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Outlook: Which Way in Afghanistan? Ask Colombia For Directions.

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Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Scott Wilson will be online Monday, April 6, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article which asks the question: "Which Way in Afghanistan? Ask Colombia For Directions."

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Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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Scott Wilson: Hi everyone. Thanks very much for joining me today, and for reading the piece. I'll get right to your questions.

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New Haven, Conn.: You said that a primary focus should be building infrastructure rather than directly targeting the heroin trade in Afghanistan. While building schools and roads is certainly important, wasn't it Colombia's full-on assaults on the Cali and Medellin cartels that provided the necessary security for such infrastructure developemrent to take place?

Scott Wilson: Good question. The short answer is no, the assault on the Cali and Medellin cartels did not affect the infrastructure projects, which came much later. In taking on the big cartels that controlled the drug trade in the early 1990s, the Colombian government with U.S. help smashed them into hundreds of far-more-difficult-to-track drug-trafficking groups. Some of them morphed into the paramilitary groups I talked about in the piece - stand-ins for the weak army in many parts of the country, but also brutal drug-smuggling operations. The cartel break up also created an opening for the FARC, Colombia's largest guerrilla group, to get into the drug trade to finance their ostensibly Marxist movement. The ensuing conflict between the paramilitaries and guerrillas engulfed much of the country in violence, making U.S.-funded infrastructure projects hard or impossible to pursue. Some of the fight is over drug crops and smuggling corridors, some over land, and some over politics.

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washingtonpost.com : Which Way in Afghanistan? Ask Colombia For Directions. (Post, April 5)

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New York: We've meddled in the internal affairs, whether by coup or otherwise, of nearly every middle eastern or southwest Asian nation, Iran, Iraq, Syria, you name it, and have made military interventions in at least three more, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. We know to a dead certainty what such meddling has lead to. We've never tried intelligent disengagement. The domino theory was a hoax in the 60s and it remains one today. Why do we think that meddling in the affairs of Pakistan and Afghanistan is going to lead to wonderful results this time, and why are people who seek to make this obvious argument that I am making -- which is probably a majority opinion in this country -- like Rep. Paul, are marginalized and ridiculed? Perhaps there is not enough profit in it?

Scott Wilson: The debate between expansive foreign engagement and isolationism is as old as the country itself. President Bush saw 9/11 as a result of America's disengagement in Central Asia (and beyond)and used the military to begin a mostly American project to remake Afghanistan. President Obama has argued that the Iraq invasion distracted attention and resources from that effort, which he supports and intends to expand into Pakistan. You're right to question whether the results will be different. We'll see.

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Fairfax, Va.: The poppy fields in Afghanistan are well known and a big part of the country's economy, no? How can we realistically do anything to destroy that integral part of the country's way of life and still have an effective role in defeating the Taliban?

Scott Wilson: This was the point I raised in the piece, drawn from the lessons Colombia offers. U.S. efforts to eliminate coca cultivation, particularly through aerial herbicide spraying that killed a lot more than just the drug crops, alienated the population that the Colombian governmet was trying to win over. President Uribe has greatly reduced the use of such spraying. There is more coca - the key ingredient in cocaine - now being grown in Colomia than ever before, by some measures. Yet it is a far more stable country. This highlights also the different goals the United States and Colombia (or other countries that accept U.S. aid) often have. The Americans wanted less cocaine coming from Colombia into the United States. Colombians wanted peace and stability. The lesson: Don't go after the drug crops first, do it later once the country has a functioning state.

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Annapolis, Md.: How dangerous was it being a reporter in Colombia for four years? How much of the corruption did you see and were you able to get any inside access to the drug trade?

Scott Wilson: The armed groups still treated foreign journalists pretty well in terms of access. I had colleagues held for as lon gas 10 days by a smaller guerrilla group, and the FARC held me for 30 hours once in Meta Province while they "checked me out." I passed. But the groups killed scores of brave local journalists. I was there in November to be part of a contest for Colombia's regional journalists. All of them still work under very dangerous conditions. All are very brave. As for the drug trade, yes, in the sense that you could watch and report on the paramilitaries and guerrillas controlling and working the drug-producing areas. you could see how they killed and displaced people along key drug smuggling corridors. I met many of their leaders. But the shadowy guys who shepherd the drug from Colombia's coast into Mexico/the United Stses, etc - no.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Has there ever been serious discussions about our supporting crop replacement for poppy growers? I realize there are political and cultural concerns, especially since many of the growers are in Taliban-supported communities. Yet, since many of the residents seem non-political and appear to primarily bow to the political forces that control their community, might this be both a way to gain some more popular support for American causes as well as a less overall expensive means of dealing with our ultimate drug problem if we can severly limit the supply of drugs at its very source?

Scott Wilson: This is going on now, managed largely by the same private contracting company that handled "crop substitution" in Colombia. Progress has been varied.

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Washington, D.C.: What exactly needs to be done in Afghanistan? Is Iraq over now? And is Pakistan looming?

Scott Wilson: Huge question, but I tried to outline, using Colombia's success, on some steps: strengthening the state and rule of law before taking on the drug industry, stepping up training even mroe than the administration plans, not getting sidetracked by trying to seal off neighboring sancturies, and some other steps. Pakistan is very complicated - a sovereign country whose borders we pledge to respect - and has played a role somewhat like Venezuela's in Colombia's case. As for Iraq, six cars bombs exploded in Baghdad this morning. So, no, not over but changing.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Afghanistan appears to be a collection of autonomous communities who shift political allegiance according to the political and military winds. Is it possible that we would do better with the causes of democracy and obtaining pro-American support if we reached out more with economic assistance to the Afgan people, village by village? In addition, wouldn't this be less costly than spending so much on military operations?

Scott Wilson: Yes, I tried to get at this in the piece and in an answer to a previous question. U.S. troops, like the paramilitary forces in Colombia (though not nearly as brutal, obviously), are viewed as outsiders and symptoms of a non-existent central government by Afghans. Training Afghan troops and using a stronger Afghan government to provide the U.S. aid would help give Afghans motivation to side with their state, not with foreign forces against a homegrown insurgency in the Taliban.

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Richmond, Va.: Is it still looking like Canada will be out of Afghanistan in 2011 and if so how much pressure is the administration putting on them to stay fearing a new domino effect..

Thanks.

Scott Wilson: Yes, I believe so, but not sure how much pressure the administration is applying. I'll keep an eye out.

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Lexington Park, Md.: My questions are, What should be next? We are decisively engaged in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- that is a given. Colombian Counter Narcotics experts have already been invited to Afghanistan -- in your opinion -- can models for what has transpired in Colombia and Lessons Learned there be super-imposed on the situation in Afghanistan by more direct involvement from Colombian Trainers or consultants. And what really is the final end-game in Colombia and how can it apply? Will there be infrastructure and alternative development in vast areas of the jungle/former FARClandia and can alternative development and the methods of coercive control by government forces (police or military) and education and information spread the concept of central govt as an umbrella over centuries old tribal loyalties and identification?

Scott Wilson: My piece tried to suggest a change in emphasis based on Colombia's successes. Your end-game question is an excellent one, and should be answered first by the administration before it commits much more to Afhanistan and Pakistan. There is still way too much unpunished killing in Colombia, and the government still does not reach into nearly enough of the vast national territory. But violence is way down, as is kidnapping. The guerrillas are a "rural nuisance, which is the goal Anne Patterson set out when she was U.S. ambassador there in the early part of this decade (now she is in Pakistan.)What is the U.S. goal in Afghanistan? Would the Obama administration accept a fairly elected Afghan government that supports the Taliban? I haven't heard a clear answer to your good question.

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Princeton, N.J.: The comparison of Afghanistan and Columbia is superficial. In Columbia the drug trade is the central issue. In Afghanistan, the central issues are ethnic, religious and cultural; the drugs are a side issue. Remember that when the Taliban were in control, they cut the drug trade to zero. In Afghanistan, drugs are tactical; in Columbia, drugs are strategic.

Scott Wilson: There are similarities and differences, as the piece notes. And I would strongly disagree with your assessment that in Colombia drugs are strategic, not tactical. True when it came to the paramilitary groups; false when it comes to the FARC, at least the most ideological elements of it that still do remain and compromise most of its top leadership. (And completely wrong in the case of the smaller ELN, which is not involved in the drug trade.)Religion is a big difference, unless you count Marxism as some of the guerrilla fronts practice it, as a similar motivation.

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washingtonpost.com : Which Way in Afghanistan? Ask Colombia For Directions. (Post, April 5)

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Silver Spring, Md.: How does a government get farmers to plant corn or rice or grow bananas when growing cocoa is infinitely more profitable? I've had people from Colombia tell me that some peasants in the cocao growing areas walk around with gold rings, gold chains, Rolex watches and drive expensive SUVs that cost two or three times what they cost in the U.S.

Scott Wilson: Yes, I had some of that in my piece. Making those crops pay by making it easier and cheaper to get them to market is one way, but the news roads and processing plans promised under the U.S. aid plan never materialized to the degree they were pledged. Puerto Asis was the effective captial of the coca-growing south when I was there - a small, jungle town where you could buy the most elaborate stereo equipment, SUVs, Swiss Army knives, and other products usually reserved for Sharper Image. You could always tell you were in a place that grew coca by what they sold in their shops, which often lined unpaved streets.

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Richmond, Va.: While I agree with the broad concepts of your piece, Colombia and Afghanistan are two different countries. While both export narcotics, Colombia has viable commodity exports in flowers and coffee, and has a thriving industrial sector in Medellin. Afghanistan has nothing. In essence, there were building blocks in place in Colombia, whereas none seem to exist in Afghanistan. How do these differences impact upon your analysis?

Scott Wilson: Very good point, and to me the very biggest difference (more than religion, ethnicitiy, etc.) I noted these differences as proof Afghanistan would likely take far longer to stablize than Colombia (and Plan Colombia is almost a decade old now.) Colombia has an amazing business class (much of it American and European educated), industry, NGOs, media, organized labor. Much of civil society still operates under threat of violence, but it's a lot farther along than Afghanistan (or Iraq.) This is another thing the Americans will have to help build to bring stability and sense of national identity to Afghanistan.

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Washington, D.C.: Every time I see pictures of Afghanistan or Pakistan, all I see is rocky or dry soil from which poppy flowers are in full bloom. I'd like to know whether the U.S. or the UN can deploy soil experts to the areas under the coalition's control so that cash crops other than poppies can be grown to both feed the people and provide them with some industry. Can any industry other than agriculture survive in a country like Afghanistan?

Scott Wilson: There is just so little infratsructure for industry, and so hard to build it in a place where the topography is as rugged as Afghanistan's. (Colombia's is, and road building is impossible, especially under securtiy threats.) Colombia does have a network of regional airports that allow you to travel from the capital to nearly anyplace elese in the country on a daily basis. This greatly helps the domestic economy.

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false when it comes to the FARC: But the drug wars let FARC start to have influence. The same is not true with the Taliban.

Scott Wilson: The FARC had influence long before (it's 40 years old.) Drugs helped them grow, but growing that way is not sustainable (the Colomian equivalent of Obama's "bubble and burst economy.") Guerrillas who joined the drug-oriented fronts are bailing out fastest now as the guerrilla movement gets pushed back from the cities and political support for it dwindles. The FARC is about half the size it was when I was there.

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Scott Wilson: Thanks very much everyone for your excellent questions. Hope to join you again in the future. Have a good day.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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