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On December 1, President Barack Obama laid out his new strategy for Afghanistan.1 After adding 30,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines to the fight in 2010, Obama intends to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011 and turning responsibility for security over to Afghanistan’s forces. Obama’s plan calls for Afghanistan’s army to be ready to begin taking on this responsibility in 18 months. Yet in spite of years of effort, Afghanistan’s security forces are not ready to take on the Taliban.
Recent U.S. government reports make troubling conclusions about the difficulties of expanding Afghanistan’s army. Nineteen percent of the soldiers in the Afghan army quit or desert each year. The Afghan army lacks competent leadership at all levels and lacks the ability to rapidly generate qualified leaders. And although the U.S. government will spend more than $5.6 billion in fiscal 2009 on training and supporting Afghanistan’s security forces,2 the number of Afghan battalions qualified to operate independently actually declined over the past six months. In spite of these problems with Afghanistan’s existing army, General Stanley McChrystal wants to accelerate its expansion, from 92,000 currently to 134,000 by October 2010 and 240,000 at some date in the future.3
In spite of years of effort, Afghanistan’s security forces are not ready to take on the Taliban.
Ten years ago, Colombia faced a security crisis in many ways worse than that which Afghanistan currently faces. But over the past decade, Colombia has sharply reduced its murder and kidnapping rates, crushed the array of insurgent groups fighting against the government, demobilized the paramilitary groups that arose during the power vacuum of the 1990s, and significantly restored the rule of law and the presence of the government throughout the country.
With the assistance of a small team of U.S. advisers, Colombia rebuilt its army. In contrast to McChrystal’s plan for Afghanistan, Colombia focused on quality, not quantity. Colombia’s army and other security forces have achieved impressive success against an insurgency in many ways similar to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in spite of the assistance of nearly 100,000 NATO soldiers and many billions in security assistance spending, the situation in Afghanistan seems to be deteriorating.
Afghan and U.S. officials are struggling to build an effective Afghan army. What can they learn from Colombia’s success?
How are the insurgencies in Colombia and Afghanistan similar?
The counterinsurgency forces in Colombia and Afghanistan face several similar challenges.
1. Rugged terrain in both countries provides locations for insurgents to hide and limits the ground mobility of counterinsurgent forces.
2. Insurgents in both Colombia and Afghanistan take advantage of cross-border sanctuaries.
3. Insurgents in both countries have financed their operations with narco-trafficking.
4. At their worst, the two insurgent forces had similar strengths. At their peak strengths (around 2001), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) insurgent groups could field a combined 21,500 fighters, about 1.9 fighters for every 1,000 military-aged males in Colombia.4 The upper estimate of the Taliban’s current strength is 17,000 or 2.3 fighters for every 1,000 military-aged males in Afghanistan.5
5. When Colombia was scraping bottom at the end of the 1990s, the Colombian army was ineffective against insurgent forces. FARC military units were willing to engage the Colombian army in open conventional combat. In August 1996, a FARC force overran a Colombian army base in the Putumayo department, killing and capturing more than 100 soldiers. In March 1998, FARC fighters annihilated the 52nd Counter-Guerilla Battalion, considered at the time one of the army’s elite units.6
6. During this time, the rule of law in Colombia was minimal. In 1995, a quarter of Colombia’s municipalities had no police.7 The police and court systems were thoroughly corrupted, Colombia’s murder rate in the late 1990s was nearly 10 times that of the United States, and paramilitary militias formed in the absence of state authority.8 A president of Colombia (Ernesto Samper, 1994–1998) reached office in the employ of Colombia’s drug cartels.9 In 2008, 2,118 Afghan civilians were killed as the result of the insurgency, about 7.5 per 100,000 Afghans.10 In the late 1990s, Colombia’s annual murder rate was 62 per 100,000.11 One could argue that in the late 1990s Colombia’s corruption, violence, and government ineffectiveness were worse than Afghanistan’s today.
Nineteen percent of the soldiers in the Afghan army quit or desert each year. The Afghan army lacks competent leadership at all levels.
There are obviously some stark differences between Colombia and Afghanistan. Colombia is wealthier than Afghanistan, providing an indigenous base of income to pay for security forces. As fractured as Colombia was in the late 1990s, at one time it had an effective central government. It also had experience with the Western notion of the rule of law. Afghanistan has little or no such history.
Another point of comparison is what role religious zeal (in Afghanistan), Marxist ideology (for the FARC and ELN), or nationalism has played to motivate and organize insurgents. Afghanistan in the 1980s and Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s are contrasting examples of religious zeal and ideology, combined with nationalism, motivating combatants in the face of very painful losses. In Afghanistan, these sources of motivation have provided the Taliban with a steady stream of recruits to replace battlefield losses. In Colombia, the motivators that had previously kept the FARC and ELN strong appear to have dissipated.
Over the past decade, Colombia has sharply reduced its murder and kidnapping rates, crushed the array of insurgent groups fighting against the government, and demobilized paramilitary groups.
More tangibly, although they were either ineffective or corrupt in the late 1990s, Colombia at least had the structures of army and police forces in place. In 2002, when the rebuilding of Afghanistan’s government began, the army and police started from zero.
Finally, the nature of the international security assistance to the two countries is different. Colombia has one major ally, the United States. American military assistance is limited to a few hundred trainers who are prohibited from accompanying Colombian security forces on combat operations. In Afghanistan, by contrast, more than 40 countries are providing close to 100,000 soldiers who are, in theory, allowed to conduct the full spectrum of combat operations.12
Another difference is that a major reason for Colombia’s success is the reform of Colombia’s army, which focused on the quality of the army rather than its size.
How Colombia fixed its army
Reform of Colombia’s army began during Andrés Pastrana’s term as president (1998–2002) and accelerated during President Álvaro Uribe’s tenure (2002–present).13 What reforms converted the Colombian army from an ineffective, garrison-bound band into an aggressive force that has crippled the FARC and ELN?
1. New leadership. In 1998, at the urging of U.S. officials, Pastrana replaced the top three leaders in the army with new generals who were trained at U.S. military schools and who had extensive combat experience at the battalion and brigade levels. This new trio then replaced subordinate commanders who lacked aggressiveness in the field. At this time, the Colombian army began to emphasize the selection and training of better quality non-commissioned officers for the army’s combat units.14 In A Question of Command, Mark Moyar’s study of a variety of counterinsurgency campaigns, Moyar asserts that leadership quality, and not campaign plans or tactics, is the key to success.15 Colombia’s success against its insurgents bolsters Moyar’s argument.
One could argue that in the late 1990s Colombia’s corruption, violence, and government ineffectiveness were worse than Afghanistan’s today.
2. Reorganization. Beginning with the Pastrana administration and extending into the Uribe administration, Colombia reorganized its army into a mobile and highly skilled professional component and a draftee component formed for local security.16 Under the tutelage of U.S. Army Special Forces trainers, the professional component of the army established numerous air-mobile, Ranger, mountain warfare, counter-drug, and special forces battalions.17 These units improved the army’s overall effectiveness by specializing in specific tasks. Perhaps as important, Uribe focused the draftee portion of the army on village defense. He created more than 600 home guard platoons, each composed of about 40 soldiers stationed in their home towns to provide basic security and collect intelligence on insurgent activity. These platoons interdicted the movement of insurgent units in the countryside and freed up the professional army for offensive operations.18 The Colombian army also increased spending on logistics support and intelligence analysis, activities supported by the U.S. advisory team.19
3. Helicopters. The Colombian military expanded its inventory of helicopters from about 20 in 1998 to 255 by late 2008. To overcome Colombia’s mountainous and forested terrain, the army needed air mobility. Today, with extensive U.S. support, the Colombian army operates the world’s third-largest fleet of UH-60 Blackhawk assault helicopters.20 Colombia’s helicopter fleet has made possible the army’s offensive doctrine against insurgent support areas.
General McChrystal seeks to increase the size of the Afghan army to 240,000. In Colombia, a professional army of just 86,000 has crushed a large and stubborn insurgency.
As a result of these and others reforms, the Colombian army inflicted severe damage on FARC and ELN. Between 2002 and 2008, one study estimated that army attacks cut FARC’s offensive capabilities by 70 percent. FARC military units, which in the 1990s were able to overwhelm Colombian army battalions, were by 2008 unable to function in larger than squad-sized units. Between 2006 and 2008, more than 3,000 FARC fighters deserted the organization. FARC’s remaining forces are believed to be scattered, disorganized, and cut off from FARC’s top-level leadership, which has fled into exile in Ecuador and Venezuela.21
Colombia’s lessons for Afghanistan
What can officials charged with building Afghanistan’s army learn from Colombia?
Assisted by a small group of U.S. trainers, Colombia has focused on selecting quality leaders, training Colombia’s non-commissioned officer corps, and developing specialized rather than general purpose combat units within the professional portion of the army.
1. Quality beats quantity. General McChrystal seeks to increase the size of the Afghan army from 92,000 to 134,000 by October 2010 and later to 240,000.22 In Colombia, by contrast, a professional army of just 86,000 has crushed a large and stubborn insurgency and essentially pacified a country as rugged and almost twice the size of Afghanistan. Assisted by a small group of U.S. trainers (who do not accompany the Colombian army into combat), Colombia has focused on selecting quality leaders, training Colombia’s non-commissioned officer corps, and developing specialized rather than general-purpose combat units within the professional portion of the army. In Afghanistan, the goal is a rapid expansion of the army’s headcount regardless of whether the necessary leadership structure exists to sustain this increase. As a soldier who spent his career in special operations, General McChrystal is no doubt fully aware of the virtues of quality, which makes his recommendation all the more puzzling. The lesson from Colombia is to freeze the expansion of Afghanistan’s national army, focus on soldier quality and leadership development, and create specialized units for required security tasks.
2. An Afghan helicopter force. Like Colombia, Afghanistan faces the challenge of finding and massing against insurgent forces in difficult terrain. Colombia established a large helicopter force to bring mobility to its highly trained professional army and to evacuate casualties from the battlefield. Instead of focusing on raising the Afghan army’s headcount, U.S. military assistance should emphasize this aspect of combat support.
Instead of expanding the size of the Afghan national army, the Afghan government should permit and fund district and provincial governors to form home guard units for local defense.
3. Develop local security forces. A current problem with Afghanistan’s army (and formerly a problem in Colombia) was the unwillingness of many soldiers to serve far from their home villages and districts. As a result, the Afghan national army suffers from high absenteeism and desertions.23 As described above, President Uribe created home guard platoons composed of draftees who serve in their villages and departments. Instead of expanding the size of the Afghan national army, the Afghan government should permit (and fund) district and provincial governors to form such home guard units for local defense. Wardak Province is experimenting with the somewhat similar Afghan Public Protection Program.24 The U.S. and Afghan governments should use the results of the Wardak experiment to improve and expand locally based rather than top-down security provisioning.
Lessons for the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan
Here is how the United States could apply Colombia’s experience to its campaign in Afghanistan: U.S. military trainers would focus on constantly improving the quality, and not the size, of Afghanistan’s 92,000-man national army. In addition, the U.S. security assistance program would expand Afghanistan’s helicopter program. The Afghan army’s own training and support establishment would focus on supporting the district-level home guard program, rather than supporting the continued expansion of the Afghan national army.
McChrystal’s report stresses an urgency to rapidly expand the Afghan army, even though Afghanistan lacks effective leaders to staff this expansion, the logistics system to support it, or the helicopters to effectively move it through Afghanistan’s vast and rugged terrain. A decade ago, facing similar circumstances, Colombia’s leaders, assisted by a small team of U.S. advisers, implemented a different solution that in time achieved great success. The new U.S. strategy is counting on Afghanistan’s army to be ready in 18 months. U.S. and Afghan officials should learn from Colombia as they attempt to build an effective Afghan army.
Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal and is a former U.S. Marine Corps officer.
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.
1. “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 1 December 2009, accessed 3 December 2009.
2. “Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service (CRS), 6 October 2009, p. 74, accessed 6 November 2009.
3. “Commander’s Initial Assessment,” Commander, NATO International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan, p. G-1, accessed 6 November 2009.
4. “Countering Threats to Security and Stability in a Failing State: Lessons from Colombia,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), September 2009, pp. 5-6, accessed 18 October 2009.
“World Factbook – Colombia,” Central Intelligence Agency, Military tab, accessed 18 October 2009.
5. “Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service (CRS), 6 October 2009, p. 50, accessed 18 October 2009.
“World Factbook – Afghanistan,” Central Intelligence Agency, Military tab, accessed 18 October 2009.
6. CSIS, p. 8.
7. CSIS, p. 9.
9. CSIS, p. 8.
11. CSIS, p. 9.
12. CRS, p. 72.
13. CSIS, pp. 12-14.
14. CSIS, p. 14.
15. Mark Moyar, A Question of Command (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2009), p. 3.
16. CSIS, pp. 14-16, 20-21.
18. CSIS, pp. 20-21.
19. CSIS, p. 23.
20. CSIS, p. 22.
21. CSIS, pp. 24-25.
22. “Commander’s Initial Assessment,” Commander, NATO International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan, p. G-1, accessed 18 October 2009.
23. CRS, p. 41.
24. CRS, p. 35, 36.
Ten years ago, Colombia faced a security crisis in many ways worse than the one currently facing Afghanistan.
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