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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.

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In March in Bogotá, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that elements of Plan Colombia apply to Afghanistan. "The ­counterinsurgency approach; the providing security for the people; the need for governance upon which the people can depend, not just national governance, but local governance; the ability to create jobs and opportunities for people who feel secure in those jobs are fundamentals that apply here and apply in Afghanistan," he said.

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In Afghanistan, the area cultivated with opium poppy seed declined by 19 percent last year, compared with 2007, according to the United Nations. But the decline is modest given that Afghanistan remains the supplier of more than 90 percent of the global market for opiates. Officials estimate that the Taliban receives from $50 million to $70 million annually from the trade.

The US began training Afghan authorities for poppy eradication in 2003, but those efforts have had the same unwanted consequences as coca eradication in Colombia, including alienating farmers.

At a Group of Eight meeting in Italy in June, the US envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, told the Associated Press that eradication programs were driving farmers into the arms of the Taliban. "Eradication is a waste of money," he said.

The latest strategy shift comes as the Obama administration raises the stakes in Afghanistan: doubling its military presence to 68,000 troops, with an emphasis on intelligence gathering.

Detailed counternarcotics plans for Afghanistan have not been unveiled, but will include substituting wheat and other crops for poppy. There's a new emphasis on interdiction to target illegal networks that fund the insurgency. "We need to keep that effort up," says DEA spokesman Rusty Payne, "to target large-scale drug traffickers providing material support to folks like the Taliban."

Ms. Felbab-Brown says that interdiction is crucial, not because it bankrupts insurgents but because it can reduce the political power of criminal actors, whether they are linked to the government or the Taliban.

She warns that while interdiction in Colombia reduced the influence of the Medellín and Cali cartels, it created a vacuum allowing the FARC to grab greater control of the drug trade. In Afghanistan, if the US goes "after too many of the big traffickers at the same time," she says, "it gives an impetus for the Taliban to take over their position."

To date, Colombia's experience has just started to be shared with Afghan officials. Last year, the US State Depart­ment sponsored a small group of Afghan police to go to Colombia to train with a special antinarcotics Colombian force.

Josh Walsh, senior associate for drug policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights organization, says that Colombia is rife with lessons, both good and bad. One of the upsides of Plan Colombia, he says, has been a more capable security force, but even then, authorities must be vigilant about human rights abuses.

But Bruce Bagley, a drug expert at the University of Miami, says that exporting elements of Plan Colombia to Afghanistan is premature. "In Afghan­istan, nation- and state-building has not been achieved yet, so lessons from Colombia are basically irrelevant," he says. Colombia had a well-established government, army, and economy when Plan Colombia was launched in 2000.

"The Colombian experience can be useful for Afghanistan, but the road to success will be much longer," says Mr. Ortiz.

Ricardo Vargas, a Colombian drug policy expert, says that Colombia's FARC rebels never fully capitalized on the anger of farmers over forced eradication of drug crops. The Taliban, on the other hand, "are much more capable of doing that, offering lines of credit and social programs that challenge the legitimacy of the state."•