Today on , Paul Wolfowitz and Michael O'Hanlon suggest a novel model by which the United States might actually measure "success" in the 10 year-old war in Afghanistan: look at Colombia. Rather than trying to foist the Iraq post-surge model on Afghanistan, they argue, America should focus on empowering the Afghan government so that it can contain the insurgency within its borders, just as Colombia has done over the past 10 years through the U.S.-backed counter-narcotics campaign known as Plan Colombia.
But a look back at the history of the program reveals that the success achieved in Colombia has been mixed, modest, and controversial. That might not be the grand outcome that the George W. Bush administration had in mind when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. But, as Wolfowitz and O'Hanlon argue, applying the "Colombia standard" to Afghanistan may just be the most realistic goal that the United States can set at this point.
Above, a Colombian soldier walks in a field of coca plants as a plane sprays herbicide overhead.
In 1998 and 1999, Andrés Pastrana, Colombia's newly elected president, hatched a strategy to tackle a bloody left-wing, anti-government insurgency that had plagued the country for decades. Pastrana would attack the roots of the problem: the lucrative cocaine and heroin trade funding the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), and the lack of social and institutional development in the country. He called it a "Marshall Plan" for Colombia and appealed to the international community to help foot the bill for what he initially envisioned as a six-year, $7.5 billion program.
Above, former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey holds a copy of Plan Colombia during a press conference in Bogotá in 2000.
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At the time that Pastrana was formulating his program, the U.S. was struggling to stem the flow of drugs from Colombia to the U.S. as part of its broader War on Drugs. In 2000, the Bill Clinton administration responded enthusiastically to Plan Colombia and pledged over $1 billion in aid.
While the assistance did include funding for alternative development projects Pastrana had championed, the bulk of the money was earmarked for efforts to curb smuggling and eradicate coca and poppy crops, by air through fumigation and by hand with machetes. "The Clinton administration shifted its emphasis from a comprehensive counterdrug program involving social, economic, and democratic development, to a policy that focused on the provision of military assistance and helicopters," Julia Sweig wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2002. The United States trained new Colombian anti-narcotics battalions and equipped them with 30 Blackhawk and 33 Huey helicopters. President George W. Bush expanded the program upon assuming office, creating the Andean Counterdrug Initiative to fold in other countries like Peru and Bolivia.
America's military-centric approach to Plan Colombia bred contempt among some Colombians. In 2001, college students in Bogotá donned skeleton masks and Uncle Sam hats to protest the program. Above, a FARC fighter stands near a sign condemning U.S. involvement in the scheme.
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As Plan Colombia got underway, critics warned that the fumigation program would unfairly hurt the Colombian peasants who farmed coca -- while having little impact on the American consumers and Colombian dealers and guerrillas who were primarily responsible for the booming drug trade. Sweig's article argued that "attempts to give coca farmers another way to earn a living" in the southern province and FARC-stronghold of Putumayo had failed.
Critics also raised concerns about the effects of spraying fields with herbicides. In 2001, for example, the Organization of Indian Peoples of the Colombian Amazon alleged that the herbicide glyphosate was causing health problems and environmental damage, but failed to convince a judge to suspend the campaign. The Colombian government was later blocked from fumigating drug crops in the country's national parks and along the border with Ecuador for these very reasons.
The criticism of fumigation hasn't dissipated with time. In 2007, controversy erupted again when U.S. lawmakers urged Colombia to begin spraying a toxic mycroherbicide called Fusarium oxysporum. And only last week, CNN ran a story on Abelardo Joya, who became one of Colombia's more than three million displaced people when a plane mistakenly targeted his legal cacao, yucca, and plantain plants with coca eradication chemicals last year.
Above, a farmer whose coca plantation was fumigated with her daughter.
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Parapolitics scandal. It's worth noting that the scandal that has been simmering in Colombia since 2006 -- over the ties between politicians and right-wing paramilitary death squads -- has some of its roots in the early days of Plan Colombia. In 2000, members of a paramilitary coalition known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) expressed support for Plan Colombia and even offered to lead the military offensive against the leftist insurgent groups it had long opposed. A number of politicians, including a number of the political elite, have been implicated and arrested for supporting these right-wing death squads.
Above, AUC members participate in the manual eradication of coca leaves in Putumayo in 2001.
In 2002, Álvaro Uribe was elected president of Colombia and pledged to aggressively pursue Plan Colombia as part of his larger security platform. As part of this process, Uribe launched raids against FARC leaders and initiated a highly controversial program to demobilize and disarm the AUC paramilitary organization and reintegrate its fighters into society.
Above, Colombian soldiers watch over former guerrillas and paramilitary fighters who have enlisted in the amnesty program.
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Coca production in Colombia actually increased during Plan Colombia's infancy, but the program soon began paying dividends. In a 2003 congressional hearing, then-Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota spoke of "great progress." The "U.N. estimates that at current rates of spraying we could see a 50-percent drop in coca production in 2003 alone," he declared, adding that kidnappings in Bogotá and Medellín were down and that desertions from terrorist groups had increased by 80 percent that year. Still, a 2005 Congressional Research Service study noted that Plan Colombia had done little to alter the flow of drugs to the U.S. or pacify the FARC, and a U.N. study that same year found that coca cultivation had actually increased in Colombia.
Above, a plane fumigates coca plantations deep in the forests of southern Colombia.
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Shift to development. Before the implementation of Plan Colombia, a staggering 50 percent of Colombian territory didn't have a government security presence. In 2007, Uribe, who had already established a government presence in all of the country's 1,099 municipalities, built on Plan Colombia by launching a National Consolidation Plan (PNC) to move the state into traditionally ungoverned rural areas and improve access to social services. The new initiative suggested that Plan Colombia was becoming less about anti-drug military operations and more about social and institutional development.
Under President Barack Obama, the United States, which has now spent over $7 billion on Plan Colombia, appears to be acting in kind. Congress has recently reduced its funding for the program and struck more of a balance between traditional development aid and security-related aid.
Above, a U.N. official meets with a Colombian peasant family participating in an "alternative development project" that aims to replace illegal crops with traditional ones such as cocoa, coffee, or rubber.
False positives scandal. Over the years, human rights abuses by elements of the Colombian military have repeatedly tainted Plan Colombia. Since 2008, for example, army members have been accused of carrying out extrajudicial executions known as "false positives" -- basically, killing civilians and dressing them up as guerrillas to inflate body counts. Human Rights Watch notes that as of May 2010, the Colombian government was investigating 1,366 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings committed by state agents involving more than 2,300 victims, with rulings in only 63 cases. (HRW adds, however, that the number of false positive cases has dropped steeply since 2009.)
Above, a protest against the false positives scandal.
Plan Colombia, 10 years later. Plan Colombia, which is now overseen by President Juan Manuel Santos, can count a number of successes. James Story, the director of the Narcotic Affairs Section at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, told CNN last week that since Plan Colombia's inception, coca cultivation in Colombia has dropped 40 percent, cocaine production 60 percent, homicides 50 percent, and terrorism and kidnappings more than 90 percent. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, FARC forces have declined by approximately half since 2001 to just under 8,000, and the percentage of Colombians living in poverty dropped from 54 percent in 2002 to 46 percent in 2009.
But beyond the controversies over fumigation and human rights abuses, there are questions about how effective the program has truly been. Critics argue, for example, that Plan Colombia has simply pushed the drug problem to Andean neighbors like Bolivia and Peru or other Latin American countries. In congressional testimony last week, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, admitted that "traffickers often respond to our advances by simply moving to areas where law enforcement is weaker and the political climate is more conducive to their free operation." America's anti-drug operations in Peru and Bolivia in the 1980s shifted operations to Colombia, he explained, and "the success of Plan Colombia led to a trafficking shift to Mexico."
Above, a Colombian soldier in elaborate camouflage stands guard during a presentation trumpeting the seizure of a cocaine laboratory in 2010.