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What Peace in Colombia Teaches Us About War in Afghanistan

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The Pulse

What Peace in Colombia Teaches Us About War in Afghanistan

A successful reconciliation process after three decades of excruciating false starts offers some not-so-encouraging lessons for Afghanistan.

What Peace in Colombia Teaches Us About War in Afghanistan
Credit: Flickr/Resolute Support Media

Last month, Colombia marked the first anniversary of the peace deal that ended a 52-year-war with the Armed Revolutionary Forces in Colombia, or FARC.

The long but ultimately successful negotiations that ended the war offer some useful lessons for another seemingly endless conflict — the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, in its 17th year and the longest foreign war in American history.

Unfortunately, there’s reason to fear that what helped propel Colombia to peace is missing in Afghanistan.

An Unlikely but Apt Analogy

At first glance, Colombia and Afghanistan may appear wildly dissimilar. Colombia is a middle-income country with generally well-functioning public institutions. Afghanistan, by contrast, is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the writ of the state barely extends outside of Kabul, the federal capital. Compared to Afghanistan’s volatile Pakistani and Central Asian neighbors, Colombia’s neighborhood is fairly stable, notwithstanding Venezuela’s recent economic collapse. Also, Colombia has not been a battleground for great power politics, while Afghanistan has long been of great geopolitical interest to America, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and, increasingly, China.

And yet, when examined more closely, striking similarities between the conflicts that have convulsed these two countries come into sharp relief.

First, both the FARC and the Taliban have benefited from cross-border sanctuaries. Much like the Taliban uses Pakistan as a base, the FARC took advantage of Colombia’s unpatrolled borders with Venezuela and Ecuador. Documents seized from a FARC camp on the Ecuadorian side of the border in 2008 indicate that the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez provided tacit approval for the FARC’s use of the border region, viewing the guerrillas as a strategic ally against the United States and Colombia. Similarly, Pakistan views the Taliban as a strategic asset to push back against the presence of its Indian rival in Afghanistan and to undercut Afghanistan’s pro-India government.

Second, the FARC and the Taliban have both been deeply enmeshed in the narcotics trade. While the Taliban is involved in poppy cultivation and traffics in opiates, the FARC was associated with protecting and fostering coca cultivation and the cocaine trade. Profits from illegal narcotics have been central to the ability of both the FARC and the Taliban to expand operations and to remain a viable fighting force even when suffering battlefield losses.

Third, the United States has played a fundamental, albeit very different, role in both conflicts. U.S. involvement in Colombia entailed training and assistance through Plan Colombia, a $10 billion package of military and development assistance. This support, more so than U.S. training efforts in Afghanistan (where the lack of strong security institutions ensures America faces much deeper challenges than in Colombia), helped boost the Colombian military’s capacity to fight the insurgency.

Colombia’s Long Road to Peace

Colombia’s long history of failed negotiations with the FARC made the 2016 peace deal all the more remarkable. Starting in the 1980s, Colombia attempted three major peace efforts with the FARC before finally attaining success last year. The first attempt in 1984 collapsed into chaos after right-wing paramilitary groups assassinated members of the FARC’s newly formed political party, the Unión Patriótica, when they tried to participate in democratic elections.

After another failed attempt at peace in 1991, the FARC and the government returned to negotiations in 1999. The FARC enjoyed a position of power during these talks, which contributed to their failure. Indeed, to facilitate negotiations, the government initially withdrew its troops from a 42,000-square-kilometer zone in the FARC’s heartland in southern Colombia. As the talks dragged on for three years, the FARC was accused of using the demilitarized zone to regroup and consolidate its power in the cocaine trade to fund future attacks. The Colombian army reentered the demilitarized zone in 2002.

By the time President Juan Manuel Santos took office in 2010, an aggressive, U.S.-backed military campaign by his predecessor had flipped the power dynamic of the armed conflict. Military strikes decimated the FARC’s leadership, killing 53 of the group’s commanders. The FARC’s membership plummeted during the same time period from more than 20,000 in 2002 to around 7,000 by 2016. The FARC refused to fully concede, even with its weakened force, but agreed to initial peace talks with the Santos government. Formal negotiations for Colombia’s fourth attempt at peace began in Havana in 2012. Four years later, peace was finally achieved.

Sobering Lessons for Afghanistan

A successful reconciliation process after three decades of excruciating false starts offers three not-so-encouraging lessons for Afghanistan.

First, negotiations won’t work with an insurgency in a position of military strength. While controversial for its links to human rights abuses and its questionable effectiveness against the drug trade, some experts see the Colombian military’s campaign against the FARC as a key component leading to the successful negotiation in 2016. After being crippled militarily, the FARC recognized that a negotiated outcome was the best way to achieve some of its goals.

This suggests the Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy, with its focus on ramping up military operations against the Taliban to compel it to agree to peace negotiations, is on the right track. However, Washington must reckon with a more capacity-constrained partner in Afghanistan than it had in Colombia. Afghan security forces, even after a nearly two-decade-long U.S.-led training mission, still struggle to carry out fundamental battlefield functions such as providing air cover and gathering intelligence. Their ability to team up with U.S. forces to deliver a body blow to the Taliban is far from assured. More broadly, given that more than 100,000 American troops were unable to defeat the Taliban — much less turn the tide in the war — during the height of the surge in 2010 and 2011, prospects for military success today with fewer than 15,000 troops are decidedly dim.

Second, regional patrons of the insurgency must play a successful role in encouraging negotiations. Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro both pressured the FARC to abandon their armed struggle and enter negotiations. This pressure, combined with Castro’s hosting of the negotiations in Havana, likely made the guerrillas more open to discussions with the Colombian government. President Santos acknowledged Castro’s role in the peace process, saying, “Fidel Castro recognized at the end of his life that the armed struggle was not the right path. In doing so he contributed to the end of the armed conflict.”

It follows, then, that for there to be a successful negotiation process with the Taliban, the Pakistanis must play a major role in bringing the Taliban to the table. Islamabad, however, claims its influence over the Taliban has declined. Indeed, Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban is not as symbiotic as the ones between Venezuela and Cuba and the FARC. Some Taliban members, including some senior leaders, say they mistrust Pakistan and, as Afghans, resent how Pakistan interferes in their country. U.S. officials have even accused Pakistan of pressuring the Taliban to reject negotiations. We shouldn’t overstate the ability of Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Third, while international support is critical, negotiations must be protected from foreign meddling. International buy-in was critical in bringing the FARC and Bogota to the negotiating table and keeping negotiations on track. Delegations from Cuba and Norway acted as guarantors to ensure that the 2016 accord faithfully reflected what was discussed during the negotiations. However, the understanding was that they could not dictate the substance of negotiations, thereby preventing foreign meddling in what both sides viewed as a peace “for Colombians, by Colombians.”

Once again, this lesson bodes ill for Afghanistan. The good news is that the idea of a negotiated outcome to the war commands considerable international support. The United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China have held several meetings to discuss how to launch a peace process. However, Pakistan’s history of meddling in Afghanistan through its support to Taliban and Haqqani Network operations there suggests that a completely hands-off Pakistani role in a formal dialogue is by no means assured—despite Islamabad’s frequent assurances that it supports an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace process. Attempts by the Pakistanis — or, for that matter, by the United States, China, Iran, Russia, and other states with a strong stake in an eventual endgame in Afghanistan — to influence the negotiations can’t be ruled out either.

In effect, key factors that helped facilitate peace in Colombia are absent or unlikely to be present in Afghanistan anytime soon. These factors include a militarily weakened insurgency, the ability of the insurgents’ external patrons to apply successful pressure, and controlled negotiations without outside meddling.

Accordingly, the skeptic will conclude that Afghanistan is doomed to many more years of war. The optimist will counter that Afghanistan just needs more time for the right conditions to materialize. For the long-suffering people of Afghanistan, where civilian deaths from the war reached record-breaking highs this year, neither outlook brings any solace.

Jamie Shenk is a researcher with the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. Michael Kugelman is deputy director for the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center.