An expert's point of view on a current event.

Lessons from America’s Other Counterinsurgency

The United States and Colombia have been testing out COIN strategies for years. But the major lesson for Afghanistan is a tough one: there are no clean answers in messy wars.


Barack Obama is expanding more than just the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. He is expanding the mission. The goal now is to weaken the Taliban not just through force of arms, but by helping Kabul govern, filling Afghanistan’s enormous vacuums of stateless territory. The U.S. president’s counterinsurgency strategy is more than military. Once the armed forces "clear" territory, the rest of the government must move in quickly to "hold" it.

On the other side of the globe, the U.S. government has been doing something similar for a few years now, if with a much smaller footprint. In Colombia, whose government has been fighting leftist insurgencies since the mid-1960s, the strategy is called "Integrated Action."

The Afghan and Colombian conflicts share some similarities. In both, a brutal insurgency –unpopular nationally but with support in marginal areas — remains active with funding from the drug trade. It has safe havens in neighboring countries. A weak central government, widely viewed as corrupt, is barely present in the countryside, where generations have known nothing but statelessness or governance by thugs. In each case, a mostly military approach, neglecting civilian governance, has yielded frustrating results.

Colombia has been the top U.S. aid destination outside the Middle East since 2000, when Bill Clinton’s administration launched "Plan Colombia," a big and mostly military aid package. Integrated Action came about later, after evidence showed that Plan Colombia wasn’t reducing cultivation of coca, the plant used to make cocaine. At the time, the government had weakened FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group, but it proved resilient in the most stateless parts of the country — the vast jungles and plains encompassing more than half of Colombia’s territory, but less than a quarter of its population.

Launched most ambitiously in the La Macarena region south of Bogotá in 2007, Integrated Action now operates in 13 conflict zones throughout Colombia. The Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action, an agency in the Colombian presidency, oversees troops’ entry to clear these zones of guerrillas and then monitors the phased and highly coordinated arrival of nation-building forces: police, judges, road-builders, and land-titlers. At least, that’s how the plan is presented in the PowerPoint slides.

In La Macarena, one of FARC’s most important rearguards, Integrated Action scored some important initial successes. By mid-2008, the Army had quickly cleared guerrillas from most town centers. A massive eradication campaign sharply reduced the zone’s coca crop. The region’s small town centers saw quick-impact projects such as road-building, school repairs, and military "health brigades." Delegations of U.S. officials were able to visit towns that had been the virtual capitals of an independent FARC republic, leading some to hail Integrated Action as a counterinsurgency model for Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But 2009 has proven more complicated in La Macarena. Although FARC is still weaker than when the program began, a counteroffensive in the zone’s rural areas has made road travel unadvisable, leaving the relatively secure towns as islands in a sea of guerrilla influence. Ambushes, bombings, land-mine deaths, and forced recruitment (especially of minors) have increased.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s civilian government has yet to show up. Short on resources or skeptical of the model, ministries charged with building roads, teaching students, providing medical care, and handing out land titles are lagging way behind the soldiers. The lack of civilian participation is making the "hold" strategy much harder than the "clear" strategy. It also promises a very undesirable outcome: soldiers serving as schoolteachers, construction workers, health-care providers, and even community development planners.

Interviews with people on Integrated Action’s receiving end highlight other obstacles. Communities complain that they are not consulted, that plans are "handed down from a desk in Bogotá." Mayors, governors, and other local leaders, many suspected of corruption or ties to illegal armed groups, can be unreliable partners. As agriculture officials refuse to distribute land titles, small farmers worry that Integrated Action is part of a massive "land grab" that will add them to Colombia’s huge internally displaced population. And the counterinsurgents’ own actions, such as indiscriminate arrests of suspected guerrilla collaborators and unpunished human rights abuses, further weaken the government’s standing. Forced coca eradication, especially when it is not coordinated with food-security and income-generation assistance, damages trust still further.

Integrated Action does demonstrate that the U.S. government has learned from its counterinsurgency mistakes. But the program’s difficulties are a reminder of how hard state-building truly is. Put simply: The model is not there yet. And this is Colombia, a country with far stronger governmental institutions than Afghanistan, and with a president, Álvaro Uribe, who has spent seven years obsessively focused on fighting FARC. Not everyone may like Uribe, but nobody is throwing around the same sorts of charges that have dogged Afghan President Hamid Karzai — incompetence, a lack of decisiveness, tolerance of gross corruption — for years.

Integrated Action is not an off-the-shelf model for Afghanistan, a country with tribal and religious divisions and a central government in which U.S. officials have much less confidence. To the contrary: Colombia’s Integrated Action experience makes clear that if the goal now is to help Afghanistan govern its territory, an 18-month "surge" could end up being only a down payment on a much larger commitment.

Adam Isacson is director of the Colombia Program of the Center for International Policy.