Plan Afghanistan Can Work

Colombia's former president says that the U.S. counterterrorism model from Latin America can work in Central Asia -- but only if the civil sector gets involved.

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546707_uribe_04.jpg

In a recent piece in Foreign Policy, Paul Wolfowitz and Michael O'Hanlon advocate the "Colombia model" as a potential long-term strategy for Afghanistan. They note similarities between the ongoing security challenges in Afghanistan and those that Colombia dealt with over the past few decades. Like Afghanistan today, Colombia faced a multi-decade terrorist threat fueled by radical ideologies, drug profits, hostile neighbors, forbidding terrain, and a weak central government. Colombia, they argue, was able to beat back the threat though "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."

There is much to recommend in the argument. Comparisons between countries as different as Colombia and Afghanistan are necessarily imperfect, but ongoing events have only strengthened the parallels between the two situations. The mission in Afghanistan suffers from the same pessimism and waning confidence that afflicted Colombia's counterterrorism efforts. By the late 1990s, many in the international community concluded that the Colombian government was incapable of ever dealing with narco-terrorism and several international agencies even assessed that Colombia was on the brink of becoming a failed state. 

In a recent piece in Foreign Policy, Paul Wolfowitz and Michael O’Hanlon advocate the "Colombia model" as a potential long-term strategy for Afghanistan. They note similarities between the ongoing security challenges in Afghanistan and those that Colombia dealt with over the past few decades. Like Afghanistan today, Colombia faced a multi-decade terrorist threat fueled by radical ideologies, drug profits, hostile neighbors, forbidding terrain, and a weak central government. Colombia, they argue, was able to beat back the threat though "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."

There is much to recommend in the argument. Comparisons between countries as different as Colombia and Afghanistan are necessarily imperfect, but ongoing events have only strengthened the parallels between the two situations. The mission in Afghanistan suffers from the same pessimism and waning confidence that afflicted Colombia’s counterterrorism efforts. By the late 1990s, many in the international community concluded that the Colombian government was incapable of ever dealing with narco-terrorism and several international agencies even assessed that Colombia was on the brink of becoming a failed state. 

The current reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban seem to be heading in the same direction as the peace process that the Colombian government initiated with FARC insurgents from 1999-2002. So long as the Colombian government proved incapable of securing key population centers and addressing terrorist sanctuaries, neither the FARC nor its far-right counterparts were willing to negotiate in good faith or agree to a ceasefire. The same is likely to be the case with the Taliban, Haqqani network, and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

Wolfowitz and O’Hanlon rightly credit improvements in traditional security capabilities, military and civilian assistance from the United States, and effective presidential leadership for Colombia’s turnaround. But these factors alone could not have achieved the degree of progress the country witnessed. By 2010, for example, kidnappings were down 90 percent, the homicide rate fell by half, and tens of thousands of fighters were disarmed and demobilized, with some of the deadliest kingpins extradited to U.S. prisons.

A less recognized but equally important reason for Colombia’s success is the role of the country’s private sector and civil society. In some cases, the Colombian government was able to work in tandem with the private sector to undercut extremism. Together, we initiated a variety of public-private partnerships to address development needs, promote corporate social responsibility, and facilitate fraternal relations between labor and employers. In other cases, private activists undertook initiatives entirely independent of the government. A salient example is the work of Oscar Morales Guevara — an unemployed engineer who started a Facebook group in 2008 called No More FARC. Four hundred thousand members joined online, who in turn rallied 12 million people to take to the streets in 20 cities around the world. It remains the largest anti-terrorism demonstration in history. 

The mobilization of the country’s private sector and civil society reflected a broader sea change that occurred in Colombian public opinion. Reformist sentiments allowed my administration to implement governance reforms and aggressive social justice policies that may have been politically unpalatable during my predecessors’ tenures. Once security improved, it was Colombia’s robust private sector and civil society that allowed the country to capitalize on these gains. Colombia’s GDP and per capita income more than doubled by the time I left office, while the country took significant steps toward consolidating democracy.     

In short, the Colombia model can work in Afghanistan, but only if accompanied by a broad mobilization of the Afghanistan’s private sector and civil society. It will be particularly important for the international community to engage popular movements in tackling corruption and the rule of law. The Karzai government is more likely to implement governance reforms if a groundswell of popular support makes reform a winning political issue. 

International assistance will be essential. In a recent survey by the Asia Foundation nearly half of Afghans polled remain optimistic about the country’s direction — in large part due to the success of ongoing reconstruction efforts. To complement large-scale economic development efforts such as the New Silk Road initiative, which aims at building trade ties in Central Asia, the international community should consider supporting smaller-scale private sector and NGO initiatives that could diminish the appeal of terrorist groups over the long-term. Recently, for example, I participated in the inaugural event of a new non-governmental initiative called The Concordia Summit which convened leaders from a variety of sectors to promote public-partnerships against extremism. The emergence of these types of organizations in Afghanistan could be the key to defeating the terrorist threat as NATO-led combat operations wind down and the country heads towards an uncertain political transition in 2014.

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