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April 7, 2009 / jeni

Moving Forward in Afghanistan: Lessons Learned from Colombia

Which Way in Afghanistan? Ask Colombia for Directions

Scott Wilson, The Washington Post

5 April 2009

Crime-conflict analysis would benefit from a great many more comparative studies. Wilson provides a brief one here, making a convincing case for the relevance of the Colombian experience for Afghanistan (whilst burying the critical differences in context that make the comparison problematic).

The conflicts in Colombia and Afghanistan share far more similarities with one another than either does with Iraq, which I covered in 2003 and 2004. The Taliban have caves and Colombian guerrillas their triple-canopy jungle and mountain hideouts — terrain far more useful to insurgencies than Iraq’s desert. Afghanistan’s opium poppies fund the Taliban, just as coca fuels Colombia’s guerrillas. As Pakistan does for the Taliban, Venezuela and Ecuador provide sanctuary to Colombia’s insurgents.

Perhaps the most important parallel, though, is the lack of a strong central government. Colombia’s government has rarely held sway beyond Bogota’s nearly two-mile high plateau, and the frail Karzai administration in Kabul has a similarly short reach. As a result, Colombia has relied on brutal paramilitary forces to support a weak army, alienating much of the population in the process. In Afghanistan, that role is played by U.S. forces, which, although by no means as savage as the Colombian irregulars, have cost Afghanistan’s government support among a people famously hostile to foreign invaders.

Noting the measurable increase in stability in the country, Wilson offers four key lessons:

First, a surge of U.S. combat forces to Afghanistan may be less useful than further increasing the number of military trainers being deployed to help build a viable Afghan army. Second, the administration should focus less on stopping the heroin trade and more on establishing functioning state institutions — from schools to health clinics. Third, efforts to seal off border sanctuaries do not work and divert military resources from the central job of protecting civilians. The fourth lesson is a stark one: It will take time. The Colombian effort has taken nearly a decade and counting.

The article is well worth a read. Also of interest is the success in weaning non-ideological members away from the guerrilla movement, and the way in which anti-FARC paramilitaries — deemed necessary proxies for a weak state — came to be as brutal, predatory and heavily involved in the drugs trade as the guerrillas they were ostensibly eliminating.

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