Colombia’s counter-drug strategy is definitely not going well and shouldn’t be replicated. Hopefully at least some skeptics in Washington are able to realize that, all fanfare aside.

    teo: I must beg to differ a bit there though, because that’s one statement from a U.S. military officer that I don’t find that strange at all. Certainly not that unreasonable, compared with Gen. Pace’s.

    The reference to Salvatore Mancuso and the AUC’s massacres, although it does refer to what has historically been a real problem (the Colombian military definitely has been linked in the activities of paramilitaries), seems to fly over what is actually a non-outrageous statement that would merit its own debate.

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