Booo-ring Unadulterated praise
Apr 062009

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 Bogotá notes the prosperity of the capital (often including the great 5-star restaurants) and the ability to drive a car to Medellín 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 “Raúl 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 it  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 Álvaro 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 Álvaro 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.

12 Responses to “Lessons for Afghanistan?”

  1. Chris Says:

    In my opinion two completely different conflicts and while you can take some lessons learned from one or the other and apply them… there is no way you can juxtapose the Colombian conflict with the Afghan conflict as a whole. For example:

    – 2 different enemies… religious zeal vs. fervent nationalism… one is willing to blow himself up regardless of the situation. No comparison. Religious nuts must either be killed or marginalized. Brutal military techniques or a considerable degree of non-religious education is required to affect change.

    – culturally, different mindset. People in Afghanistan are loyal to their clan (tribe) not to the state. If you build a water plant… you better well build one in every tribal area (same size, quality, etc.) at the same time or one clan or the other will immediately fight because of it (there’s no shared hope). U.S. resources are finite… best we can do is choose a handful of clans (those most aligned with us) and support them hands down. Near-term result, the majority of the fighting is quelled, but it will never end. Long-term result, minute we stop supporting, our “friends” will get overthrown.

    – not an international problem (what!?). The taliban are essentially Pakistanis who introduced they’re idealogy into Afghanistan and gained support from a segment of the population. They can cross back and forth across that very border with ease because of their pakistani roots. If there is any real solution to the Taliban… it would occur in Pakistan (ie. eliminate their support in Pakistan). Without that support, the majority of Afghans would crush the Taliban and their sympathizers.

    Look… there’s no solution to Afghanistan from a US perspective. We’re just there to make sure the regional players (Russia, Iran, Pakistan, China and India) are cognizant of our reach into their affairs in that part of the world. Keep things unstable (to a degree) and nobody will advance. Keeps the US in a dominant position worldwide (yet another launch pad for any other military excursion if necessary). Forces those mentioned above to focus resources into areas that they could probably control through other means, effectively hindering their growth.

    If you’re looking to maintain US dominance worldwide, then we’re doing the right thing over there (with debatable points here and there)… but if you’re looking for a more transparent, just world where everyone is on the same level playing field then we should pull out of Afghanistan and let the regional players sort things out.

  2. Jaime Bustos Says:

    I’d like to make a point across. I am Colombian from birth, and I have been through all the periods of the internal war. I’ve lived in most of the main cities of Colombia. My first car I bought at the end of the 80’s. I have traveled around and about, never fearing anything could happen to me (though, of course, taking the appropriate precautions). I have traveled by land with family, friends, girlfriends and workmates. From Bogota to Medellin, Medellin Bogota, Bogota Santa Marta etc etc etc, in daylight, at night time, at dawn, you name it. The induced propaganda motto that nobody could travel in Colombia without feeling they were going to die it’s just that. They try to introduce false memories in the youngest population as well as into history books, by repeating this infamous sentence once and again, till everybody agrees that that was the case, despite it never occurred.

  3. Camilo Wilson Says:

    Internationalizing models is a risky business. Wilson’s article reflects a surprising innocence on the part of an otherwise competent journalist. This blog is a superb, well-thought-out response to it. Using Colombia as a model for addressing the conflict in Afghanistan would be foolish, even dangerous. Neither Colombia nor Iraq are models for Afghanistan, a benighted land that must be understood on its own terms-as must also Colombia, a country beset with enormous problems despite clever efforts at camouflage on the part of its current government and some of its Washington supporters (including those in the Post’s editorial department).

    That some in Washington, and perhaps especially in the Obama administration, probably believe Wilson’s misleading comparison points to a serious problem. U.S. policymakers exhibit a marked incapacity to capture nuance, and a related tendency to look for ready-made, simple solutions to complex problems. Profoundly lacking is the capacity, or maybe the will, to plumb the depths of complexity for enlightenment, and to use it to craft sound policy.

    There may be another dimension at play here as well. Once upon a time the U.S. had some of the world’s best area-study programs. But then the Cold War ended, and with it history. And with these endings, banality and mediocrity crept into government. Now, alas, history is rising from the dead with great violence. At great peril would one use Wilson’s suggestions to address it.

  4. chris Says:

  5. Eric Girard Says:

    I agree with most of what you are saying but from my own research and perspective there are some key historical similarities in regards to the insurgent groups. If we sidestep a big obstacle to comparing the Taliban and the FARC, that is the relative universal, or regional ideologies that they subscribe to this comparison becomes easier. But to mention them, Taliban, islamic law, society should be goverened according to an imagined sixth century Arabian peninsula. The FARC, Bolivaran socialism or social democracy with coerced social and economic equality. However, for both groups these ideologies inform rather than govern their behavior and vision. Both have their origins, support, and force in a sort of regional autonomy and peasant support in underdeveloped, , and neglected regions that have faced endemic violence for more than a decade. As marginal political elites in these regions, once these areas are faced with outside violence, think Marquetalia, or Soviet Intervention, and the following Afghan Civil War in the 1990s, and then NATO invasion, their power and support is solidifed and the gap between these peasants and the state is deepened as they associated them with violence.

    I have been pondering lately a few controversial questions, for one, what will happen if Democratic Security, Plan Patrioca and the next proposed military campaign against the FARC succeeds? Or the armed wing of the Taliban is pushed and held up into the mountains, and the last cells of resistance are broken? Will the worst ills of Colombian and Afghan society be solved?
    I don’t think so. The state presence in these regions will be limited to the military occupation and there needs to be a meaningful, albeit secure state presence. The security of the state in frontier regions is not just military security, but also support for these institutions. Thus to “defend people” is the right road to take.

    I have to go catch the subway, sorry I cant finish this broken train of thought…

  6. Camilla Says:

    Wilson writes a good article, but I can only hope that Colombia tells the US to go p– up a rope when it asks for advice on how to win in Afghanistan. The US has slapped Colombia in the face on free trade and exacted far higher standards of it than it has of any other nation on earth. Colombia should withold all cooperation until the US starts treating Colombia with the decency it deserves.

  7. JBosque Says:

    I think the two cannot be compared and certainly should not have the same failed tactics employed. That will only leave the world with a 50+ year civil war and high opium production.

    First Colombia hasn’t “won” anything and its military depends on the US for equipment and training. Also that cocaine production problem (war on drugs) has grown, not dissipated.

    Afghanistan is quite different, not only in the Taliban’s small unit training (taught by US and British SF), but also in its area demographics.

    The FARC seems to like fighting mainly the military, whereas the Taliban doesn’t mind blowing up mosques, food markets, killing dignitaries, lighting women on fire, and cutting people’s heads off. Afghan is more of a Vietnam type situation (without the jungle) where there are vast tunnel networks, tribal alliances, and then there is fanatical Islam. They don’t think death is a bad thing.

  8. micah pyre Says:

    is it possible for anyone to imagine the US not trying to lever into the affairs in either of Afghanistan or Colombia?

    why are all strategies premised on how the leverage is applied, and not whether the leverage is applied?

    it’s cool seeing a hack job taken apart, but the technocratic approach isn’t exactly courageous, is it? I mean, doesn’t it fail to ask the question I just posed?

    namely, whether the US should be applying leverage?

    in other words, whether we even have the right, independent of the will or power, to meddle in the affairs of either nation.

    I’d hope such a perspective isn’t just dismissed as “impractical” or “naive.”

  9. Vidia Ramdeen Says:

    There are numerous fundamental differences between these two situations. The parallelism that makes the most sense is comparing the “facilitating” states, i.e., Mexico in relation to Columbia and Central Asia proper in relation to Afghanistan as potential victims of violence and corruption due to the drug trade. That said, the political lessons stemming from U.S relations with paramilitary in Columbia could equate into a military strategy in centralizing the trafficking problem in Afghanistan. Obviously, the U.S will not work with the Taliban as is. Obama could weaken the power that the Taliban has in the region by fostering stronger education in an attempt to create greater economic stability via direct foreign investment into Afghanistan however this is to be considered highly improbable. Protecting the citizens is the primary goal. Controlling the borders would be a waste of precious resources. There are some lessons from Columbia that do apply…but be careful in which ones are chosen for implementation in Afghanistan. Just my quick two cents…which is now worth 2 and 1/2 cents…

  10. Matt H Says:

    Camila, that is adorable! The US’ relationship has hardly changed with Colombia from the Clinton years onwards, but we are supposed to believe that the imaginary relationship defined the true relationship during the Bush years. Hundreds of millions will still flow into Colombia, the “war on drugs” will continue much to the benefit of Colombia’s drug and war industries. Colombia’s violence has never been meant to be solved, Plan Colombia is about asserting control over the form of violence and who benefits most from it. But it is absolutely hilarious that you perscribe some sort of liberal-humanitarian mentality (free trade will solve the problems? it gets no more liberal than that) to the Bush years, completely contradicting the American myth of Democrats = liberal friends of the world, Republicans = hard-handed police of the world. Two sides of the same imperialist coin.

    Afghanistan in a similar manner to Colombia is not meant to be ’solved’ – if that was part of the long term strategy the end result would be an Afghanistan free of US intervention, just as a Colombia and Latin America as a whole would be free of US imperialist adventures if there was success. The reason why Plan Colombia and Plan Mexico are appealing for Afghanistan is because they are models for establishing controlled destabilization and the appearances of limitless ‘progress’ in the face of continued conflict.

    Important differences for Plan Colombia and the Afghanistan war is that in Colombia a fully functioning military serves as the occupying force. In Afghanistan the US has to keep its own troops, with the help of NATO, in the country to keep foreign interests out. This missing point above is like the elephant in the room. Plan Colombia in the most practical sense has zero direct applicability in any medium term vision of the Afghanistan war. Why? The 30 000+ US troops, part of a 65 000+ NATO (US allies), in the country. Its a completely different model because there is an occupying Army. And we can talk about “Pakistanis” all we want as an international problem crossing our fictitious borders, but people are going to resist an occupying army in many cases. At the end of the day, the violence against the ISAF + US wars in Afghanistan is of a completely different character than Plan Colombia. The war in Afghanistan is one of insurrection against an occupying force, Plan Colombia is part of a civil war. The ‘drugs’ may be a common factor but in both cases is the auxiliary not defining feature of the conflict, and if we take into account the true nature of both conflicts we can see that there is no compatibility.

    With that final point in mind, there is only the question of why is there an attempt to make these cases comparable – and to answer that we can illuminate the reasons why the US would be interested in making one situation look like the other, both in the consequences of the plan and in the public perception of what they are actually doing. Thus the goal is to turn the US involvement in both cases into “drug wars” – and bring us back to the wonderful world of US as liberal friends to the world against global evils that will do everyone harm. AKA business as usual for the United States.

  11. Les Blough Says:

    I agree with Micah Pyre (#8). The debate about using the “Colombian model” in Afghanistan obfuscates the real issue. As Micah says the issue is not “how the leverage is applied, and not whether the leverage is applied?”. What bothers me about this critique, “Lessons for Afhanistan?” is that it assumes that the U.S. has the right to be doing anything in either sovereign state. The argument that the U.S. has that right, whether to fight “terrorism” or for “drug interdiction”, is spurious. These and similar pretexts (e.g. dominoe theory in Vietnam) have been used for a long time by the U.S. government when their real motivation has always been one involving expansionism and dominion. U.S. foreign policy has consistently violated the Westphalian Treaty which prohibits foreign governments from interfering in the domestic affairs of any sovereign nation. It is just than simple. – Les Blough, Editor, Axis of Logic (

  12. Bye-bye Blackhawks? Bonjour, Cougars « The Mex Files Says:

    [...] is really designed to do that, any more than Plan Colombia is designed to really wipe out  cocaine production in Colombia (which has gone up since “Plan Colombia” started pumping weapons and [...]

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