Can We Please Stop Trying to Turn Afghanistan Into Colombia?

by Joshua Foust on 3/7/2009

In January of 2007, when President Bush moved Ambassador William Wood from Bogota to Kabul, I worried that the move was indicative of some new attempt to replicate the three decades of success the U.S. government has had fighting coca in the jungles of South American in fighting opium in the deserts of Central Asia. Very quickly, high ranking Generals were bragging about how Colombia is a model to be followed, so the appointment, naturally, was a logical and thoughtful choice.

Now, this is nothing personal on Wood, just the thinking behind his appointment. The United States’ drug community directly supports FARC, and the war on cocaine both in the U.S. and in Colombia has helped to spike prices so high FARC has built a fleet of stealthy semi-submersible smuggling boats. In other words, a misguided attempt to stem the coca trade has almost permanently entrenched a violent narcotics-funded insurgency in South America, one that continues to out-innovate the most innovative country on earth to get its products to market.

It gets worse: also in early 2007 news broke that the U.S. was importing anti-narcotics officials and agents from Colombia to Afghanistan to train the anti-poppy troops. There, too, they argued that Colombia was a success, or at least partial success, to be emulated. They did this even as human rights groups complained about the steadily increasing problem of murderous gangs of armed thugs roaming the countryside, extorting ransom and killing lots of innocent people. When noting all of this on Registan.net two years ago, I openly wondered if we were deliberately angling for failure in Afghanistan.

Alas. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Thursday that Colombia is a wonderful model we should attempt to replicate in Afghanistan. Despite driving back the FARC to the mountains—at a truly horrific cost in innocent human lives, including the killing of American missionaries—over 25% more land grew coca in Colombia in 2007 than in 2006.

Admiral Mullen is correct to see parallels between Colombia and Afghanistan. The President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, has sketchy ties to the drug smuggling scene; Hamid Karzai’s brother in Kandahar is suspected of the same. Colombian politics, even under President Uribe, are notoriously corrupt, as they are in Afghanistan under Karzai. Despite the U.S.’s best efforts with local forces, in Colombia narcotics production continues largely unabated; as it does in Afghanistan.

The only problem here is Adm. Mullen sees these parallels as good things to be repeated, not mistakes to be avoided. That strikes me as rather the opposite reaction one should have.

See Also:
All Poppies Must Die
Defeating Dorothy’s Menace
The Follies of Legalization
How Do You Stop Poppies?
…and Registan.net’s archive of Counternarcotics coverage.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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