Plan Afghanistan: Another Colombia Mistake

(International Relations and Security Network, 20/02/2007)


William Wood, the US ambassador to Colombia since mid-2003, has been nominated to serve as the US ambassador to Afghanistan. His credentials, most agree, are strong. But it is worrying that he might promote the same failed policies used in Colombia - a supply-side drug control strategy that has a heavy military element with little development aid attached.


Colombia and Afghanistan have some commonalities. The governments of both countries fight an asymmetric war against an insurgency determined to remove it from power. Colombia is the world's leading supplier of cocaine, Afghanistan of heroin. And both countries receive heavy amounts of military aid directed at combating "terrorism" and reducing drug demand inside the US and elsewhere through inflating street prices by attacking the supply.


This policy has failed in Colombia. Fumigation alone - the leading method for reducing the supply of coca plants - has eradicated other, legitimate crops and caused international disputes between Colombia and Ecuador. Environmental concerns linked to the use of herbicide to kill coca bushes inside Colombia's national parks underline the lengths the US government will go to target small, clandestine coca plantations in Colombia. Aircraft spraying chemicals in Colombia must fly at high altitudes to avoid damage due to small arms fire from the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).


Numbers kept by the US government prove fumigation does not work. When Wood took his post in mid-2003, the US State Department had measured 113,850 hectares of coca plantations in Colombia. By year-end 2005, the last set of data publicly available, the State Department measured 144,000 hectares of coca in Colombia.


According to the United Nations Office of Drug Control (UNODC), the volume of planted coca in Colombia from 2003 to 2005 did not change, remaining at 86,000 hectares.


At the beginning of Wood's post, the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated the US street price for a gram of cocaine at US$210. By the end of 2005, the price dropped to US$170 - the opposite effect of the policy's goal. Many argue that purity levels have risen, suggesting there is now more supply to go around.


The dismal results of billions in tax payer dollars and years of implementing Plan Colombia, the policy framework Wood spent years defending, are not the fault of the ambassador alone. This colossal failure is the result of a complete breakdown in the most important part of the policy-making cycle: accepting feedback and making the necessary adjustments.


There are concerns that the same mistakes will be made in Afghanistan.


Wood answered questions on 15 February during a confirmation hearing that indicated US policies implemented in Colombia may be repeated in Afghanistan. And even before Wood's congressional appearance, there were other indications of this worrying possibility.


General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on 19 January that policies used in Colombia could serve as a template for policies the US and Afghanistan could jointly implement to combat the drug trade, according to The Washington Post.


Afghan poppy cultivation has surged. Many farmers have little other option for survival. They are part of a two million-strong force, some 10 percent of the Afghan population, directly involved in the yearly harvest of poppies.


Afghanistan currently supplies the world with over 80 percent of the opium required to make heroin. With over 350,000 Afghan households directly involved in poppy cultivation, heroin traffickers in Afghanistan earn some US$2.8 billion a year, nearly 65 percent of Afghan GDP in 2005, according to the UN.


Development programs that push alternative crops, such as wheat, cannot compete. Gross profit per hectare of poppy reaches some US$4,600 a year, compared to some US$390 per hectare of harvested wheat.


Whether by fumigation or by hand, poppy removed from the ground before farmers are able to use the proceeds to pay their debts would seal the fate for the sharecropper unable to repay his patron. He and his family would be kicked off the land; he may be injured, or worse, killed. Taking up arms with the Taliban may be the only option left.


Two years ago, a consortium of international aid agencies sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declaring that "premature acts [of eradication] risk destabilizing large parts of the country." That warning is truer today than ever.


Wood should consider US government failures in Colombia and do everything he can to prevent the use of Plan Colombia as a template for Plan Afghanistan. Colombia may be able to absorb years of poor US policy, but it is almost certain that Afghanistan cannot.