Plan Afghanistan, or How the War Party Defines Success

Paul Wolfowitz and Michael O’Hanlon write in Foreign Policy that the Obama administration should apply “the Colombia model” to the strategy in Afghanistan in order to be “successful.” The US’s well known Plan Colombia policy, they write, “is rightly considered a substantial victory” and “strange though it may sound, success in Afghanistan would look a lot more like the success that has been achieved in Colombia over the last 10 years.” The problem is that US policy towards Colombia has only been a success if you think widespread corruption and ongoing violence by narco-terrorists and right-wing paramilitaries qualifies as a “success.” And only a scoundrel like Wolfowitz would condemn Afghanistan to the same US-imposed fate.

Plan Colombia, of course, is the US plan to concentrate military and counter-narcotics cooperation and aid to Colombia under the pretext of fighting the Drug War and left-wing guerrilla groups (like FARC), even if it means supporting equally vicious right-wing terrorists and perpetuating problems with the drug trade. I wrote extensively about it here. But Wolfowitz gives his version of the background:

For almost 50 years, Colombia has been plagued by violence, the result of a bloody war waged against the government by Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries — led primarily by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Although the violence was interrupted from time-to-time by a variety of peace agreements, these inevitably turned out to be more in the nature of armed truces than true peace settlements. Violent right-wing militias and even more violent narco-traffickers, added to the bloodshed. The narcotics trade itself became a major source of funding for FARC and, as the cocaine and heroin trade grew in the 1990s, the government’s grip on the country became increasingly tenuous. Assassinations became commonplace and violent deaths were, based on the best available statistics, at least five times higher in per capita terms than the level in Afghanistan today. In fact, war-related deaths remain higher in Colombia even now, after a decade of progress. By 1998, a leaked Defense Intelligence Agency report speculated on the possibility of a FARC victory within as little as five years. At the height of the insurgency in 2006, the FARC controlled as much as 30 percent of the territory of Colombia.

Notice how the culpability for “violent right-wing militias and even more violent narco-traffickers” and for the narcotics trade becoming “a major source of funding for FARC” is erased from Wolfowitz’s account. More accurately, the United States has been funding the violent right-wing militias as they terrorize the population. More accurately still, America’s drug war and ridiculous prohibitions are precisely what provided the lucrative black market for FARC militias to thrive off and contributed to pre-Plan Colombia horrors there as well as the ongoing problems.

As evidence for the success in Colombia, he quotes a recent Congressional Research Service report as saying the US in Colombia “made significant progress in reestablishing government control over much of its territory, combating drug trafficking and terrorist activities, and reducing poverty.” Sure, but that CRS report gave that quote essentially in passing, as it went on to chronicle the horrible human rights situation there that has largely been worsening due to Wolfowitz’s acclaimed Plan Colombia.

The report intricately details US support for what has come to be known as the para-political scandal, in which elite members of the Colombian government have colluded with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group which is responsible for killing tens of thousands of Colombian civilians, and controls over 75% of the Colombian cocaine trade. Virtually the entire government had ties to these US-supported terrorist groups, and many powerful elements within the government attempted to obstruct the criminal investigations addressing those ties. These paramilitary groups “regularly commit massacres, killings, forced displacement, rape, and extortion, and create a threatening atmosphere in the communities they control” often targeting “human rights defenders, trade unionists, victims of the paramilitaries who are seeking justice, and community members who do not follow their orders.” Seventeen massacres, “resulting in 76 deaths, were reported between January and May,” according to Human Rights Watch. “Successor groups,” said the report, “contributed to a 34 percent increase in massacres in 2010, the highest annual total since 2005.”

Aside from the right-wing paramilitaries, the US also supports the Colombian police and army who also engage in atrocities. This is also left out of Wolfowitz’s rosy version. The police are basically local bullies who regularly threaten the people, but even worse is the military which, due to an army policy which rewarded high body counts of leftist guerrillas, engaged in systematic massacres of Colombian civilians, dressing their dead bodies in the garb of the guerrilla fighters in order to inflate military body counts. These have been referred to as “false positive” killings. The Prosecutor General’s human right’s team investigated “more than 1,200 cases of extrajudicial executions,” prompting the then-UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston to write in 2009 that “the sheer number of cases, their geographic spread, and the diversity of military units implicated, indicate that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military” (CRS report, p 18-19).

Describing the success, Wolfowitz explains these victorious milestones have been achieved “through a combination of brave actions by the Colombian military, some $7 billion in U.S. assistance, a relatively small number of U.S. military advisors and, particularly, the strong leadership of President Alvaro Uribe from 2002 to 2010.” Yes, murdering innocents all throughout the country are brave actions indeed. But let’s think about what kind of government the $7 billion in assistance and Uribe’s leadership has given the Colombian people. Uribe is extremely corrupt and has widely been described as having authoritarian tendencies. Not only did he oversee the para-political scandals and the false positive massacres, but his administration also engaged in crackdowns on freedom of the press and a nation-wide warrantless surveillance program aimed at his political foes.

Again, this is success in Wolfowitz’s mind. He goes on to concede approvingly that “in fact, something to this effect [Plan Colombia approach] has been the U.S. strategy on the ground [in Afghanistan] for some time now.” He’s right. To be more explicit, we have been supporting a corrupt, unaccountable government in Afghanistan as we are in Colombia. We have also been indirectly fueling the insurgency in a material way, as we have been in Colombia. We have been supporting thuggish Afghan militias as proxy security forces even as they regularly commit savage human rights abuses with impunity.We have been wasting billions of dollars of taxpayer money and throwing a vast arsenal of weaponry into a decentralized anarchic country in Afghanistan, as we have in Colombia. So yes, in some ways these strategies overlap.

To his credit, Wolfowitz does acknowledge one thing in the piece that I have to agree with: “it must be acknowledged that more ambitious goals for Afghanistan are not going to come to fruition.” The correct response to this, however, is not to conceive of a new paradigm of forever war. The correct response is to get the hell out and stay out.