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US applies Colombia antidrug lessons to Afghanistan

A new strategy in Afghanistan to combat the opium trade draws on US experience curbing cocaine shipments in Latin America.

By Staff Writer, Sibylla BrodzinskyCorrespondent / August 27, 2009

Standing guard: Colombian antidrug officers protect bundles of marijuana seized in Cúcuta in June. The US aims to apply lessons learned from its ‘Plan Colombia’ antidrug effort to Afghanistan’s drug trade.

John Vizcaino/Reuters

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Mexico City; and Bogotá, Colombia

As the United States retools its counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan, officials are looking to Colombia for lessons.

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The two nations share many burdens: Colombia is the largest supplier of cocaine in the world, Afghanistan of opium. Both have impoverished rural communities easily enticed into trafficking webs. Both are vulnerable to the sway and command of insurgent groups that finance their fight with proceeds from the drug trade.

The parallels have led to calls for exporting elements of the nearly decade-old "Plan Colombia," the US-funded antinarcotics effort, to Afghanistan. Critics are wary. But it seems that, at least at the outset, the US is learning as much from its mistakes as from its successes in South America.

For example, instead of pouring money into crop eradication as it did in Colombia, the new US strategy in Afghanistan will phase out eradication, and place a new emphasis on the interdiction of opium shipments and encouraging farmers to adopt alternate crops.

The number of Drug Enforcement Agency officials in Afghanistan will increase more than sixfold by next year, to as many as 81 agents. The DEA and US military will target (to be killed or captured) the top 50 drug traffickers with ties to the Taliban.

"Even with all the mistakes in Colombia, there is also learning taking place … on how to do rural development in the context of an illicit economy," says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and author of the book "Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs." "Depending on which pieces of Plan Colombia you pick, they might very well be applicable."

After nearly 10 years and $6 billion in US aid, Plan Colombia's focus on massive forced eradication of coca crops has only recently made a dent in the South American country's cocaine production. Colombia's efforts at offering alternative livelihoods to coca farmers suffered multiple failures over the years: With promised government subsidies never materializing and no markets for their alternative crops, many farmers went back to coca.

The "stick" of forced eradication of coca crops without a reliable "carrot," says Román Ortiz, a Bogotá-based security consultant, merely creates a "mobile social base for the insurgency" that draws on resentful farmers.

In Colombia, the insurgency is a leftist rebel army of about 10,000 soldiers known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which profits heavily from the drug trade. "You can dissolve that base if you have something better to offer," he says. In other words, a "carrot."

Last year, Colombia shifted gears with an "Integrated Action" strategy – developed jointly with the US. Military, police, and civilian development agencies work together in a given area to simultaneously drive out rebel forces, destroy drug crops and processing labs, and offer alternatives to former coca farmers.

Farmers shifted to chili peppers and African palm for palm oil. The government also offers subsidies for families of those training to become forest rangers in national parks and offers vocational training in such professions as baking and car repair.

At the same time, in areas with a weak state presence, the government invested in schools, health clinics, and courts.

The strategy was applied in an area known as La Macarena last year, and the United Nations credits Colombia's 18 percent drop in coca crops in 2008 in large part to that effort.