Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Holiday in Baghdad

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, September 27, 2016 --  

Those who see hopelessness in the Middle East would be wise to learn from events in Colombia.

When white-dressed Marxist rebels and government officials shook hands in the beautiful colonial city of Cartagena on Monday1 bitter enemies had finally put a half-century of war behind them. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had terrorized the country along with pro-government paramilitary groups for since the 1960s.

Both Colombia and the world have changed markedly over this time. When the war started 1964, Nikita Kruschev ran the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro was steering his revolution in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis just two years earlier. Soviets and Cubans were more than happy to back Colombian rebels who promised to bring another ally into their fold. By the time the Soviet empire collapsed in the early 1990s, the FARC had already switched its funding source to the illicit cocaine trade, allowing it to survive and even thrive in the post-Soviet world. As recently as 2002, the FARC controlled huge parts of Colombia and shelled the capital during the country’s presidential inauguration.2

But the rebels’ rapid fall in fortunes over the last 10 years, along with improvements in Colombians’ living conditions and better government should be heartening for the world. Visitors no longer shun Colombia over fear of being kidnapped by the FARC. Tour groups disembark from cruise ships to explore the cobbled Spanish colonial streets of Cartagena, visit coffee plantations in the highlands, and wanter quaint mountain villages near the capital. Few Colombians who lived through the shelling of the inauguration ceremony in 2002 would have predicted peace and prosperity arriving in the country in less than 15 years.

Colombia is a potent and heartening reminder that sometimes things do get better, and get better quickly. In a decade or two, perhaps tourists could be returning to the Roman ruins of Syria or the ancient Babylonian sites in Iraq. Perhaps visitors could even return to see restored Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

If these ideas sound far-fetched, consider that Colombia is not an isolated example. Other countries have also returned to stability in relatively short time frames. Americans were returning to Vietnam as tourists within two decades of the fall of Saigon. The sunny cafes of Beirut were full of stylish patrons within a couple of decades of the end of the civil war in 1990.

The end of the Cold War was an obvious turning point that helped both Colombia and Vietnam. The Soviet-American rivalry created hard feelings toward Westerners in Vietnam and parts of Colombia that only died down after the zeal to spread communism around the world finally waned. A similar decline in zeal for the ideology of radical Islam will one day help improve conditions in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

Less obvious as a turning point for Colombia is the end of the crack Cocaine epidemic in America. Cocaine cultivation declined by 40 percent between its peak in 2000 to 2014, according to UN figures.3 This has partly due to the fact that it has fallen out of fashion in drug culture in favor of opiates like heroin and synthetics like methamphetamine. This change eroded the Colombian rebels’ post-Cold War finance mechanism. If the future sees a similar erosion in heroin’s popularity, it could similarly help stabilize Afghanistan.

To be sure, these changes are purely hypothetical. They may be a long way off, or they may already be under way. But when such shifts do start to happen, they have a way of accelerating to produce change faster than anybody predicts. Those who see hopelessness in an unstable region stretching form Syria to Afghanistan would be wise to learn from recent events in Colombia. Places synonymous with violence and destruction can, under the proper conditions, quickly stabilize and earn a new reputation for beauty, hospitality, and vibrant culture. No, don’t book those holiday tickets to Baghdad just yet. But don’t discount the idea that such a day will eventually come.


1. BBC News, Colombians Celebrate as Peace Deal is Reached with Farc Rebels, September 26, 2016

2. New York Times, Explosions Rattle Colombian Capital During Inaugural, August 8, 2002

3. Insight Crime, Is the Global Cocaine Trade in Decline? July 24, 2016