Colombia Can Teach Afghanistan (and the United States) How to Win

Article excerpt

On 1 December 2009, Pres. Barack Obama revealed his new strategy for Afghanistan.1 After adding 30,000 US Soldiers and Marines to the fight in 2010, the president intends to begin withdrawing US forces in July 2011 and turning responsibility for security over to Afghanistan's forces. Mr. Obama's plan calls for Afghanistan's army to be ready for this responsibility in 18 months. Yet, in spite of years of effort, Afghanistan's security forces will struggle to meet this goal. In the recent battle for Marja in Afghanistan's Helmand province, US and British infantry had to lead the assault against the Taliban, a worrisome indicator of the Afghan army's readiness.2

Recent US government reports reached troubling conclusions about Afghanistan's army. For example, 19 percent of the soldiers in the Afghan army quit or desert each year.3 The Afghan army lacks competent leadership at all levels as well as the ability to generate qualified leaders rapidly. Moreover, although the US government spent more than $5.6 billion in fiscal year 2009 on training and supporting Afghanistan's security forces, the number of Afghan battalions qualified to operate independently actually declined.4 In spite of these problems with Afghanistan's existing army, Afghan and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officials want to accelerate its expansion, from 97,000 troops currently to 171,600 by the end of 2011 and 240,000 within five years.5

Ten years ago, Colombia faced a security crisis in many ways worse than the one Afghanistan currently faces. But over the past decade, Colombia has sharply reduced its murder and kidnapping rates, crushed the array of insurgent groups fighting against the government, demobilized the paramilitary groups that arose during the power vacuum of the 1990s, and significantly restored the rule of law and presence of government throughout the country.

Over the past decade, with the assistance of a team of US advisers, Colombia rebuilt its army. In contrast to the current plan for Afghanistan, Colombia focused on quality, not quantity. Its army and other security forces have achieved impressive success against an insurgency in many ways similar to Afghanistan's. Meanwhile, despite the assistance of nearly 100,000 NATO soldiers and many billions of dollars spent on security assistance, the situation in Afghanistan seems to be deteriorating.

Afghan and US officials struggling to build an effective Afghan army can learn from Colombia's success. This article explores the similarities and differences between the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Colombia, examines how Colombia reformed its security forces, and discusses how to apply Colombia's success to Afghanistan.

Similarities and Differences between the Insurgencies in Colombia and Afghanistan

Counterinsurgency forces in Colombia and Afghanistan face several similar challenges. First, rugged terrain in both countries provides locations for insurgents to hide and limits the ground mobility of counterinsurgent forces. Second, insurgents in both Colombia and Afghanistan take advantage of cross-border sanctuaries and have financed their operations with narcotrafficking.

At their worst, the two insurgent forces had similar strengths. At their peak strengths (around 2001), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) insurgent groups could field a combined 21,500 fighters, about 1.9 fighters for every 1,000 military-aged males in Colombia.6 The upper estimate of the Taliban's current strength is 17,000, or 2.3 fighters for every 1,000 military-aged males in Afghanistan.7

In the mid-to-late 1990s, the rule of law in Colombia was minimal. In 1995 a quarter of Colombia's municipalities had no police.8 In the late 1990s, Colombia's annual murder rate was 62 per 100,000- nearly 10 times that of the United States.9 The police and court systems were thoroughly corrupt, and paramilitary militias formed in the absence of state authority. …