Why the Colombia model -- even if it means drug war and armed rebellion -- is the best chance for U.S. success in Central Asia.
President Barack Obama made clear this week that the remaining troops will soon come home from Iraq. Some 10 years after the first troops landed in Afghanistan, we're now nearly back to a one-front war. But where are we, really? It's clear that both citizens and Washington alike are collectively weary of war and frustrated by this particular mission, with its interminable timelines and uncertain partners in Kabul and Islamabad, even if it has only been three to four years since the United States intensified its collective focus and resources on this mission.
President Barack Obama made clear this week that the remaining troops will soon come home from Iraq. Some 10 years after the first troops landed in Afghanistan, we’re now nearly back to a one-front war. But where are we, really? It’s clear that both citizens and Washington alike are collectively weary of war and frustrated by this particular mission, with its interminable timelines and uncertain partners in Kabul and Islamabad, even if it has only been three to four years since the United States intensified its collective focus and resources on this mission.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the temporary surge of U.S. forces was used for two purposes: First, to increase the size and quality of Iraqi and Afghan security forces so that they could take over most or all of the fight — this might be called "the surge that stays behind" or the "permanent surge"; and second, to create conditions sufficiently stable so that what we hand off to indigenous forces is not a losing hand that is doomed to fail, but one with a reasonable chance of success. The surge in Iraq produced dramatic results in a relatively short period of time; the results in Afghanistan have been more limited. With the president having announced that U.S. forces will withdraw by 2014, the question bears asking: Is victory in Afghanistan now beyond our grasp?
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.
Back then, in 2009, Afghanistan wasn’t ready for such a strategy. But the successes of the surge since then — which have been substantial even though not as dramatic as the ones achieved in just a year in Iraq — make it possible to do so now. In both Iraq and Afghanistan the surge has involved a temporary increase in U.S. troop levels — but the increase in numbers only works because it supports a shift in strategy, from one centered on killing or capturing enemy combatants to one focused on providing security for the local population. Along with that shift in strategy, a much greater emphasis has been placed on increasing both the quality and quantity of local security forces, so that they can eventually maintain that local security — and continue the fight against extremists — without substantial reliance on U.S. forces.
But even assuming a best-case scenario, it is unlikely that any government would be able to exercise control over the entire country, much less one with Afghanistan’s weak institutions, uncertain current leadership, colonial borders, and ancient tribal society. There will always be significant sections of the country, particularly in the more remote mountainous regions, where a guerilla movement like the Taliban can find effective sanctuary. That situation is substantially worsened by the existence of virtually unimpeded sanctuary on the Pakistan side of the border and support for the Taliban from important elements of that country’s national security apparatus.
Given the strength and determination of the Taliban, perhaps it was never realistic to establish what the U.N. Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn in 2001 hoped would be "a broad-based, gender sensitive, multi-ethnic and fully representative government" over all of Afghanistan. But if we set our sights realistically, we can still achieve the minimum standards of success needed to protect American security and give the Afghan people hope for a better future, in a way that is also consistent with the pressures of U.S. politics. Rather than aiming to establish government control over the entire country, the U.S. goal should be to contain the insurgency while giving the Afghans the tools to take over the fight from us in coming years.
In fact, something to this effect has been the U.S. strategy on the ground for some time now. And, for both American and even Afghan purposes, such an outcome could be considered a genuine success. Over the past decade, we have achieved just this result in Colombia — or, more accurately, the Colombians with our assistance have achieved such a result — and it is rightly considered a substantial victory.
For almost 50 years, Colombia has been plagued by violence, the result of a bloody war waged against the government by Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries — led primarily by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Although the violence was interrupted from time-to-time by a variety of peace agreements, these inevitably turned out to be more in the nature of armed truces than true peace settlements. Violent right-wing militias and even more violent narco-traffickers, added to the bloodshed. The narcotics trade itself became a major source of funding for FARC and, as the cocaine and heroin trade grew in the 1990s, the government’s grip on the country became increasingly tenuous. Assassinations became commonplace and violent deaths were, based on the best available statistics, at least five times higher in per capita terms than the level in Afghanistan today. In fact, war-related deaths remain higher in Colombia even now, after a decade of progress. By 1998, a leaked Defense Intelligence Agency report speculated on the possibility of a FARC victory within as little as five years. At the height of the insurgency in 2006, the FARC controlled as much as 30 percent of the territory of Colombia.
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.
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.
From an American point of view it would prevent Afghanistan from being controlled by the Taliban, whose willingness to support terrorism is probably reinforced by a decade of war, and it would provide us with an essential base for conducting effective counterterrorism campaigns in the areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan beyond our control. From an Afghan perspective, it provides those Afghans who do not wish to be ruled by the Taliban — which includes nearly all of the non-Pashtun population and a majority even of the Pashtun — the opportunity to defend themselves against possible insurgent takeover. While one might hope for a better outcome over time as the government’s political and military capacity improves, a "Colombia standard" for Afghanistan is a realistic goal — and one that actually might be sustainable in the coming years, given waning public support for the war.
In a way, it’s actually a return to an earlier strategy. A decade ago, after overthrowing the Taliban in concert with the Afghan Northern Alliance, the United States adopted what was often nicknamed a "light footprint" strategy for helping getting Afghanistan get back on its feet. This approach had a certain logic. Importantly, it was not adopted out of a need to shift attention to Iraq but out of a desire not to repeat the dismal Soviet experience in Afghanistan. It took reality in account: rebuilding an Afghan state that had never been very strong to begin with and was even more decimated after a quarter century of civil war was never going to be easy. The "light footprint" approach did initially deliver a higher standard of living and quality of life for the Afghan people, but it did not reckon on the Taliban mounting a major comeback — sadly, with the support of Pakistan’s intelligence service — starting around late 2005.
The Obama administration, of course, tried a more comprehensive counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan. This new strategy built on smaller force increases already begun towards the end of Bush’s second term, but Obama gets the lion’s share of both the credit and the associated responsibility, since it was he who tripled U.S. combat forces and brought total international force strength up to levels not far below where they were in Iraq during the surge there. The goals, while somewhat focused geographically on key parts of Afghanistan’s south and east, were to systematically weaken the insurgency while building up the military, economic, and political capacity of the Afghan state at national, provincial, and local levels.
The Afghanistan surge has achieved some real successes. Under the able leadership of Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, for example, the Afghan National Army in particular has improved in both quality and quantity. It is partnering with NATO forces in the field in a concentrated form of apprenticeship even after basic training is complete, providing about half of all combat forces for operations in the south, bearing primary responsibility for security in Kabul, and showing fairly strong commitment to the Afghan state. This important development remains underappreciated in the U.S. debate and provides a major basis for hope that the hand-off to Afghan security forces can succeed.
That said, it must be acknowledged that more ambitious goals for Afghanistan are not going to come to fruition. Kabul and key parts of the country’s south that were once Taliban strongholds have been largely secured, yet the east of the country remains perilous, and overall levels of violence have not appreciably declined nationwide. This is disappointing. The high level of violence reflects, to some extent, the larger presence of NATO and Afghan forces on the streets and in the hills of the country which brings them into more frequent contact with the enemy, but it was reasonable to hope for better conditions after two years of the surge. Assassinations remain a serious problem. Spectacular recent attacks in places like Kabul have been less effective than commonly portrayed, but still do add further weight to the argument that the insurgency remains robust. On top of all of this, corruption in Kabul and perfidy in parts of Pakistan’s security forces complicate the military task enormously.
But this is a far cry from a Taliban victory. Given Afghanistan’s current trajectory, major Afghan cities seem likely to remain in government hands. Attacks and assassinations will remain a major worry, especially for security forces and political leaders, but represent something closer to a nuisance for most citizens, who would generally have more immediate economic issues on their minds. Transportation arteries will, for the most part, be increasingly usable even if hardly safe. Areas such as the Korengal Valley will continue to provide sanctuary for terrorists and insurgents even inside the country, but a combination of Afghan forces and NATO intelligence, special operations, and drone strikes will keep them in check.
The analogy between Colombia and Afghanistan goes only so far, of course. One important difference is that Afghanistan’s ability to support the size of security forces required for stability is far less than that of Colombia’s — whose army numbers 178,000 and its national police another 144,000. Those numbers are very close to the newly revised targets for Afghanistan — with a total of about 350,000 security forces. Sounds pretty good for a country half the size of Colombia, with roughly 25 percent fewer people. However, Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is only 6 percent that of Colombia’s.
Success in Afghanistan therefore requires a commitment to continue substantial financial support of at least several billion dollars a year, long beyond 2014, the year when NATO is supposed to have completed the handoff for primary security responsibility to Afghan forces nationwide. That is something that President Hamid Karzai has rightly requested, though it will fall to his successor to continue the partnership with the international community thereafter — 2014 also marks the year that Karzai is constitutionally required to step down. The government of Colombia committed $3 for every $1 dollar spent by the United States on Plan Colombia; the government of Afghanistan is obviously unable to do that. However, the United States should solicit a significant sharing of the burden from other countries, particularly from some of the wealthy Gulf countries, which have so much at stake in the region and have so far done so little to help.
Another major difference from the Colombia case is that, although cross-border sanctuary is a problem for both countries, Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is much greater than Venezuela’s for FARC. The level of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban for the past half decade is deeply disturbing. The Taliban was Pakistan’s creation and its principal ally in Afghanistan during the 1990s, so it is not surprising that Islamabad is reluctant to abandon them. It is less clear why support for the Taliban was increased when it was, but one possibility is that Pakistan was preparing for the day when the United States once again abandons Afghanistan, given the pervasive fear in Islamabad that Afghanistan could then fall into chaos or turn primarily in an India-friendly direction. This is why the all-or-nothing model is doomed to fail. Rather, the articulation of a more realistic U.S. goal for Afghanistan, with a limited presence that is sustainable over the long term, could be part of an effective strategy — which we currently lack — to secure greater Pakistani cooperation in reigning in the Taliban
All of this will take time. Afghanistan’s institutions are too weak today to allow us to accelerate our exit strategy beyond what the Obama administration has already done. And even the relatively happy "Colombia outcome" can hardly be guaranteed. Among other things, it requires more decisive and unifying political leadership than Karzai is currently able to muster in Afghanistan — in this regard, elections in 2014 will be crucial for strengthening the nation’s democracy and improving governance, and America needs to focus as much attention on helping Afghans prepare for that big event as we have provided already in military terms on the battlefield. Again, the Colombia example is germane; Uribe was hardly without his flaws but he did bring more legitimate and upright governance to his country.
Strengthening Afghan democracy and preparing for a post-Karzai future after 2014 require, among other things, much more robust support for Afghanistan’s weak political parties and parliament. That means everything from technical support on how to hold rallies, develop platforms, get out the vote, and prepare candidates for Afghanistan’s political parties, to help for parliament to create stronger staffs and research organizations that serve its agendas, to many more exchange programs and visits involving Afghanistan’s new generation of political leaders. Governors need more help too, perhaps in some kind of "sister" relationship with America’s national board of governors. But U.S. officials need to look further down the line: They still focus too much on Karzai and his cabinet when interacting with Afghan leaders; clearly, most of these individuals no longer represent the country’s future. Plan Colombia succeeded, in no small measure, because it was a Colombian plan that had Colombian buy in. For a similar success to be achieved in Afghanistan, there needs to be some kind of Afghan process that achieves a broader commitment — beyond just Karzai — to the strategy and a joint commitment by Afghanistan and the United States to their agreed responsibilities beyond 2014.
But the Colombia model should give hope to those who wonder what we are still doing in Afghanistan after so many years, and provide an attainable standard that with some patience and just a little luck we can probably still achieve in what has now become America’s longest war.
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