Fundación Real Instituto Elcano

Narco-belligerents Across the Globe: Lessons from Colombia for Afghanistan?

Introduction

As the NATO effort in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban insurgents and their al-Qaeda allies and nurture the Afghan state to self-sufficiency falters, many analysts and policymakers are resorting to past Afghan conflicts and counter-insurgency struggles to isolate the critical drivers of the insurgency, recommend strategies and predict the outcome.

Those who emphasise the impossibility of prevailing in the effort frequently point to the previous Afghanistan wars: the British struggles in the 19th century to conquer the country and their defeats amidst very high casualties and the Soviet occupation in the 1980s that failed to boost the pro-Communist regime and bled the Soviet empire. For these analysts, Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires that swallows invaders and whose Pashtun tribes cannot tolerate any foreign presence. Nor, along with their other ethnic co-patriots, can the Pashtun tolerate any strong central Afghan state (Bacevich, 2008).

Analogies are also drawn from Vietnam where the US lost, and was traumatised by a protracted and costly counter-insurgency. Such analysts who stress the Vietnam analogy argue that Afghanistan today exhibits all of the features that doomed the Vietnam counter-insurgency to failure: in Vietnam the US slid into a quagmire amid ever-increasing troop deployments and casualties. The counter-insurgency strategy was undermined by its own contradictions, particularly the ever-present tension between winning hearts and minds versus killing the insurgents and focusing on the body-count. Moreover, the South Vietnamese government, like the government in Kabul, was corrupt beyond redemption and lost legitimacy with the population. Support by the American public for the effort began to fall off drastically, and allies whose understanding of the stakes in Vietnam were vastly different from the US understanding, increasingly urged withdrawal (Barry & Thomas, 2009).

Others find more positive analogies. They point to Iraq where, amidst a widespread perception of a doomed mission, a combination of the US military surge and the rise of Sunni Anbar militias appears to have resulted in a substantial weakening of the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents and significant abatement of the sectarian conflict. Hence they recommend standing up such militias in Afghanistan –ideally, by recruiting them away from the Taliban. Such devolution of responsibility for security to the tribes, they argue, is also consistent with Afghanistan’s history (Ignatius, 2009).

Finally, the analogies also focus on Colombia. After all, Colombia has been the world’s largest producer of coca leaf and cocaine for over 15 years, as has Afghanistan been for poppy and opium. Those who embrace this analogy argue that the Taliban in Afghanistan, like Colombia’s leftist guerrillas the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia Ejército del Pueblo (FARC – the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia), are essentially narco-traffickers with access to vast drug profits – on the order of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year – with which they can acquire sophisticated weapons and hire thousands of combatants. The policy such analysts frequently recommend is to suppress the drug economy so as to weaken and defeat the belligerents. Indeed, the government of Colombia itself clearly believes that its strategies for dealing with the nexus of drugs and conflict are well applicable to Afghanistan and has offered to train on a small scale Afghan security forces in interdiction measures and to share its counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency lessons.

The analysis below explores how similar or different the FARC and the Taliban in fact are, and what lessons derived from Colombia can be applied in Afghanistan. The comparison is drawn along the following dimensions: (1) the belligerents’ motivation for conflict; (2) the evolution of the belligerents’ attitudes toward illicit crops and the drug trade; (3) the benefits that the two belligerent groups (the FARC and the Taliban) have derived from drugs in terms of financial profits and political capital; (4) their relationship with drug traffickers; (5) their relationship with other armed actors in the conflict; (6) the outcomes on the battlefield; (7) the economic and drug context of the two countries and its impact on conflict dynamics; and (8) US and European strategic interests in each country.

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