Thursday, August 27, 2024
By Steven L. Taylor

Not that it is a new observation, but the US government is of the opinion that it can export lessons from fighting narcotrafficking funded insurgents from Colombia to Afghanistan. The latest piece on this theory comes to us from the CMS: US applies Colombia antidrug lessons to Afghanistan.

Long term readers will not be shocked to learn that I am highly skeptical of such potential applications of lessons from Plan Colombia to Afghanistan, if anything because I think that the empirical evidence demonstrates that the anti-drug effort in the Andes has largely been a multi-billion dollar, decades long failure.

Indeed, the article does pay at least some heed to that notion:

After nearly 10 years and $6 billion in US aid, Plan Colombia’s focus on massive forced eradication of coca crops has only recently made a dent in the South American country’s cocaine production.

This is something of an understatement, and at a minimum begs the question of whether a 10-year effort that only makes a “dent” in cocaine productions is worth a $6 billion price tag. One especially wonders this when one considers that the “dent” in question doesn’t really equate to a significant diminution of supply on the street or even a significant increase in price (not to mention the increase in cultivation in Peru).

The lesson that are supposedly to be export to Afghanistan is the notion that crop eradication alone is not sufficient to stop illicit drugs and that some sort of rural development program is needed. Now, anyone with knowledge of Plan Colombia may find this somewhat ironic, as allegedly the Plan was supposed to focus heavily on crop substitution and rural development from the beginning, but instead a focus on crop eradication and security issues ended up dominating the policy (and took far and away the lion’s share of the funds). If anything, this is not a new idea, per se, nor some newly minted lesson generated from years of trial and error.

Also, part of the problem here is the perception that things have radically improved in Colombia to the point that the country in on some clear trajectory to having solved, or at least substantially contained, it major problems of violence and criminality. The actual facts are that while things are better in Colombia they are better in relationship to one of the country’s worse spates of violence in the early part of this decade, not better is the sense of the problems coming to a close. At the moment the situation is simply closer to the norms of the last several decades of Colombian history, which is hardly peace and tranquility. There is still a massive internal displacement problem, an ongoing guerrilla war with two active guerrilla groups, substantial narcotrafficking, continued paramilitary violence and so forth. In other words, “better” does not mean “all the troubles have been fixed.” And yet, to read a lot of US press coverage, one would get the impression that there is light at the end of the tunnel. This is sadly, not the case. There are still numerous endemic problems in Colombia that are far from being solved.1

Also, in regards to Colombia and Afghanistan parallels, while there are some factors that are quite similar, they are hardly identical cases. To wit:

Bruce Bagley, a drug expert at the University of Miami, says that exporting elements of Plan Colombia to Afghanistan is premature. “In Afghan­istan, nation- and state-building has not been achieved yet, so lessons from Colombia are basically irrelevant,” he says. Colombia had a well-established government, army, and economy when Plan Colombia was launched in 2024.

No small thing, that. Even with the troubles of the Colombian (which has been described as “weak” if not “partially collapsed”) and it is far, far more developed that Afghanistan’s state. At the moment, the Afghan state has to figure out basic governance beyond Kabul. As such, it seems rather unlikely that it will be asserting itself effectively into the poppy-cultivating hinterlands.

  1. I am not the only one to take this view. I attended a presentation at the US Institute for Peace this summer made up of numerous Colombianists, and they all had a similar prognosis. []
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9 Responses to “Applying the “Lessons” of Colombia to Afghanistan”

  • el
  • pt
    1. Leonard Says:

      Re Afghanistan’s opium crop: buy it. The United States can price al-Qaeda and the Taliban right out of the market. Once we have the stuff, we can make medicine with it or (if that causes trade agreement problems) simply destroy it (per standard drug interdiction policy). If Afghans insist on growing the stuff because it’s the best cash crop they have, fine — give them a better price for their harvest than the radicals can offer. After a while, you can gradually try phasing in other crops while phasing out the poppies. Even if the crop shift thing doesn’t work, taking Afghan opium off the market by simply buying it all would very likely STILL be cheaper than the old-school drug war approach.

    2. MSS Says:

      “Drug expert” Bagley’s* point is critical, and was one I was going to make myself: Colombia’s state institutions–for all their definciencies–are far more developed and capable than Afghanistan’s. That includes its political and legal institutions–congress, parties, electoral administration bodies, courts, etc. Add to that the much higher urbanization levels in Colombia, and the country’s long experience with civilian rule, as well as its lack of any experience with superpower invasion and occupation, and it all adds up to a pretty rosy scenario for policy success in Colombia. And yet, as Steven notes, the policy there is essentially a failure. I will leave it to others to draw the inferences regarding Afghanistan.

      * It would be better to identify him as a political science professor, which he is. But the media like phrases like “drug expert.”

    3. MSS Says:

      Leonard, there is only so much demand for the medicines you refer to. In fact, what you propose–to buy up opium to make medicines like codeine–is already being done. I happen to have a friend who has been in that business for some years, and works with the legal opium trade from Afghanistan. But it is a drop in the bucket of the opium that is being grown.

      If the US would make codeine again available over the counter, it might help. But only so much.

    4. Cayetano Says:

      U.S. involvement in Colombia in know way resembles that of Afghanistan. In Afghanistan we should declare victory and get the hell out of there. If some ass hole over there attacks us again, we should simply pound them with cruise missiles and with drones.

      In Colombia we need to interdict the drug cartels and narco governments from shipping their poison to other countries. The future of any country dealing with drugs can be seen in what’s going on in Mexico were the authorities have been overwhelmed.

      We need to make a “no mans” zone around our borders, like the 38th parallel that divides the two Koreas. We did it there, we can certainly do it in our own country.

    5. MSS Says:

      A no man’s land. What a wonderful idea! We can just bulldoze vast parts of San Diego, El Paso, Niagara Falls, etc. Why hasn’t this been done yet?

    6. Steven L. Taylor Says:

      How about a moat?

    7. walt moffett Says:

      just remember the pile of skulls and impaled babies to remind auslanders when we say say out, we mean it.:)

      Buying up the opium crop does make some sense, by jacking up the price could affect bad guy funding and maybe gain some allies. Excess could always be incinerated.

    8. Leonard Says:

      MSS, the medicine part is only a minimal part of what I mean. The main thrust of it is to get as close to every goddamn bit of the supply as possible under American control. What happens to it afterward is incidental. Find out what the Taliban/AQ going rate is (shouldn’t be too hard) and make it common knowledge throughout the country that the Americans are offering 50% or 100% more for opium than the Taliban/AQ. This does 3 things that current policy does not:

      1. Interdicts illegal opium at the source
      2. Unfair competition for price curtails a major source of terrorist funding
      3. Allows destitute Afghan farmers to farm their land without fear that backwards US drug policy will destroy a year’s livelihood and further deprive their already starving families.

      At present the best cash crop they have is opium, so while there is an active US presence in-country, we subsidize that at a premium. Hell, we subsidize our own farms to NOT grow crops. I don’t see the problem with subsidizing a national-security-related crop that we don’t really want. Medicinize what we need of it and destroy the rest, or just destroy it all. I gather we have agreements with the Turks and Aussies for most of our legal opium, so the entire Afghan crop might be destined for the incinerator. I would argue it’s still going to be cheaper than standard US drug policy, as implemented by the US military (which shouldn’t be doing that sort of thing anyway).

    9. PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » The Taliban and Organized Crime Says:

      [...] while I have already noted that there are significant differences between Colombia and Afghanistan, there also some striking [...]

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