America is doped up in Colombia for a bad trip in Afghanistan

By Simon Jenkins (THE TIMES, 11/02/07):

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 trenches. The new Nato commander, US General John Craddock, asked for 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.

Wood 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 revenue.

Colombia is undeniably a country which, six years ago, faced disaster. Main roads were blocked by mafiosi and kidnappings and massacres were endemic. Drug lords, revolutionaries and right-wing paramilitaries fought for control of a trade that supplied 90% of America’s cocaine. The Cali and Medellin cartels 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.

Instead Washington pumped $600m a year into Colombia’s army and police, enabling the central government to reestablish a measure of command over its own country. 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. Most of Colombia is now as safe as anywhere in Latin America. Uribe was reelected last year with 62% of the vote in a fair election.

Uribe cannot stem the cocaine trade. Crop-spraying shifts 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 on 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 nonviolent while right-wing vigilantes are half-tolerated to counterbalance left-wing guerrillas. The only test is survival and as long as Uribe survives America smiles. On an increasingly rabid antiAmerican 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 yet have 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. European demand has boosted the price paid for Afghan poppies to nine times that of 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. Some 40,000 Nato troops from more than 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. 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 Qala 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 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 wish to reverse British realpolitik. To them what Afghanistan needs is a taste of Colombia and Ambassador Wood.

Musa Qala 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 have cost the West five years in Afghanistan. Local commanders are equally opposed to the opium eradication that obsesses 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 counterweight to the Taliban. Poisoning Afghanistan’s staple crop and contaminating fields and water supply will 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 that 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 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 achieve is to set Afghanistan on the road back to the 1990s.

Having visited both Afghanistan and Colombia, I have no doubt that those countries’ miseries start and end 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. What would be the point? As long as rich countries consume these substances in massive quantities it is hypocritical to lay waste the poor countries producing them and thus make them poorer.

Punishing supply is not a “parallel” policy to curbing demand, as economically illiterate policy makers pretend. Demand is never curbed by limiting 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.