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Which Way in Afghanistan? Ask Colombia For Directions.

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By Scott Wilson
Sunday, April 5, 2009

Can the United States take the lessons of Iraq to the faltering war in Afghanistan?

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The question loomed over the Obama administration's review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which concluded with the president's recent decision to dispatch thousands of additional troops, eliminate insurgent sanctuaries and internationalize a conflict that is increasingly viewed as America's problem.

But there is a more apt -- and more successful -- model than Iraq. And you'll find it much closer to home. If you want to roll back a homegrown insurgency inflamed by a pesky neighbor, millions in drug profits and a weak central government, Colombia offers a far better classroom for learning how to beat the Taliban.

I lived and worked in Colombia as a correspondent for The Post from 2000 to 2004. At the time, only the capital, Bogota, was spared the horrors of a war marked by massacres with machetes, machine guns and even stones that made it one of the most gruesome conflicts I've witnessed. Today, assisted by billions of dollars in U.S. military and development aid, the Colombian government has pushed a Marxist insurgency deep into the jungles where it was born four decades ago. Isn't that what Obama wants to accomplish in Afghanistan?

The conflicts in Colombia and Afghanistan share far more similarities with one another than either does with Iraq, which I covered in 2003 and 2004. The Taliban have caves and Colombian guerrillas their triple-canopy jungle and mountain hideouts -- terrain far more useful to insurgencies than Iraq's desert. Afghanistan's opium poppies fund the Taliban, just as coca fuels Colombia's guerrillas. As Pakistan does for the Taliban, Venezuela and Ecuador provide sanctuary to Colombia's insurgents.

Perhaps the most important parallel, though, is the lack of a strong central government. Colombia's government has rarely held sway beyond Bogota's nearly two-mile high plateau, and the frail Karzai administration in Kabul has a similarly short reach. As a result, Colombia has relied on brutal paramilitary forces to support a weak army, alienating much of the population in the process. In Afghanistan, that role is played by U.S. forces, which, although by no means as savage as the Colombian irregulars, have cost Afghanistan's government support among a people famously hostile to foreign invaders.

The parallels extend even to the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan, Anne Patterson, and the outgoing ambassador to Afghanistan, William Wood. Both previously headed the embassy in Bogota. And during a visit to Colombia last month, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that some of that country's lessons are applicable "specifically to Afghanistan."

Colombia still produces tons of coca. Yet it is far more stable than it was when I covered the war there. President Álvaro Uribe, inaugurated in 2002, turned the tide. How he did it offers four key lessons for Obamain Afghanistan.

First, a surge of U.S. combat forces to Afghanistan may be less useful than further increasing the number of military trainers being deployed to help build a viable Afghan army. Second, the administration should focus less on stopping the heroin trade and more on establishing functioning state institutions -- from schools to health clinics. Third, efforts to seal off border sanctuaries do not work and divert military resources from the central job of protecting civilians. The fourth lesson is a stark one: It will take time. The Colombian effort has taken nearly a decade and counting.

Like the Taliban, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the guerrilla group better known by its Spanish acronym FARC, is made up mostly of young recruits of varying degrees of ideological devotion. The guerrillas grouped their military divisions into "fronts." Most of the committed Marxists belonged to those in the north and west. Those in the drug-producing southern jungles, however, were motivated more by greed. It was easy to guess what front a guerrilla belonged to by how many gold rings he wore with his camouflage uniform.

Starting earlier this decade, the Colombian government began to lure the less faithful away with promises of cash and job training, a "reinsertion" program that Uribe has expanded significantly. The flood of guerrilla defectors in recent years is proof of how loosely many of the young men and women pressed into the insurgency held their Marxist convictions. The 18,000-strong guerrilla army of my time there is now half that size.

But Uribe didn't stop there. The change that proved most important in reducing violence and undermining the guerrillas was his decision to disarm the paramilitaries.


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