The End of the Innocents

How America's longtime man in Southeast Asia, Jim Thompson, fought to stop the CIA's progression from a small spy ring to a large paramilitary agency -- and was never seen again.

By the time Jim Thompson reached his cramped corner of the temporary U.S. legation in Thailand each morning in 1946, a small crowd had already formed waiting to see him. In the soupy, humid air, they squatted on their haunches, chewing sour mango slices and dried pork skins, waiting for their savior, the best-connected intelligence man in Indochina, a man unaware that he would soon be among the last of a dying breed -- a lone idealist in an increasingly power-hungry, militarized CIA that would never be the same again.

Thompson pushed through the waiting crowd and grabbed his seat. There were Thais in the crowd, but mostly Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese from resistance groups fighting the French colonists. Most afternoons, these nationalist fighters would come to see Thompson, but on weekends Thompson often tried to catch a flight to the Thai northeast, where tens of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians lived and where Ho Chi Minh's forces had built a sizable operation.

Thompson made little effort to conceal his sympathies for these militants. He quietly met regularly with the prime minister of the Free Laos movement, who was living secretly in Bangkok; brought the leaders of the Free Cambodian groups to meet with other U.S. officials; and even got a clandestine rendezvous with Prince Souphanouvong, a leftist member of the Lao royal family who, during the Vietnam War, allied himself with the communists and would become known as the Red Prince.

When Lao militants launched a brief border war with French forces in Laos, Thompson traveled to the Lao border to negotiate a truce. He had been winning their trust on foot, walking day after day through Vietnamese refugee camps, Lao villages, and Cambodian towns just inside Thailand's borders, where these refugees had set up replicas of home, complete with stalls serving steaming bowls of pho, sticky rice, and charred pieces of gamy grilled chicken. Arriving at the Thai border after reports that fighting was breaking out along the frontier and that men, women, and children were fleeing with their possessions into Thailand, Thompson was a calming presence.

In Thailand's northeast, where Thompson traveled with Tiang Sirikhanth, a populist sympathetic to the anti-French insurgents, he assured the Indochinese insurgent leaders that they would eventually get their independence, with America's backing. "The sooner the European suckups of the State Department realize that the days of colonies are over, the better," he wrote in one letter back to the United States. "I see a great deal of the Laos, the Vietnamese, and the Indonesians here and they are a very intelligent bunch and not ones to be fooled."

Working first in the Office of Strategic Services and then for the CIA, which at the time was trying to broker some kind of exit for France from Asia, Thompson had contacts among the Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese militants that no one else had. But despite his enormous knowledge of the Southeast Asians, Thompson seemed to understand little about his own agency; he knew the people he was working with needed help and assumed that the United States would come to their aid.

The Laotians brought together all of Thompson's beliefs all at once: his idealistic anti-imperialism, his desire to help the most alienated and hopeless of people, his need to have a mission that was his alone. Because no one else in the U.S. mission focused on the Laotians -- even though, one day soon, Laos would become vital to American interests -- Thompson basically ran the operation himself.

Thompson did not only have a unique affection for Laotians; he truly believed that, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt had promised during World War II, the United States would help free countries from colonial masters and set them on the road to democracy. Neighbors on all sides of Thailand -- Indochina, Burma, India, and Indonesia -- were deep in it. "Jim was an idealist, a romantic, an anti-imperialist, and there was no more idealistic time than just after the war," remembered Rolland Bushner, who served in the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. "We had stood with the anti-colonialists, the democrats, in the war, and we expected that would continue."

Thompson was in many ways unique, but by the 1950s and early 1960s he would become part of a larger, growing, and much less idealistic machine, one that would expose his naivete -- and punish him for it. As the Cold War grew hot, the United States no longer would back any of these nationalist fighters; America would support France, and then local dictators, in an attempt to fend off communism, infuriating older liberals like Thompson. In Laos, the CIA would make the biggest bet in its history -- not to push democracy, as Thompson wanted, but itself. The agency's secret war in Laos would alter Asia forever, transforming the lives of American operatives and the local hill tribes they worked with. But it would also transform the CIA.

Before the Laos secret war, the agency was a small player in the policymaking apparatus. But by using the war to demonstrate its new importance in policymaking circles, the CIA would make itself far more powerful -- a paramilitary organization rather than a spy agency. Today, the CIA has retained and expanded that paramilitary focus, often leading the war on terror in Afghanistan and other parts of the globe. "Laos made us," one CIA operative told me. "Everything about the power of the CIA, the CIA's global reach, the ability of the CIA [to make war today], not just the Army, to make war -- it came from Laos."


From the Chom Si temple overlooking the town of Luang Prabang, the historic seat of Laos's royal family, the scene in early 1962 looked little different from what it might have decades earlier. On the narrow peninsula jutting out into the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, women in long wraparound phasin dresses sold fresh baguettes each morning. At dusk, makeshift stalls in the market offered spicy raw papaya salad and fried Mekong River catfish. In the royal palace, set back from the three-wheeled rickshaws and bicycles of Luang Prabang's main streets, the king of Laos, Savang Vatthana, still theoretically ruled the country as head of state.

But by the early 1960s, this idyllic little kingdom had become one of the hottest firefights of the Cold War. Strange as it would seem to a visitor to the sleepy country today, for a period in the 1960s, Laos was where Washington would set the future of its foreign policy -- and cement the CIA as a paramilitary organization, a role it would never give up afterward. With communists gaining ground in Vietnam, Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration saw the tiny landlocked country as a bulwark against communism spreading farther west. At a National Security Council meeting, Eisenhower himself warned, "If Laos were lost, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow, and the gateway to India would be opened [to communists]."

Under Eisenhower and then John F. Kennedy, the United States would decisively opt for a covert battle in Laos. The U.S. Embassy there began to expand into what would become, along with bases in northeastern and eastern Thailand, a vast complex of intelligence operations. The United States had sent some small amounts of aid to Laos in the 1950s, but in August 1962 Kennedy authorized a new, and vastly larger, secret U.S. military aid program. (When Kennedy did discuss the country, he deliberately mispronounced the country's name as "LAY-os," rather than the correct "louse" or "laaw," fearing that average Americans would not take seriously a country whose name sounded like a small bug.)

And in Laos, the CIA found a different type of fighting partner, an archetype for the kind of proxy allies it would deploy around the globe in the 1970s, 1980s, and today. In the mountains of northern and central Laos, the Hmong hill tribe -- a rugged ethnic minority group -- hated central authority and had spent nearly 4,000 years fighting outside forces from the Chinese to the Vietnamese. They disdained the Lao communists, whom they feared would deprive them of their traditional way of life and farming. Most Hmong had little interaction with or knowledge of the technological and commercial revolutions changing Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok. Still, they had built a reputation as the most fearsome fighters in Asia. The Hmong, whose name means "free," fought like they had nothing to lose, a trait they seemed to prefer: In the 18th century, during a battle with China, many Hmong fighters first killed their wives and children, so that they could enter the fight against China with nothing holding them back. By the early 1960s, the CIA had begun to build modern airstrips in Laos, and the agency shipped the Hmong army assault rifles, rocket launchers, howitzers, and food. U.S. officials assured the Hmong that Washington would back them until the communists were defeated. After all, Laos was then of the highest priority, and surely nothing short of victory would be acceptable. No word of this emerging, massive war effort was released to Congress or the American press.

Jim Thompson had a certain view of Laos and all of Southeast Asia. Since he had arrived there in 1945, he had come to love the region. He had started collecting local art and antiquities, and he launched a silk business in part to help provide income for poor people from Laos and northeastern Thailand who worked for him as silk weavers. As the Indochina wars ramped up, he became convinced that by standing on the side of locals against, initially, the French colonialists and then, later, their own dictators, the United States would retain the prestige it had gained in World War II and ultimately make the world safer for itself as well. Thompson saw in Indochina a chance to bring real democracy to one of the remotest parts of the world -- or at least for people in Laos and other countries to live their lives without the rule of outsiders.

But back at Langley, CIA leaders saw a different objective in the battleground country. Since it was formed out of the World War II­-era Office of Strategic Services, the CIA had gained a foothold in the territorial world of the U.S. foreign-policy community. CIA operatives had helped engineer coups in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. But even with the powerful Allen Dulles in charge, the agency remained a minor player in Washington compared with the U.S. military services or the enormous reach of the State Department. The CIA's personnel numbered in the hundreds, and its budget was a mere rounding error compared with the Pentagon's.

In Laos, however, the CIA had connections, dating to the early 1950s, that the Army lacked, and it had its own private, covert airline that had helped the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War and continued to aid them once they wound up in Taiwan. In Laos, Langley saw an opportunity to step up to equal status with the big boys at the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom. And because the United States had formally signed an agreement with the Soviet Union committing both powers not to interfere in supposedly neutral Laos, the CIA's ability to operate secretly, with proxy fighters, made it even more essential to the U.S. war effort.

At CIA headquarters, only a few midlevel men saw, early on, the potential of the secret war to transform the CIA itself, but they proved critical. William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Laos from 1964 to 1969, who worked closely with the agency, saw how the secret war could work for the United States. Quizzed by congressional investigators in the latter days of the secret war about whether the United States had any commitment to help the Hmong over the long run, Sullivan simply answered: "No."

The CIA, the advocates of the secret war argued, could show that a proxy war, fought by local men with American bombers and operatives supporting them, could be as successful as a full-on U.S. military operation, with far fewer casualties -- and in near-total secrecy.

This message eventually caught on, not only at Langley but also within the broader U.S. government. After all, Washington did not want to expose any more of its Southeast Asian operations to scrutiny than it had to, especially as American casualties mounted in Vietnam. From a handful of old planes purchased from an airline in 1950, Air America, the U.S. covert airline in Laos, had by the mid-1960s more than 300 pilots and co-pilots. It was dropping millions of pounds of food, ammunition, and weapons to the Hmong fighters each month. Ubon air base in northeast Thailand, one of the main bases for flights into Laos, employed more than 2,300 people. By the mid-1970s, Laos had become the most heavily bombed place on Earth: Unexploded ordnance dotted nearly every village road, and rural people struggling to survive built their stilt homes using bomb casings to hold up the dwellings. 

Undersecretary of State U. Alexis Johnson told peers in 1971 that the Hmong operation was "very cost-effective." In other words, as one historian later wrote, Hmong lives were cheap: The United States did not have to spend money buying the Hmong rations of beef, eggs, and ice cream, as it did American troops, because the Hmong subsisted on rice and foraging; Hmong soldiers got about $3 per month in pay, compared with as much as $339 per month for U.S. Army privates serving in Vietnam. Hmong fighters were more than 10 times more likely to die as U.S. Army soldiers serving in Vietnam. Washington provided the Hmong with minimal medical assistance. Although precise figures are impossible to obtain, by the end of the secret war, the Hmong had lost nearly half their fighting-age men.


The CIA's plan would work -- in a fashion -- laying the groundwork for Iran-Contra, the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, and other U.S. proxy armies up to the present day. By running the Laos secret war, the CIA made itself into a central foreign-policy actor for the first time, a centrality it would never give up, even when it faced reforms imposed by Congress in the 1970s, after the Church Committee report, such as the removal of CIA director William Colby and the creation of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The agency had developed a cadre of paramilitary experts and demonstrated its own kind of warfare, which held down Vietnamese forces in Laos for more than 10 years, at minimal cost to America, even though the United States ultimately pulled out of Indochina. By the late 1960s, Laos had put the CIA director at the policy table with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior military leaders, and it had made, for the foreseeable future, a proxy war a viable alternative to an Army-led war.

Laos, longtime operatives said, showed that the CIA could run its own kind of war, and the graduates of that operation would go on to mastermind other proxy battles. Among the major operatives in Laos in the later years of the secret war were Richard Second, Thomas Clines, and Ted Shackley -- three men who would reunite in the early and mid-1980s to manage the Iran-Contra operation and work with and funnel weapons to the mujahideen in Afghanistan, a CIA proxy war not unlike the secret war in Laos.

But for Thompson, as well as many Laotians, the war would not turn out so well. As the war in Indochina expanded, Thompson focused on his silk business, but he continued to provide advice and assistance to CIA men working in Southeast Asia. Increasingly, though, he was so embittered by America's Cold War policy in the region that the dinner and cocktail parties he often threw at his grand house along a Bangkok canal led to open questioning of what the CIA and the Army were doing.

From receiving almost nothing in the mid-1950s, Laos had become the United States' largest recipient of aid per capita in the 1960s, but the money was flowing not only to the Hmong but also to other, more corrupt Laotians, who had no real interest in fighting. Meanwhile, as the war dragged on, the United States abandoned aid projects -- education, health care, and other efforts -- that had accompanied the secret war (as the country would in Nicaragua in the early and mid-1980s and as appears to be happening in Afghanistan today). Instead, money was increasingly spent on bombing runs over Laos, with the agency paying less and less attention to just who was on the receiving end. Bombing runs and tonnage of shells dropped could be easily counted, marked off on a piece of paper back at agency headquarters.

Meanwhile, the proxy fighters also took the kind of casualties U.S. troops and politicians would never have countenanced. In the early 1960s, there were roughly 400,000 Hmong living in Laos; by the end of the secret war, as many as 300,000 of them had been killed or forced to flee the country. Those who remained saw their lives changed dramatically: While once the Hmong farmed their land and hunted in their jungles, totally self-sufficient, the alliance with the United States had made this hardiest of people totally reliant on aid.

Later, after the United States pulled out of Laos in 1975 (in a harbinger of how the agency would abandon allies in Afghanistan during the 1980s and later Iraq, where locals who had worked in conjunction with U.S. forces were left to fend for themselves or flee from death squads), the Hmong would have to flee to Thailand en masse, where they lived in squalid refugee camps until they were grudgingly admitted to the United States. They staggered, emaciated, into Thai refugee camps, where they were promptly robbed and raped by Thai soldiers. The world eventually forgot about the Hmong, though 35 years later, several Western journalists found a group of Hmong fighters still hidden deep in the Laos jungle, fighting against the communists who now controlled the country. Dressed in ragged uniforms given to them four decades ago, some believed that if they held out long enough, the United States would notice them once again and send in new bombers and helicopter gunships to help them finally win their war.

The changed focus on running the war from the United States attracted a new breed of military contractors, too, men who saw dollar signs in the secret war -- a young industry of contractors that would grow to be the CIA's essential paramilitary partners. Longtime operatives on the ground in Southeast Asia like Thompson were simply a thing of the past -- no one listened to them anymore. The secret war had grown so big no one at the CIA was going to let local operatives actually manage it. Langley had built up the Thai bases supporting the secret war into giant operations, complete with officers' clubs and movie theaters where only Americans were allowed in, with brothels right outside the bases where Thai cooks whipped up hamburgers alongside plates of wide noodles stir-fried with hot basil.

By the mid-1960s, watching how Laos was turning into a massive war, with little control by Laotians themselves, Thompson became more and more dispirited. "Laos makes me feel sick," Thompson wrote to his sister in late 1960, as he convalesced in the hospital after coming down with pneumonia yet again -- illnesses, many friends believed, accentuated by seeing how his little slice of paradise was being destroyed. "I am afraid this is the beginning of a long struggle for that poor little country," he wrote.

But rather than simply keeping his worry and anger to himself, Thompson took a very impolitic step. The best-known American in Asia, he began to openly criticize the United States, its war effort, and the CIA, as well as the Thai leaders who were working with the United States to foment the war in Laos -- a dangerous move when he was still, after all these years, a visitor living in Thailand.

In the early 1960s, the CIA issued a "burn notice" on Thompson, warning all its operatives to avoid any contact with him. But still, Thompson persisted. In early 1967, he gave a much-viewed television interview in which he lashed into U.S. policy in Indochina, infuriating many agency men. "Jim basically cut any ties he still had with that," said his old friend and longtime agent Campbell James.

Thompson's anger at U.S. policy carried over into his private life; he had grown so agitated that friends encouraged him to take a much-needed vacation. He traveled to Malaysia in the spring of 1967. On Easter Sunday, while taking a short hike on vacation in the highlands, Thompson suddenly vanished. When his relatives tried to find out where he might have disappeared to, the U.S. embassies in the region, and the CIA, stonewalled them. Despite a massive manhunt that was the largest in the region for its time, no trace of Jim Thompson was ever found.


Plan Afghanistan

Why the Colombia model -- even if it means drug war and armed rebellion -- is the best chance for U.S. success in Central Asia.

President Barack Obama made clear this week that the remaining troops will soon come home from Iraq. Some 10 years after the first troops landed in Afghanistan, we're now nearly back to a one-front war. But where are we, really? It's clear that both citizens and Washington alike are collectively weary of war and frustrated by this particular mission, with its interminable timelines and uncertain partners in Kabul and Islamabad, even if it has only been three to four years since the United States intensified its collective focus and resources on this mission.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the temporary surge of U.S. forces was used for two purposes: First, to increase the size and quality of Iraqi and Afghan security forces so that they could take over most or all of the fight -- this might be called "the surge that stays behind" or the "permanent surge"; and second, to create conditions sufficiently stable so that what we hand off to indigenous forces is not a losing hand that is doomed to fail, but one with a reasonable chance of success. The surge in Iraq produced dramatic results in a relatively short period of time; the results in Afghanistan have been more limited. With the president having announced that U.S. forces will withdraw by 2014, the question bears asking: Is victory in Afghanistan now beyond our grasp?

Many analysts have noted that the surge strategy in Afghanistan needs to be fundamentally different from that in Iraq. It is not an accident but rather a product of geography and the demography that Iraq has had strong central governments over the course of thousands of years, whereas Afghanistan has never had one. An Iraqi government can aspire to control all or nearly all of its territory. Indeed, any notion of success in Iraq virtually requires it. An Afghan government, on the other hand, cannot aspire to such an ambitious goal and, critically, success in Afghanistan does not require it.

Strange though it may sound, success in Afghanistan would look a lot more like the success that has been achieved in Colombia over the last 10 years, rather than the success that we are hoping for in Iraq. This is a point that was made two-and-a-half years ago by Scott Wilson, a Washington Post reporter who had spent four years in Colombia as a correspondent and a year in Iraq. Writing in April 2009, Wilson said that Obama "may want to look south rather than east in charting a new course" for Afghanistan. Though they hide in triple-canopy jungles rather than forbidding mountains, the insurgents in Colombia, like those in Afghanistan, will always enjoy the benefit of sanctuaries inside the country. And, until Pakistan withdraws its support for the Taliban, Pakistan will cause the same problems for the Afghan government that Venezuela does for Colombia.

Back then, in 2009, Afghanistan wasn't ready for such a strategy. But the successes of the surge since then -- which have been substantial even though not as dramatic as the ones achieved in just a year in Iraq -- make it possible to do so now. In both Iraq and Afghanistan the surge has involved a temporary increase in U.S. troop levels -- but the increase in numbers only works because it supports a shift in strategy, from one centered on killing or capturing enemy combatants to one focused on providing security for the local population. Along with that shift in strategy, a much greater emphasis has been placed on increasing both the quality and quantity of local security forces, so that they can eventually maintain that local security -- and continue the fight against extremists -- without substantial reliance on U.S. forces.

But even assuming a best-case scenario, it is unlikely that any government would be able to exercise control over the entire country, much less one with Afghanistan's weak institutions, uncertain current leadership, colonial borders, and ancient tribal society. There will always be significant sections of the country, particularly in the more remote mountainous regions, where a guerilla movement like the Taliban can find effective sanctuary. That situation is substantially worsened by the existence of virtually unimpeded sanctuary on the Pakistan side of the border and support for the Taliban from important elements of that country's national security apparatus.

Given the strength and determination of the Taliban, perhaps it was never realistic to establish what the U.N. Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn in 2001 hoped would be "a broad-based, gender sensitive, multi-ethnic and fully representative government" over all of Afghanistan. But if we set our sights realistically, we can still achieve the minimum standards of success needed to protect American security and give the Afghan people hope for a better future, in a way that is also consistent with the pressures of U.S. politics. Rather than aiming to establish government control over the entire country, the U.S. goal should be to contain the insurgency while giving the Afghans the tools to take over the fight from us in coming years.

In fact, something to this effect has been the U.S. strategy on the ground for some time now. And, for both American and even Afghan purposes, such an outcome could be considered a genuine success. Over the past decade, we have achieved just this result in Colombia -- or, more accurately, the Colombians with our assistance have achieved such a result -- and it is rightly considered a substantial victory.


For almost 50 years, Colombia has been plagued by violence, the result of a bloody war waged against the government by Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries -- led primarily by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Although the violence was interrupted from time-to-time by a variety of peace agreements, these inevitably turned out to be more in the nature of armed truces than true peace settlements. Violent right-wing militias and even more violent narco-traffickers, added to the bloodshed. The narcotics trade itself became a major source of funding for FARC and, as the cocaine and heroin trade grew in the 1990s, the government's grip on the country became increasingly tenuous. Assassinations became commonplace and violent deaths were, based on the best available statistics, at least five times higher in per capita terms than the level in Afghanistan today. In fact, war-related deaths remain higher in Colombia even now, after a decade of progress. By 1998, a leaked Defense Intelligence Agency report speculated on the possibility of a FARC victory within as little as five years. At the height of the insurgency in 2006, the FARC controlled as much as 30 percent of the territory of Colombia.

In response to that growing danger, in 2000, the Colombian government put forward an ambitious Plan Colombia, which was warmly embraced by the Bill Clinton administration and later the George W. Bush administration. According to a recent Congressional Research Service study, the country has "made significant progress in reestablishing government control over much of its territory, combating drug trafficking and terrorist activities, and reducing poverty," through a combination of brave actions by the Colombian military, some $7 billion in U.S. assistance, a relatively small number of U.S. military advisors and, particularly, the strong leadership of President Alvaro Uribe from 2002 to 2010. A number of senior FARC leaders have been killed, some through targeted air strikes, and thousands of FARC fighters have demobilized, partly as a result of a government amnesty program. According to Colombian government statistics and other sources, the number of FARC fighters has declined by half since 2001 (though they still number almost 8,000) and they are having difficulty recruiting new members. The International Crisis Group estimates the average age of FARC recruits today at less than 12 years old. The country remains plagued by violence, to be sure, but is no longer in danger of state collapse and no longer has the omnipresent feel of a war zone.

Some might object that the articulation of such an outcome as our goal in Afghanistan would be an acknowledgement of failure. True, it is a less desirable end state than either the Bush or Obama administrations initially envisioned for Afghanistan or than the United Nations envisioned in the heady days back in Bonn. But such an outcome would in fact be substantially better than current conventional expectations after 10 years of a war that many Americans and Afghans think we are actually losing.

From an American point of view it would prevent Afghanistan from being controlled by the Taliban, whose willingness to support terrorism is probably reinforced by a decade of war, and it would provide us with an essential base for conducting effective counterterrorism campaigns in the areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan beyond our control. From an Afghan perspective, it provides those Afghans who do not wish to be ruled by the Taliban -- which includes nearly all of the non-Pashtun population and a majority even of the Pashtun -- the opportunity to defend themselves against possible insurgent takeover. While one might hope for a better outcome over time as the government's political and military capacity improves, a "Colombia standard" for Afghanistan is a realistic goal -- and one that actually might be sustainable in the coming years, given waning public support for the war.

In a way, it's actually a return to an earlier strategy. A decade ago, after overthrowing the Taliban in concert with the Afghan Northern Alliance, the United States adopted what was often nicknamed a "light footprint" strategy for helping getting Afghanistan get back on its feet. This approach had a certain logic. Importantly, it was not adopted out of a need to shift attention to Iraq but out of a desire not to repeat the dismal Soviet experience in Afghanistan. It took reality in account: rebuilding an Afghan state that had never been very strong to begin with and was even more decimated after a quarter century of civil war was never going to be easy. The "light footprint" approach did initially deliver a higher standard of living and quality of life for the Afghan people, but it did not reckon on the Taliban mounting a major comeback -- sadly, with the support of Pakistan's intelligence service -- starting around late 2005.

The Obama administration, of course, tried a more comprehensive counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan. This new strategy built on smaller force increases already begun towards the end of Bush's second term, but Obama gets the lion's share of both the credit and the associated responsibility, since it was he who tripled U.S. combat forces and brought total international force strength up to levels not far below where they were in Iraq during the surge there. The goals, while somewhat focused geographically on key parts of Afghanistan's south and east, were to systematically weaken the insurgency while building up the military, economic, and political capacity of the Afghan state at national, provincial, and local levels.

The Afghanistan surge has achieved some real successes. Under the able leadership of Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, for example, the Afghan National Army in particular has improved in both quality and quantity. It is partnering with NATO forces in the field in a concentrated form of apprenticeship even after basic training is complete, providing about half of all combat forces for operations in the south, bearing primary responsibility for security in Kabul, and showing fairly strong commitment to the Afghan state. This important development remains underappreciated in the U.S. debate and provides a major basis for hope that the hand-off to Afghan security forces can succeed.

That said, it must be acknowledged that more ambitious goals for Afghanistan are not going to come to fruition. Kabul and key parts of the country's south that were once Taliban strongholds have been largely secured, yet the east of the country remains perilous, and overall levels of violence have not appreciably declined nationwide. This is disappointing. The high level of violence reflects, to some extent, the larger presence of NATO and Afghan forces on the streets and in the hills of the country which brings them into more frequent contact with the enemy, but it was reasonable to hope for better conditions after two years of the surge. Assassinations remain a serious problem. Spectacular recent attacks in places like Kabul have been less effective than commonly portrayed, but still do add further weight to the argument that the insurgency remains robust. On top of all of this, corruption in Kabul and perfidy in parts of Pakistan's security forces complicate the military task enormously.

But this is a far cry from a Taliban victory. Given Afghanistan's current trajectory, major Afghan cities seem likely to remain in government hands. Attacks and assassinations will remain a major worry, especially for security forces and political leaders, but represent something closer to a nuisance for most citizens, who would generally have more immediate economic issues on their minds. Transportation arteries will, for the most part, be increasingly usable even if hardly safe. Areas such as the Korengal Valley will continue to provide sanctuary for terrorists and insurgents even inside the country, but a combination of Afghan forces and NATO intelligence, special operations, and drone strikes will keep them in check.


The analogy between Colombia and Afghanistan goes only so far, of course. One important difference is that Afghanistan's ability to support the size of security forces required for stability is far less than that of Colombia's -- whose army numbers 178,000 and its national police another 144,000. Those numbers are very close to the newly revised targets for Afghanistan -- with a total of about 350,000 security forces.  Sounds pretty good for a country half the size of Colombia, with roughly 25 percent fewer people. However, Afghanistan's gross domestic product is only 6 percent that of Colombia's.

Success in Afghanistan therefore requires a commitment to continue substantial financial support of at least several billion dollars a year, long beyond 2014, the year when NATO is supposed to have completed the handoff for primary security responsibility to Afghan forces nationwide. That is something that President Hamid Karzai has rightly requested, though it will fall to his successor to continue the partnership with the international community thereafter -- 2014 also marks the year that Karzai is constitutionally required to step down. The government of Colombia committed $3 for every $1 dollar spent by the United States on Plan Colombia; the government of Afghanistan is obviously unable to do that. However, the United States should solicit a significant sharing of the burden from other countries, particularly from some of the wealthy Gulf countries, which have so much at stake in the region and have so far done so little to help.

Another major difference from the Colombia case is that, although cross-border sanctuary is a problem for both countries, Pakistan's support for the Taliban is much greater than Venezuela's for FARC. The level of Pakistan's support for the Taliban for the past half decade is deeply disturbing. The Taliban was Pakistan's creation and its principal ally in Afghanistan during the 1990s, so it is not surprising that Islamabad is reluctant to abandon them. It is less clear why support for the Taliban was increased when it was, but one possibility is that Pakistan was preparing for the day when the United States once again abandons Afghanistan, given the pervasive fear in Islamabad that Afghanistan could then fall into chaos or turn primarily in an India-friendly direction. This is why the all-or-nothing model is doomed to fail. Rather, the articulation of a more realistic U.S. goal for Afghanistan, with a limited presence that is sustainable over the long term, could be part of an effective strategy -- which we currently lack -- to secure greater Pakistani cooperation in reigning in the Taliban

All of this will take time. Afghanistan's institutions are too weak today to allow us to accelerate our exit strategy beyond what the Obama administration has already done. And even the relatively happy "Colombia outcome" can hardly be guaranteed. Among other things, it requires more decisive and unifying political leadership than Karzai is currently able to muster in Afghanistan -- in this regard, elections in 2014 will be crucial for strengthening the nation's democracy and improving governance, and America needs to focus as much attention on helping Afghans prepare for that big event as we have provided already in military terms on the battlefield. Again, the Colombia example is germane; Uribe was hardly without his flaws but he did bring more legitimate and upright governance to his country.

Strengthening Afghan democracy and preparing for a post-Karzai future after 2014 require, among other things, much more robust support for Afghanistan's weak political parties and parliament. That means everything from technical support on how to hold rallies, develop platforms, get out the vote, and prepare candidates for Afghanistan's political parties, to help for parliament to create stronger staffs and research organizations that serve its agendas, to many more exchange programs and visits involving Afghanistan's new generation of political leaders. Governors need more help too, perhaps in some kind of "sister" relationship with America's national board of governors. But U.S. officials need to look further down the line: They still focus too much on Karzai and his cabinet when interacting with Afghan leaders; clearly, most of these individuals no longer represent the country's future.  Plan Colombia succeeded, in no small measure, because it was a Colombian plan that had Colombian buy in. For a similar success to be achieved in Afghanistan, there needs to be some kind of Afghan process that achieves a broader commitment -- beyond just Karzai -- to the strategy and a joint commitment by Afghanistan and the United States to their agreed responsibilities beyond 2014.

But the Colombia model should give hope to those who wonder what we are still doing in Afghanistan after so many years, and provide an attainable standard that with some patience and just a little luck we can probably still achieve in what has now become America's longest war.

Piero Pomponi/Newsmakers