Monday, April 6, 2009

Two Distinct Readings of the Afghanistan-Colombia Comparisons

As the Obama Administration steps up its call for increased action in Afghanistan in order to deal with the country's growing Taliban insurgency, I've been watching with alarm how military planners and certain establishment media pundits are consistently pointing to Colombia as the "successful model" that should be followed in the trouble spot in Central Asia where the U.S. is currently sending in an additional 17,000 troops. By doing so, not only are people making false connections between two internal conflicts that have completely different historical origins and contemporary manifestations, but they are also deliberately misrepresenting the current security and political situation on the ground, particularly in Colombia.

Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently suggested that Washington should apply the counterinsurgency and counternarcotics model currently being used in Colombia to Afghanistan, saying that the "world can learn from what has happened with respect to the very successful developments of Plan Colombia.”

Reporter Scott Wilson, who covered Colombia from 2000-2004 for the Washington Post, writes in Sunday's edition: "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."

Wilson's analysis tends to rely too much on a faulty comparison that only on the surface can be sustained. It also perpetuates the myth created by the Bush Administration and promoted by the Colombian President that outsiders like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are fanning the flames of the internal conflict of his neighbor. This shortsighted reporting and "analysis" appears to be a reflection of the tendency of the typical U.S. correspondent in Colombia to accept the official story line provided at press junkets and military sight-seeing tours, at the expense of truly on-the-ground, independent reporting from the countryside, as one can see from these superficial insights:

"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."

Although Wilson makes some relevant observations relating to the increased state presence in the countryside, and the "professionalization" of the Colombian Armed Forces, factors that have created a limited sense of security for middle and upper class Colombians, he puts way too much weight on the success of the demobilization of the right-wing paramilitary groups that for years had terrorized the peasantry with the tacit complicity of the Army. While it is true that President Alvaro Uribe has dismantled the over-arching command structure of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC, there are a number of reports from both Colombian and U.S. human rights groups that indicate that the threats, intimidation and violence of the extreme right continues, just in a more subtle form.

Furthermore, many critics of Uribe's human rights record point to the extradition of over 15 top paramilitary leaders to the U.S. as an example of the President's desire to cover up the truth behind the narco-paramilitary-government nexus. Uribe has been harshly criticized by prosecutors and human rights advocates as deliberately blocking any independent investigation into the paramilitary's crimes, some of which may have been committed with the support of Uribe's closest political allies.

These issues are not covered in Wilson's Washington Post analysis, making it difficult to accept as a potential remedy for the crisis facing Afghanistan. His glancing prognosis reminds me of a recent visit to my doctor, who spent a total of six minutes checking out my lower back before prescribing me some muscle relaxants to take care of my chronic pain. Wilson optimistically tells us:
"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 Bogotá 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."

Thank goodness Club Nogal is back in business. But is this truly a prescription for the centuries of violence and intervention we've seen in Afghanistan?

For a much more nuanced account of the so-called successes of Plan Colombia, it is useful to read the report by independent war reporter Garry Leech, editor of the website Colombia Journal, and author, most recently, of Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia.

Plan Colombia has not been the roaring success that so many people have painted it out to be, and Leech reminds us with an ice-cold bucket of water, hopefully for people like Admiral Mullen and President Obama, who are taking steps in Afghanistan and Pakistan that most objective analysts argue will not work.

In his latest piece in Colombia Journal, Leech writes:
"Mullen’s suggestion that it be applied in Afghanistan may not only lead to increased security and reduced levels of violence in major population centers in that Central Asian country, it could also result in gross violations of human rights, a massive refugee crisis and record levels of opium poppy cultivation."

I suggest you read both these pieces, and share in the anguish that we may be once again, barking up the wrong tree!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read this at the Post yesterday too and I was so upset that I almost made myself write an LTE in response. But, my own work prevailed. I am glad you wrote about this.