The South Asia Channel

A Plan Colombia for Afghanistan

A Plan Colombia for Afghanistan

On Feb. 4, President Barack Obama will host Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the White House to discuss a peace deal that will end the decades-long insurgency between the central government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The meeting will commemorate Plan Colombia, a U.S. diplomatic and military initiative conceived under the Clinton administration. Since 2000, Plan Columbia has brought nearly $10 billion in assistance to Colombia’s government and security forces.

The recent spate of violence tearing across Afghanistan, record civilian casualties, and a fledgling security force struggling to maintain the status quo with the Taliban would seem like an unlikely candidate for comparison with Colombia. Aside from the two countries’ geographic and cultural differences, Colombia is experiencing renewed economic growth and its largest reduction in violence in the last three decades. However, just a decade ago, Colombia had the highest murder rate in the world. It also suffered from a series of targeted bombings and killings, and witnessed nearly 3000 kidnappings in 2000.

Afghanistan’s insurgency is evolving from an ideological battle seeking to unite Afghans under a religious banner to that of competing criminal organizations fighting over valuable resources and opium smuggling routes — turf wars that Colombia’s drug gangs are familiar with.

Since the revelation of the death of Mullah Omar this past July, the Taliban has experienced steep divisions. Fights to succeed him have spread across Afghanistan, resulting in fierce clashes between the forces of Mullah Mansour, Mullah Omar’s former deputy commander, and his chief competitor, Mullah Mohammad Rassoul Noorzai.

Among one of the most valuable prizes these competing factions are fighting over is Helmand Valley, a strategic location in southern Afghanistan and a key hub for Taliban financing. Helmand is the largest producer of opium in Afghanistan, and provides smuggling routes into Pakistan. Afghan security forces have struggled to contain the reinvigorated Taliban in Helmand this year, with many of its districts almost collapsing to Taliban control. U.S. and British special forces have been dispatched to assist and advise their foreign counterparts, operations resulting in the death of a U.S. service member on January 5, 2016.

The Kabul government deserves much of the blame for the poor performance of Afghanistan’s security forces. Afghan forces have been spread too thin throughout the country, a result of the central government’s unwillingness to let go of terrain and prioritize its placement of forces. On top of that, roughly 53,000 Afghan Army soldiers — 30 percent of the force — and 147,000 Afghan National Policemen — half of the entire force — are manning static checkpoints, which limit the capability of offensive operations and maneuverability.

The United States should also be held accountable for security failures, as it has struggled to help Afghanistan build up its air force, which provides necessary support for Afghan ground forces and casualty evacuations. At the height of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, 852 military outposts were strewn across the conflict-riddled region. Now, roughly 20 remain, resulting in the reduction of intelligence collection capabilities, and hampering Afghan efforts to combat the growth of the insurgency and the spread of extremism. Hanif Atmar, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s national security adviser, stated in the Wall Street Journal that the “significant reduction of counterterrorism capabilities” resulting from poor military capability had facilitated the growth of extremist groups and emboldened the rise of both the Islamic State in Afghanistan and the Taliban insurgency. Plans are in place to strengthen Afghanistan’s intelligence collection capability to include surveillance balloons and drones for collection; this will require extensive training and technological support by coalition forces.

Much of Afghanistan’s current air fleet consists of aging Mi-17 transport helicopter and Mi-35 gunships, most of which are currently out of service or due to retire within the year. Last month, India delivered three of four promised Mi-25 gunships during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Kabul. Russia promises to deliver more Mi-35 attack helicopters.

As a stop gap measure for the 2014-2015 fighting season, the United States provided Afghan forces with the MD-530F Cayuse Warrior light attack helicopter, a similar airframe to the U.S. Kiowa Warrior utilized for decades. Col. Qalandar Shah Qalandari, commander of Afghanistan’s squadron of MD-530s, described the plane as a “total mess,” unsuitable for Afghanistan’s formidable and mountainous geography. Despite complaints from Afghan forces regarding the ineffectiveness of the light attack aircraft, Afghanistan has ordered 12 more for the coming fighting season.

Within its limited fleet of aircraft, Afghanistan lacks a dedicated fixed-wing close air support platform capable of providing precision GPS-guided munition strikes. Such a platform, the A-29 Super Tucano, was delayed in coming to Afghanistan for two years as a result of contract disputes within the United States. It is now scheduled to be delivered later this month, and will be field ready this April. The Tucano is a propeller-based fixed-wing ground attack aircraft capable of carrying GPS-guided munitions. U.S. General John F. Campbell, commander of the Resolute Support Mission (NATO’s “train, advise, and assist” mission for Afghan security forces), called this platform a “game-changer” during a House panel last October. This capability in particular was essential to Colombian forces in eliminating FARC leadership.

Afghanistan lacks the precision-strike capability that the United States provided through Plan Colombia. Afghan forces currently rely on a crumbling and limited capability air force with minimal support from coalition forces. At present, U.S. drone strikes represent the only precision strike capability for eliminating Taliban and ISIS leadership in Afghanistan.

If Afghanistan gains precision-strike capabilities, the military will then need to enhance its intelligence capabilities to provide forces with the skills and equipment to track, target, and neutralize insurgent leaders on the battlefield. As an outgrowth of Plan Colombia, the United States established the U.S. Embassy Intelligence Fusion Cell, an intelligence training and tracking network that allowed Colombia to push tactical intelligence to local commanders in real time, utilizing signals-intelligence intercepts. A similar network would help Afghanistan provide on-the-spot intelligence to battlefield commanders to target Taliban and Islamic State leaders.

With Afghanistan’s conflict entering a chapter of renewed violence, reminiscent of Colombia’s drug wars, it needs its own Plan Colombia. Afghanistan’s fixed-wing aircraft need to be retrofitted with GPS-guided munitions kits to provide them with the same capability to disrupt and eliminate insurgent leaders from the battlefield and an enhanced intelligence cell capable of providing real-time targeting data to local commanders. In Colombia, these capabilities forced FARC leadership to negotiate with the central government after much of its leadership had been decimated. In Afghanistan, these capabilities could be a game changer, putting the fear into Taliban and insurgent leaders that the Afghan government no longer needs to rely on dwindling coalition support to eliminate its leaders from the battlefield, thus showcasing its ability to provide its own security, and bolstering the legitimacy of the Kabul government.