An Attainable Standard?

Perhaps. Paul Wolfowitz and Michael O’Hanlon make an interesting argument that the US should implement a Plan Afghanistan that is modeled not on our operations in Iraq, but on Plan Colombia, which was implemented in 1999 by the Colombian and US governments to combat Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups, especially the FARC.

Many analysts have noted that the surge strategy in Afghanistan needs to be fundamentally different from that in Iraq. It is not an accident but rather a product of geography and the demography that Iraq has had strong central governments over the course of thousands of years, whereas Afghanistan has never had one. An Iraqi government can aspire to control all or nearly all of its territory. Indeed, any notion of success in Iraq virtually requires it. An Afghan government, on the other hand, cannot aspire to such an ambitious goal and, critically, success in Afghanistan does not require it.

Strange though it may sound, success in Afghanistan would look a lot more like the success that has been achieved in Colombia over the last 10 years, rather than the success that we are hoping for in Iraq. This is a point that was made two-and-a-half years ago by Scott Wilson, a Washington Post reporter who had spent four years in Colombia as a correspondent and a year in Iraq. Writing in April 2009, Wilson said that Obama “may want to look south rather than east in charting a new course” for Afghanistan. Though they hide in triple-canopy jungles rather than forbidding mountains, the insurgents in Colombia, like those in Afghanistan, will always enjoy the benefit of sanctuaries inside the country. And, until Pakistan withdraws its support for the Taliban, Pakistan will cause the same problems for the Afghan government that Venezuela does for Colombia.

There is a lot to be said here. The Plan Colombia had many successes. In the 1990s, violent deaths in Colombia rose to five times per capita what they are in Afghanistan today, and the FARC controlled as much as 30% of Colombia. The DIA reported then that Colombia could be lost in as few as five years.

In response to that growing danger, in 2000, the Colombian government put forward an ambitious Plan Colombia, which was warmly embraced by the Bill Clinton administration and later the George W. Bush administration. According to a recent Congressional Research Service study, the country has “made significant progress in reestablishing government control over much of its territory, combating drug trafficking and terrorist activities, and reducing poverty,” through a combination of brave actions by the Colombian military, some $7 billion in U.S. assistance, a relatively small number of U.S. military advisors and, particularly, the strong leadership of President Alvaro Uribe from 2002 to 2010. A number of senior FARC leaders have been killed, some through targeted air strikes, and thousands of FARC fighters have demobilized, partly as a result of a government amnesty program. According to Colombian government statistics and other sources, the number of FARC fighters has declined by half since 2001 (though they still number almost 8,000) and they are having difficulty recruiting new members. The International Crisis Group estimates the average age of FARC recruits today at less than 12 years old.The country remains plagued by violence, to be sure, but is no longer in danger of state collapse and no longer has the omnipresent feel of a war zone.

Uri Friedman offers this assessment:

Plan Colombia, which is now overseen by President Juan Manuel Santos, can count a number of successes. James Story, the director of the Narcotic Affairs Section at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, told CNN last week that since Plan Colombia’s inception, coca cultivation in Colombia has dropped 40 percent, cocaine production 60 percent, homicides 50 percent, and terrorism and kidnappings more than 90 percent. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, FARC forces have declined by approximately half since 2001 to just under 8,000, and the percentage of Colombians living in poverty dropped from 54 percent in 2002 to 46 percent in 2009.

Wolfowitz and O’Hanlon (and Friedman) are aware of Plan Colombia’s weaknesses, among them the arming of right-wing paramilitary groups and the subsequent extrajudicial killings, and the movement of the drug trade farther north to Mexico. These are no small matters, but, they conclude, the pros outweigh the cons. This might be the best option for us to implement in Afghanistan, flawed though it is. Does this constitute defeat? Wolfowitz and O’Hanlon again:

Some might object that the articulation of such an outcome as our goal in Afghanistan would be an acknowledgement of failure. True, it is a less desirable end state than either the Bush or Obama administrations initially envisioned for Afghanistan or than the United Nations envisioned in the heady days back in Bonn. But such an outcome would in fact be substantially better than current conventional expectations after 10 years of a war that many Americans and Afghans think we are actually losing.

It is at least a realistic plan, and not some pie-in-the-sky ideal of remaking Afghanistan in our likeness. It would also be a welcome departure from our current strategy, which this morning Tom Ricks aptly described: “The strategy is to fight, talk, and build. But we’re withdrawing the fighters, the Taliban won’t talk, and the builders are corrupt.” (I actually doubt Ricks would support this plan, but the quote seemed to fit. It’s from his blogpost discussing things generals know but aren’t allowed to say.)

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1 Comment

Filed under AfPak, Foreign Policy, Latin America

One response to “An Attainable Standard?

  1. Ernesto

    This makes sense as long as the expectations are for it to influence the security situation in the country while more or less being ineffective as a counter-narcotic policy. That is the dirty little secret of Plan Colombia, successful in terms of improving internal security but completely ineffectual in touching the influence of the drug trade.

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