Colombians in Kabul

Colombians in Kabul

What lessons does Colombia's successful counterinsurgency campaign hold for the Obama administration's Afghanistan policy?

What approach will the Obama administration take toward Afghanistan in 2011? Will there be a significant withdrawal of U.S. forces after the July deadline, or will the president’s team continue to operate on the counterinsurgency playbook drafted by the military?


 Looking to another, oftentimes forgotten counterinsurgency campaign underway in our own hemisphere—in Colombia—may give us some clues as to the president’s thinking. While in the Senate, Barack Obama was initially skeptical of the approach taken by the Clinton and Bush administrations—“Plan Colombia”—with its emphasis on building up Colombia’s security capabilities—as a way to tackle the twin problems of drug trafficking and the insurgencies threatening the Colombian state. In 2006, the senator from Illinois joined long-standing critics of Plan Colombia—Senators Patrick Leahy and Chris Dodd—in writing to then-Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, “There are reasons to be seriously concerned about whether our current policy can achieve its goals.” After taking office, the president displayed a “more guarded approach” to Colombia than the administration of George W. Bush, which saw in Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe a close ally in an increasingly unfriendly Latin America. When Uribe visited Washington in June 2009, administration officials were quite candid in saying that they would “question President Uribe on his human rights record and democracy"; moreover, passage of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which had been a hallmark of the Bush administration’s efforts to forge closer ties with Bogotá, has not been a legislative priority for the Obama team.

Nevertheless, Plan Colombia has had measurable successes over the past decade. The narco-insurgencies have been significantly beaten back—and kidnapping and homicides related to the South American nation’s drug trade have fallen 92 percent and 45 percent respectively since 2002. Moreover, the counternarcotics and counterinsurgency programs in Colombia have always been strongly supported by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. During his April 2010 visit to Colombia, Gates reassured Bogotá that U.S. aid would continue, and praised Colombia as an “exporter of security” for its efforts to assist Peruvian and Mexican counternarcotics programs and for pledging to send de-mining experts and special forces personnel to Afghanistan. Gates has been joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who during her own trip to Bogotá this past year pledged, "The United States will continue to support the Colombian people, the Colombian military and their government in the ongoing struggle against the insurgents, the guerrillas, the narco-traffickers who would wish to turn the clock back."

What this suggests is that when benchmarks are met, and progress can be demonstrated, the administration is willing to change course, moving away from the skepticism expressed by Senator and candidate Obama in favor of continuing an approach that is showing results. The death of Jorge Briceño (known by his nom de guerre Mono Jojoy), the military commander of the main insurgent group—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in September 2010 also offers hope that the long-running counterinsurgency campaign may be coming to a close, improving the prospects for ending Colombia’s civil war. While no one is talking openly about “light at the end of the tunnel,” there is optimism that finally, after ten years of Plan Colombia, the corner may have been turned.

It also helps that there has been a change in the presidential palace in Bogotá. Juan Manuel Santos, the former defense minister elected in summer 2010 to succeed Uribe, has distanced himself from some of Uribe’s more controversial policies—including those which caused trouble with Democrats. In contrast to Uribe’s clear preference for Republicans, Santos, according to the Washington Post, “has good relations with both parties on Capitol Hill.” He has moved to improve ties with Venezuela and Ecuador, in order to decrease regional tensions. He has moved to address the questions of economic development and human rights; the Santos administration is pushing legislative initiatives to compensate victims of Colombia's decades-long internal conflict, including those targeted by the state's security forces. Officials are also working to return to poor farmers up to 10 million acres of land stolen by corrupt politicians and local warlords. One bill winding its way through the Columbian Congress would use mining royalties to help fund public education.

Santos is not reversing course in terms of security cooperation with the United States—after all, he was the principal figure negotiating the 2009 agreement giving the United States access to Colombian bases. But Santos’ more progressive economic agenda and his attunement to human rights concerns—things that aides on Capitol Hill said Uribe and his team “just don't get”—has made it easier for the Obama team to claim Santos as a partner for the United States. It allows Obama—who met with Santos at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York in September—to talk about “how we can improve cooperation” in areas beyond security, such as economic relations and social development issues.

So the skeptic on Plan Colombia recently announced, when receiving the new Colombian ambassador, Gabriel Silva, that “the commitment to Plan Colombia is bipartisan and long term ... there are real results: a safer Colombia and a better life for Colombians. . . . We are pushing new areas of cooperation such as strengthening democracy, sustainable development and trade ties.”

But can the Colombia experience be replicated in Afghanistan? David Ignatius observes, “History shows that three variables are crucial in countering an insurgency: a real process of reconciliation, no safe havens for the enemy and a competent host government.” These elements are present in Colombia. Can the Obama administration create conditions for these to emerge in Afghanistan as well? The answer to Ignatius’s questions may determine the course of U.S. policy in the coming year.