Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Lessons for Victory in Afghanistan

By David G. Young

Washington DC, July 8, 2008 --  

The near defeat of rebels in Colombia shows that victory is possible in the highly similar conflict in Afghanistan.

The Taliban's seizure of the Arghandab district north of Kandahar last month1 has highlighted the movement's resurgence, and dashed hopes for stabilization of Afghanistan in the near-term. Though the Taliban didn't hold the villages in the area for long -- fighters dispersed into the populace as NATO troops arrived -- the dramatic nature of the incident was a symbolic victory for the once flagging Islamist movement. And this wasn't an isolated incident. Just days earlier, Taliban fighters led a frontal assault on the Kandahar jail, breaching the walls, and freeing over 1000 prisoners, many of them their fellow fighters. 2 Dozens of other less-dramatic battles pushed American casualties in June to the highest monthly total since the Taliban were ejected in 2001.3

But for all the sobering news coming from the southeastern mountains, Afghans should take heart from a victory every bit as dramatic in the mountainous region in the west -- far, far, to the west, that is. In Colombia, the government's rescue of 15 high-profile hostages, who had been held for years by the FARC rebels, is one of several signs that the country's long-running civil war may be in its end-game.4 The hostages, which included former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense department contractors, had long been symbols of the rebels' dominance over wide swaths of the country.

What does this mean for Afghanistan? Plenty. Both the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish-language acronym FARC, have much in common. Both are nominally ideological organizations (radical Islamist in the case of the Taliban, radical Marxist in the case of FARC) whose once flagging fortunes have been saved by the easy money of growing drugs -- cociane for the FARC, and opium poppies for the Taliban. In both cases, the movements' ideological orientation has been co-opted as they have taken on the role of a drug syndicate.

And it's precisely this drug money that makes both movements so hard to stop. Insurgencies typically rely on funding from an external party who shares their ideology or goals (consider America's backing of the Nicaraguan Contras or the Soviets' backing of El Salvador's rebels). When the situation changes, and external backing disappears, peace is typically soon at hand. Not so with insurgencies funded by drugs, diamonds, or other domestic resources.

What is so amazing in Colombia is that the insurgency is being brought near defeat despite the ready funding of cocaine. The movement is currently facing a financial crisis brought about by crackdowns on exchange houses used to launder money from the cocaine trade.5 This funding crisis, combined with a much stronger Colombian military and aggressive attacks against rebels ordered by center-right President Alvaro Uribe, have proved highly effective.

These lessons are highly instructive for Afghanistan. Consider the March raid by the Colombian military, which crossed the border into Ecuador to strike against a FARC camp in order to kill a top commander.6 The outraged response from Ecuador and Venezuela was predictable, but soon quelled. The blow to the rebel movement, however, was immense. In Afghanistan, such cross-border raids are all but impossible because Americans cow-tow to Pakistani opposition. As a result, operations against Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan are left to lacksidasical and incompetent Pakistani forces. Nearly seven years after the ouster of Afghanistan's Taliban government, Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar live free across the Pakistani border.

Afghanistan is in great need of a leader like Colombia's Uribe. While human rights observers have rightful concerns over his party's anti-democratic maneuverings and failure to prosecute perpetrators of abuses7, nobody can doubt the president's effectiveness against the insurgency, which is a far greater threat to human rights than his government. When he took office, rebels encircled the capital and disrupted his inaugural ceremony with mortar fire.8 Today, the rebel movement is on the brink of defeat.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, once a darling of the West, is comparatively weak and ineffective, and the Western forces who prop up his regime seem no more prone to take necessary measures. For more than ten years after the end of the Cold War, Colombia floundered against a bankrupt insurgency before electing a president who could take effective measures. Given Afghanistan's deplorable pool of potential leaders, it is highly likely that its suffering will continue for much longer after the fall of the Taliban. Just knowing that Colombia has found a solution, however, should be enough to give Afghans hope for their eventual deliverance.

Related Web Columns:

Forever Taliban, June 27, 2006


1. The Washington Post, Taliban Seizes Seven Afghan Villages, June 17, 2008

2. Ibid.

3. Christian Science Monitor, Afghanistan death toll pressures U.S., allies, July 3, 2008

4. BBC News, How Colombia freed the hostages, July 4, 2008

5. Los Angeles Times, Hostage rescue illustrates Colombian FARC rebels disintegration, July 5 2008

6. MSNBC, Venezuela, Colombia make peace, March 7, 2008

7. Human Rights Watch, Colombia: McCain's Visit Should Focus on Democracy and Rights, June 30, 2008

8. Los Angeles Times, Ibid.