THE BLOG
02/10/2007 01:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

My Thoughts on a Recent Visit to Colombia/Afghanistan

Last week Nato defence ministers met in Seville to review the coming spring
offensive in Afghanistan. It was like Great War generals dining in
Versailles to discuss the state of the trenches. The new head of Nato, the
US general John Craddock, asked for just 2,000 more troops. Just one more
push and the Taliban would be defeated, the Afghan army readied to fight,
the opium dealers arrested and more aid committed to reconstruction. It was
as simple as that. Anyone for paella?

How does this strategy look from the other place in the world where it is
being tried, Colombia? This month Washington is redeploying one of its star
diplomats, William Wood, from Bogota to Kabul with the enthusiastic
blessing of the Pentagon. Wood has been overseeing Plan Colombia, President
Clinton's eight-year effort to fight the cocaine cartels and left-wing
insurgents and make Latin America safe for pro-Americanism. He will be
joining the new US Nato commander in Kabul, General Dan McNeill, and
reversing the allegedly feeble policies of the outgoing British commander,
General David Richards. The fourfold increase in violence over the past
year is attributed by the Americans to an excess of soft-hearts-and-minds.
Wood will want to beef up poppy eradication to starve the insurgency of its
booming revenue.

Colombia is undeniably a country which, six years ago, faced disaster. Main
roads were blocked by mafiosi and kidnappings and massacres were endemic.
Druglords, revolutionaries and right-wing paramilitaries fought for control
of a trade that supplied 90 per cent of America's cocaine. At one point the
Cali and Medellin cartels were so dominant that they offered to finance
public services and pay off Colombia's foreign debt in return for
quasi-recognition by Bogota. This admirably capitalist innovation - de
facto legalising supply - was too much for the Americans. What might have
been an interesting experiment was stifled at birth.

Instead Washington pumped $600m a year into Colombia's army and police,
enabling the central government to re-establish a measure of command over
its own country. The mightiest drug dealer, Pablo Escobar, was killed. An
independent, Alvaro Uribe, was elected president in 2002 and hurled men and
money at security. The murder rate fell by a third and kidnappings by two
thirds. Roads were reopened and most of Colombia is now as safe as anywhere
in Latin America. Uribe was re-elected last year with 62 percent of the
vote in a fair election against a moderate liberal.

Uribe cannot stem the cocaine trade. Crop spraying is merely shifting
production into Bolivia, Peru and the Amazon jungle, where mile upon mile
of virgin forest is lost to coca each year, an ecological disaster that is
a direct result of western drugs policy. As long as prohibition sustains a
lucrative market for narcotics, countries such as Colombia will supply it.
Traditional coca-growing nations down the Andean spine will have their
politics and economics blighted by criminality. Growth will be stifled and
governments left vulnerable to left-wing rebellion. The war on drugs is the
stupidest war on earth.

The best that elected leaders such as Uribe can hope for is to establish a
desperate equilibrium: drug suppliers kept relatively non-violent while
right-wing vigilantes are half-tolerated to counterbalance left-wing
guerrillas. Circumstance requires a para-politics to regulate a
narco-economy. The only test is survival, and as long as Uribe survives
America smiles. On an increasingly rabid anti-American continent he is one
sure ally.

Cut to Afghanistan. Here too the west is intervening in a narco-economy
that is destabilising a pro-western government. Here too quantities of aid
have been dedicated to security, and merely fed corruption. Here too
intervention has boosted drug production and stacked the cards against law
and order. This year's Afghan poppy crop is predicted to be the largest on
record, after a 50 per cent rise in output last year. European demand has
boosted the price paid for Afghan poppies to nine times the equivalent for
wheat. At this differential a policy of crop substitution is absurd.

Afghanistan is not Colombia. Here the west is not using a local government
to implement its drugs and counter-insurgency policy but has invaded with
main force. Some 40,000 Nato troops from over 30 different countries are
gathered in Kabul. Since many of them refuse to fight, the city has become
a holiday camp for the world's military elite. Meanwhile outside the
capital military occupation acts as a recruiting sergeant for insurgency,
leaving Nato bases constantly on the defensive. The war in Afghanistan is
proving that an enemy can be held at bay but only at vast expense in money
and casualties. It will not be defeated.

The British policy of occupying small towns to win hearts and minds has
been a bloody failure. It was wisely replaced last autumn with deals struck
with local power brokers, the so-called Musa Kala and Helmand protocols. Up
to $5m is handed over to any warlord who can claim provincial control,
accepting the pragmatism of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who on
January 29 even called for negotiation with the Taliban. The local British
commander, Brigadier Jerry Thomas, was explicit in seeking to "empower
local people to use traditional tribal structures... to find an Afghan
solution to an Afghan problem." In truth there is no other conceivable way
for Britain and America to disengage from this mess. A similar "endgame" is
being pursued by the new American commander in Iraq, General David
Petraeus, in securing safe areas policed by local militias.

Now the Americans reportedly wish to reverse the British realpolitik. To
them what Afghanistan needs is a taste of Colombia and Ambassador Wood.
Musa Kala must be reoccupied and poppy spraying must commence. This defies
the view of western intelligence in Kabul which has been convinced that
America's heavy-handed tactics and addiction to aerial bombardment has cost
the west five years in Afghanistan. Local commanders are equally opposed to
the opium eradication that obsessed the defence ministry in London and the
Foreign Office's Kim Howells. Apart from the futility of trying to spray so
vast an area as Helmand, drug-lords are the only possible counterweight to
the Taliban. Poisoning Afghanistan's staple and contaminating fields and
water supply will merely push up the price of opium and further breed
hatred of the occupation. It is madness.

In Colombia the Americans achieved a sort of equilibrium because local
politics was left to police the narco-economy. In Afghanistan Karzai is
treated as an American puppet whose authority outside Kabul depends
entirely on occupying forces. There is no way provincial Afghanistan will
be pacified by Nato and left to Karzai's army. Afghan troops (like the
Iraqis) will not fight local militias. Training them to do so is pointless
as they merely switch sides when the occupiers depart. Ask the few
journalists brave enough to visit the battlefields of Helmand and along the
Pakistan border.

In Colombia the central government enjoyed sufficient democratic legitimacy
for its army to drive insurgents into the jungle and induce the drug-lords
and paramilitaries to surrender (some of) their guns and power, albeit at a
heavy cost in justice and human rights. Afghanistan has never enjoyed such
central authority, except briefly under the Taliban. It will not do so
under the guns of 30 occupying powers. The south of the country craves
security and gets only bombs and bullets, and is increasingly inclined to
the iron rule of the Taliban. Since any prospective Karzai/Taliban
coalition is unlikely to please the Tajiks and other tribes of the north,
all western meddling will have achieved is to set Afghanistan on the road
to a repeat of the appalling civil war of the 1990s.

Having visited both Afghanistan and Colombia this past year I have no doubt
that the misery endured by both countries starts and ends in narcotics.
With an almighty and bloodthirsty effort, the production of cocaine in
Colombia and opium in Afghanistan might possibly be displaced but only to
other benighted countries in Africa or south-east Asia. What would be the
point? As long as rich countries consume these substances in massive
quantities it is grotesquely hypocritical to lay waste the poor countries
that produce them.

Punishing supply is not a "parallel" policy to curbing demand, as
economically illiterate policy-makers pretend. Demand is never curbed by
curbing supply, since supply responds to price. It just will not work.
Hence pretending to victory in Colombia is no different from staving off
defeat in Afghanistan. Both are cruel expiations of western narco-guilt.
The difference is that in Afghanistan intervention has led us into an
unwinnable war.