Page 2 of 2   <      

Which Way in Afghanistan? Ask Colombia For Directions.

For years, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, as the main paramilitary group was known, battled the guerrillas with tacit government approval. Carrying out massacres of villagers and reaching deep into the thriving drug trade, the paramilitaries accumulated power through a campaign of terror rivaled only by the guerrillas' own.

The government publicly condemned the paramilitaries' actions to preserve U.S. aid. But every Colombian colonel in charge of remote military bases knew that working with the paramilitaries was the only way to keep the guerrillas away.

In disbanding them starting in 2004, Uribe began the process of replacing the state's brutal proxy with the state itself. The United States helped, ramping up its training of Colombia's army and supplying billions in hardware and Blackhawk helicopters. But national symbolism mattered, too: Twine bracelets of red, gold and blue -- the colors of the Colombian flag -- became standard accessories for everyone from the president to peasant farmers. They were a vote for the state. And Uribe's move won more converts to the government's side than any new health clinic, road project or other aid program.

By then, I'd watched the paramilitary movement expand to the point where it controlled vast amounts of Colombian territory, had seized the guerrillas' drug smuggling networks and had elected dozens of sympathetic local and national politicians. The Bush administration kept the money flowing to Colombia's army despite evidence of its complicity in paramilitary massacres.

The argument at the time, always made privately, was that the paramilitaries provided the force that the army did not yet have. The group served as a placeholder for the more professional U.S.-trained force that would come along years later.

The situation did appear dire. The guerrillas had encircled the capital and held a large share of the national territory, similar to the Taliban position today. Guerrilla roadblocks on highways sliced the country into isolated regions, blocking farmers from markets and tourists from Caribbean resort cities. But most Colombians didn't want the paramilitaries or the guerrillas. Everywhere I traveled I heard the same refrain from the farmers, priests, mayors and school teachers: Where's the state?

Too often the government was present only in the form of U.S.-backed aerial herbicde spraying of coca crops, designed to eliminate the guerrillas' main funding source. But it just ended up impoverishing the peasant farmers who grew the coca, as well as killing the small plots of food crops they planted alongside the drug-producing ones. So Uribe, despite U.S. opposition, scaled back spraying, too.

Opium poses the same problem in Afghanistan. The Obama administration seems to have learned that anti-narcotics efforts alienate the civilian population and pledged in the policy review paper to focus on "higher level drug lords." If Colombia is a lesson, the money would be better spent on military training, which last year resulted in the spectacular jungle rescue of three U.S. Defense Department contractors from a Colombian guerrilla camp.

The sanctuaries on Colombia's borders have always been a headache. A top FARC commander was killed last year in a Colombian air strike inside Ecuador, and a laptop recovered at the guerrilla camp indicated that Venezuelan officials close to President Hugo Chávez may have helped secure money and weapons for the FARC.

Similarly, the Pakistani intelligence service has been implicated in helping coordinate Taliban attacks, and the Obama administration has made the Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas a primary target of the military effort.

But sealing off a vast mountainous region to deny Taliban or al-Qaeda supplies or staging areas may not be achievable, if Colombia's efforts to police its own rough borders are any guide.

I left Colombia in April 2004 and didn't go back until last November. The capital was nothing like the one I remembered. Land values in Bogota were skyrocketing, because the guerrillas were no longer there. Kidnapping was nearly non-existent. Club Nogal, a tony athletic club for Colombia's elite that the guerrillas had bombed in 2003, has reopened. Colombia is far from ideal, but a corner has been turned.

The parallels between Colombia and Afghanistan are hardly perfect. And a lot suggests that succeeding in Afghanistan will be harder and take longer. Afghanistan is a pre-modern society, while Colombia's population, even in the countryside, is well-educated, and the country boasts one of the most innovative business classes in South America. It is the land of García Márquez, Botero and Shakira, not the graveyard of empires.

Uribe, meanwhile, embodies the importance of competent local leaders. Although reports of his close association with the paramilitaries mar his human rights record, Uribe has largely succeeded in disbanding them and extraditing their leaders to the United States. President Hamid Karzai and his family in Afghanistan, including a brother with connections to the opium trade, have failed to impress their American patrons to the same degree.

In detailing his plan for Afghanistan, Obama said that he has "no illusions that this will be easy" and that he will not "blindly stay the course." If his venture fails, he may want to look south rather than east in charting a new course.

Scott Wilson, a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, was the paper's bureau chief in Bogota from 2000 to 2004.

<       2

© 2009 The Washington Post Company