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The US Counternarcotics Campaign in Afghanistan: Rethinking America's Strategy

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A sudden feeling of déjà vu must have struck the audience when Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended in March 2009 that the United States adjust its strategy in Afghanistan. Speaking at a press conference in Bogota, Admiral Mullen proposed that the United States use Plan Colombia -- a combined counterinsurgency and counternarcotics effort -- as the blueprint for a new plan to thwart Afghanistan's increasingly violent insurgency and rising opium production. Admiral Mullen gave a rhetorical back-pat to the Colombian military officials standing at his side, proclaiming, "[m]any of us from all over the world can learn from what has happened with respect to the very successful developments of Plan Colombia."

Admiral Mullen's speech echoed the sentiments of a growing number of high-ranking members of the U.S. defense community who have called on the Obama administration to launch a campaign to combat Afghanistan's opium industry and insurgent groups simultaneously. Yet despite support for the Plan Colombia model within policy-making circles, in the decade since its inception the plan has failed to reduce drug production in Colombia or end a half-century of civil conflict. Given Plan Colombia's poor performance, there is no reason to believe that a similar approach would succeed in Afghanistan.

When it was introduced during the Clinton administration, Plan Colombia's strategy for dealing with the challenges of a complex internal conflict seemed promising. Rather than tackling Colombia's drug industry and guerrilla insurgency separately, it treated them as tightly-linked phenomena. Under the auspices of the plan, the United States has provided Colombia with nearly $1.3 billion in military assistance and other forms of aid to reduce the power of guerrillas and drug traffickers. Plan Colombia programs have focused mainly on aerial spraying of coca fields and the provision of training and equipment to the Colombian military and national police force, although the most recent aid dispersal marginally increased the share of funds devoted to economic and social development.

As the ten-year anniversary of Plan Colombia nears, however, its attempt to merge counternarcotics and counterinsurgency initiatives has proven a costly failure. Cocaine production has remained steady, criminal groups and paramilitary organizations have simply shifted their operations from rural to urban areas, and endemic violence persists in many parts of the country. At best, Plan Colombia is a lesson in what not to do moving forward in Afghanistan.

Plan Colombia's glaring shortcomings obscure the more modest accomplishments to which Admiral Mullen alluded. The plan has failed to reach either of its two fundamental objectives: halving cocaine production and ending Colombia's forty year-long civil war between the state, guerrillas, and paramilitaries. Predictably, massive aerial spraying campaigns that have targeted only a fraction of Colombian coca farms have been ineffective. A 2008 report from the U.S. Justice Department noted that cocaine production has remained stable under Plan Colombia and the price of cocaine on the world market has not changed significantly. And while Colombia has contained Fuerzas Armadas Revolucinarios de Colombia (FARC) -- Colombia's largest guerrilla organization -- it has experienced a surge in paramilitary activity in major cities such as Medellin in recent years. Human Rights Watch reported in January 2009 that extrajudicial killings by paramilitaries and disaffected members of the Colombian Army are also on the rise across the country.

Moreover, Plan Colombia's military-centered approach to counternarcotics has exacerbated the conflict in urban regions. The plan's aerial spraying of suspected coca fields and military-led raids against guerrillas have displaced nearly three million people, leading the United Nations Refugee Agency to rank Colombia's displacement problem as the second-worst in the world, just after that of Sudan. The first half of 2008 marked the highest rate of displacement in Colombia in over a quarter-century, reaching levels not seen since the heyday of guerrilla violence and drug cartel activity in the 1980s. Displacement has contributed to violence in metropolitan areas, as guerillas fleeing from the Colombian jungles transport the conflict along with them into the cities. Meanwhile, guerilla and paramilitary recruiters have targeted poor and disillusioned members of displaced communities newly settled in Colombia's urban centers.

But the greatest weakness of Admiral Mullen's recommendation is that it relies on superficial comparisons that fail to recognize that Afghanistan and Colombia are at vastly different stages in their nationhood. Both are developing countries, face insurgencies, and are among the world's leading producers of illicit drugs, yet the parallels end there. Colombia has been a wavering democracy for over fifty years. The foundations for the rule of law and effective governance have been in place there for decades. Afghanistan, in contrast, suffered through decades of war with the Soviet Union and among Afghan tribes, and introduced democracy only in the aftermath of a foreign invasion in 2001. Its democratic institutions are still in their infancy. And while Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, enjoys high approval rates, the Karzai government garners little support among Afghans and struggles to secure areas beyond Kabul, let alone implement the substantial reforms that the new plan would require. Given the severity of the crisis in Afghanistan, the Plan Colombia strategy is entirely insufficient.

It is hardly debatable that a sustained counternarcotics effort is needed in Afghanistan. The opium industry continues to produce revenue for the Taliban, impede Afghanistan's long-term economic development, and hook addicts from Central Asia to Western Europe. But as Plan Colombia demonstrated, a strategy that focuses simultaneously on defeating insurgents and eliminating the drug trade will be devoid of anything resembling success.

Fortunately, the Obama administration unveiled a new Afghanistan strategy in December 2009 that limits military resources used to counter the drug trade. President Obama appears to have acknowledged that in order to succeed in Afghanistan, the U.S. military must shift away from counternarcotics operations and concentrate on defeating the Taliban. This strategy accepts that the key steps to curtailing Afghanistan's opium industry -- interdiction, eradication, political and economic development, and judicial reform -- cannot be taken without first establishing a basic level of security. And at present, Afghanistan slips farther from stability every day.

Although it has moved in the right direction, the Obama administration must go further by recognizing that security in Afghanistan is a two-tiered process. The Afghan drug industry will continue to flourish as long as the insurgency threatens the country's stability and undermines its nascent democratic institutions. An effective counterinsurgency campaign is therefore a prerequisite to a robust counternarcotics effort.

If NATO and Afghan forces manage to suppress the insurgency, the Obama administration should move forward with its plans to cripple the Afghan narcotics industry. In the meantime, the U.S. military should cede control of counternarcotics operations to organizations with experience promoting legitimate rural livelihoods and in developing local institutions to combat drug trafficking in the long-term -- organizations that include international bodies like the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Bank, as well as domestically-based agencies like USAID and the U.S. Justice Department.

In the midst of a war that has cost the United States well over $200 billion, exporting the Plan Colombia model to Afghanistan will add expenses without producing any meaningful results. Far from the "Plan Afghanistan" Admiral Mullen envisions, a two-tiered approach -- in which the U.S. military focuses first on overpowering the insurgency and establishing security -- is the only plan worth pursuing.