With the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan struggling on the battlefield against a resilient insurgency and opium poppy cultivation on the rise, Navy admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently suggested that the United States should import the counterinsurgency and counternarcotics model currently being employed in Colombia to Afghanistan. “I think many of us from all over the world can learn from what has happened with respect to the very successful developments of Plan Colombia,” Mullen stated, adding that the counterinsurgency approach used in Colombia would be applicable to Afghanistan.
Not surprisingly, Mullen and others who advocate transferring the Plan Colombia model to Afghanistan point to improved security in Colombia’s major population centers and a dramatic reduction in murders and kidnappings in recent years. While a significant percentage of the Colombian population has indeed benefitted from these successes, Mullen and others conveniently ignore the humanitarian crisis that has resulted from this establishment of “security” and Plan Colombia’s complete failure as a counternarcotics initiative.
In recent decades, Colombia has endured one of the most under-reported humanitarian crises in the world, according to Doctors Without Borders. At the heart of this crisis is the problem of forced displacement. With almost four million internal refugees, Colombia ranks second in the world after the Sudan. And while supporters of Plan Colombia repeatedly point to improved “security” in urban areas, critics note that the internal refugee crisis has worsened in recent years, in part because of the Colombian military’s aggressive counterinsurgency tactics in rural regions.
In the first six months of 2008, more than 270,000 people were displaced by violence, a 41 percent increase over the same period in 2007. “Each day, on average, 1,503 people were displaced,” said Jorge Rojas, director of the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES). If this rate of forced displacement continued for the remainder of the year, then 2008 would be the worst year for displacement in Colombia in more than two decades.
Another troubling aspect of the Colombian government’s security strategy is the dramatic increase in disappearances, particularly of members of civil society critical of the government’s policies. Colombia’s Prosecutor’s Office is currently investigating the disappearances of 1,015 people in 2008–more than four times the total for 2007 and a 1,300 percent increase over 2005. According to the Prosecutor’s Office, members of the country’s armed forces are suspects in more than 90 percent of the cases it is investigating.
It is not only the military’s role in disappearances that many observers find worrisome, there has also been a startling increase in the number of extrajudicial executions perpetrated by state security forces in recent years. According to the International Mission to Observe Extrajudicial Executions and Impunity, there were at least 955 unpunished cases of extrajudicial executions committed by the Colombian army between 2002 and 2007–almost double the 577 incidents during the previous five-year period. Many of these cases consisted of civilians who were killed during military operations so their corpses could be presented as insurgents killed in combat to allow the army to boost its body count.
And with regard to Plan Colombia’s “success” as a counternarcotics initiative, the Plan hasn’t come close to achieving its stated objective when it was launched in 2000, which was to reduce cultivation of coca—the plant whose leaves provide the raw ingredient in cocaine—by 50 percent in five years. A report released last year by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated that coca cultivation in the South American country increased by 15 percent and cocaine production by four percent during the first six years of Plan Colombia.
Given Plan Colombia’s record, 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.
This article was previously published in Guernica Magazine