Barack Obama is expanding more than just the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. He is expanding the mission. The goal now is to weaken the Taliban not just through force of arms, but by helping Kabul govern, filling Afghanistan's enormous vacuums of stateless territory. The U.S. president's counterinsurgency strategy is more than military. Once the armed forces "clear" territory, the rest of the government must move in quickly to "hold" it.
On the other side of the globe, the U.S. government has been doing something similar for a few years now, if with a much smaller footprint. In Colombia, whose government has been fighting leftist insurgencies since the mid-1960s, the strategy is called "Integrated Action."
The Afghan and Colombian conflicts share some similarities. In both, a brutal insurgency --unpopular nationally but with support in marginal areas -- remains active with funding from the drug trade. It has safe havens in neighboring countries. A weak central government, widely viewed as corrupt, is barely present in the countryside, where generations have known nothing but statelessness or governance by thugs. In each case, a mostly military approach, neglecting civilian governance, has yielded frustrating results.
Colombia has been the top U.S. aid destination outside the Middle East since 2000, when Bill Clinton's administration launched "Plan Colombia," a big and mostly military aid package. Integrated Action came about later, after evidence showed that Plan Colombia wasn't reducing cultivation of coca, the plant used to make cocaine. At the time, the government had weakened FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group, but it proved resilient in the most stateless parts of the country -- the vast jungles and plains encompassing more than half of Colombia's territory, but less than a quarter of its population.
Launched most ambitiously in the La Macarena region south of Bogotá in 2007, Integrated Action now operates in 13 conflict zones throughout Colombia. The Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action, an agency in the Colombian presidency, oversees troops' entry to clear these zones of guerrillas and then monitors the phased and highly coordinated arrival of nation-building forces: police, judges, road-builders, and land-titlers. At least, that's how the plan is presented in the PowerPoint slides.
In La Macarena, one of FARC's most important rearguards, Integrated Action scored some important initial successes. By mid-2008, the Army had quickly cleared guerrillas from most town centers. A massive eradication campaign sharply reduced the zone's coca crop. The region's small town centers saw quick-impact projects such as road-building, school repairs, and military "health brigades." Delegations of U.S. officials were able to visit towns that had been the virtual capitals of an independent FARC republic, leading some to hail Integrated Action as a counterinsurgency model for Afghanistan and elsewhere.
But 2009 has proven more complicated in La Macarena. Although FARC is still weaker than when the program began, a counteroffensive in the zone's rural areas has made road travel unadvisable, leaving the relatively secure towns as islands in a sea of guerrilla influence. Ambushes, bombings, land-mine deaths, and forced recruitment (especially of minors) have increased.