What Colombia Can Teach Us About Afghanistan

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What Colombia Can Teach Us About Afghanistan

Two wars, two peace deals — what lessons does Colombia hold for Afghanistan?

What Colombia Can Teach Us About Afghanistan

Personnel perform Digital Geophysical Transect Mapping on a closed U.S. range in Afghanistan Nov. 13, 2013.

Credit: U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville

Two wars, two peace deals. One has held for a few years, after decades of stalled negotiations. The other is still just a “framework” for peace. We’re referring to Colombia and Afghanistan – two countries riddled with longstanding rural insurgencies, drugs, militias, weak centers, cross-border sanctuaries, and poor governance. Are there lessons from Colombia that can be applied to Afghanistan?

In a new report published by West Point’s Modern War Institute, we argue that despite differences, there are commonalities. In Afghanistan, the push for a peace deal is admirable and arguably the correct course, yet the ability to reach a peace deal and a lasting peace will be particularly challenging given many of the conditions that made Colombia ripe for peace are not present in Afghanistan.

The “framework” in Afghanistan was hashed out between Zalmay Khalilzad, an American, and the Taliban. Yet the Afghan government – arguably the most important player in Afghanistan – has been largely cut out of the process. That is hardly a positive omen for Kabul’s future legitimacy. As President Ashraf Ghani noted recently, “The victims of the war are Afghans. So the initiative of peace should be in the hands of Afghans.”

By contrast, in Bogota, the peace agreement was largely “owned” by the Colombians. Americans played a bit of a role in the peace talks in Havana; the language and terms were the handiwork of Colombian negotiators. Americans also played a limited supporting role when it came to the provision of security. For every five cents we spent there on Plan Colombia, the Colombians spent 95 cents. To quote T.E. Lawrence, “Do not try to do too much with your own hands.”

Second, the Taliban must be given a voice in any future Afghan government. This remains a thorny issue in Colombia. The FARC control a handful of seats in Colombia’s parliament, which was a big reason why the peace deal was initially rejected when put to a popular referendum. Colombians, especially (and ironically) those from cities that saw the least violence (and presumably had fewer axes to grind), felt like the agreement was too lenient.

Yet leniency, however hideous and unjust to some, is a necessary ingredient of peace deals. The Taliban rank and file must be given an off-ramp to re-enter society – whether through formal rehabilitation or reeducation is unclear – provided they disarm, demobilize, and don’t go back to abusing women as they had before 9/11. This makes the institution of transitional justice a sensitive topic and riddled with tripwires. While transitional justice in Colombia has been far from perfect, we met mothers of war victims opening art exhibits as war memorials, pushing for greater land reform, and mobilizing against the country’s entrenched oligarchy. Afghan civil society must also mobilize and similarly agitate from below.

Colombia shows the difficulties of “disarmament, demobilization, and rehabilitation,” or DDR. Disarming the FARC took nine months and disabled some 9,000 firearms, though large weapons caches remain at large. While roughly 10,000 ex-combatants were demobilized, large numbers never reintegrated into society. Like the Afghan Taliban, guerrilla fighters in Colombia have little education, weak family ties, and showcase antisocial personality traits, all predictors of recidivism, according to the scholars Oliver Kaplan and Enzo Nussio. Roughly 5 to 10 percent of ex-FARC have rejoined the fight, many of them mid-ranking cadres. The causes are complex, but mostly it is due to a lack of jobs, the social stigma attached to ex-fighters, and threats they face from ex-colleagues who refused to lay down their arms.

Despite some hiccups, the overall process of collective DDR in Colombia has gone relatively smoothly. We met former guerrillas attending school, taking advantage of government-funded healthcare, and putting their violent past behind them.

A third important lesson from Colombia, and this might seem obvious, is that the provision of security is paramount. This requires that the ministries of interior and defense, along with civilian agencies, play ball together, as counterinsurgency in failed states requires an alchemy of patient detective work along with the management of violence. The recent terrorist attack against the Santander police academy in Bogota, allegedly carried out by the National Liberation Army (ELN), highlighted the vulnerabilities on this front.

In Afghanistan, there has been longstanding disparity between the capability of (and distrust between) Afghanistan’s police and its military. Both are poorly paid and face tremendous risks, as evidenced by a spate of recent Taliban attacks against military barracks – some 45,000 Afghan police and soldiers have been killed since 2014 – yet without cooperation, security, especially in rural provinces, is unattainable.

Regarding security provision, it is also imperative to isolate third-party “spoilers,” which can include armed actors that are non-signatories to the treaty, criminal gangs, or outside countries. In Colombia, several guerrilla groups, including the ELN, remain still at large (as evidenced by the recent terrorist attack that struck a police academy we visited in Bogota mentioned above). Cocaine still fuels the illicit economy and organized crime, yet drug traffickers have gotten wiser that violence is bad for business. Like Colombia, a peace agreement in Afghanistan will not likely reduce drug trafficking, and may even lead to higher levels. Farmers face perverse incentives as crop-substitution programs are riddled with moral hazards.

Similar to Colombia, whose neighboring countries provided refuge for Colombia’s guerrillas, the durability of any peace deal in Afghanistan hinges on its neighbors, most notably Pakistan. Yet, whether it plays along, or seeks to play the role of spoiler, the United States holds significant leverage on this front, and must isolate potential external spoilers to the peace process if it is to make Afghanistan resemble Colombia and not, say, North Vietnam. 

To be sure, there are some major differences between Colombia and Afghanistan. Colombia, while dangerous, was never a safe haven of violent extremists with an internationalist agenda or foreign fighters. The United States’ primary interest in Colombia was curbing the flow of narcotics, not terrorists. In Afghanistan, it is mostly reversed.

In Colombia, moreover, the FARC had suffered a series of humiliating defeats, including the deaths of several senior members of its aging leadership and a successful hostage rescue mission. While not defeated on the battlefield, they did not have momentum. Nor did they control some 40 percent of the country, as the Taliban do in Afghanistan today.

Hence, few were optimistic about the sixth round of peace talks that occurred in Doha in early May.

However, there is a glimmer of hope that Afghanistan might one day resemble Colombia: A version of what some scholars call “ugly stability” – pockets of security interspersed by pockets of violence; a fragile state but not a failed one.

In Colombia, a low hum of violence continues to keep the country on edge, yet expatriates have returned, tourism dollars and foreign investment are pouring in, and the illicit economy, while still robust, does not define the country or turn entire cities into war zones.

What should be the role of the U.S. military? In Colombia, we achieved “ugly stability” on the cheap, spending roughly $10 billion over a decade. In Afghanistan our annual military budget dwarfs that, with arguably fewer results to show for our efforts.

Unlike Colombia, where the United States has its third largest embassy but otherwise keeps a small military footprint of Special Operations Forces as advisors to train and assist, the U.S. military should maintain some residual presence in Afghanistan to avoid the security vacuum that led to 9/11. But Afghanistan should not resemble Cold War West Germany, where we kept hundreds of thousands of troops and significant military hardware for decades. Nor should we expect all good things – peace, security, governance, and reduction of narco-trafficking – to come together.

Peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan may not be right around the corner. But Colombia provides an imperfect roadmap for how to achieve both.

Lionel Beehner, PhD, is an assistant professor at the US Military Academy at West Point and research director of its Modern War Institute. He is a 2019-2020 International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Liam Collins, PhD, is director of the Modern War Institute. The views here are their own.