Small Wars Journal

Learning from Colombia in Air and Space Power Journal

The U.S. Air Force's professional journal Air & Space Power Journal has published "Colombia can teach Afghanistan (and the United States) how to win," a revised version of an essay I originally wrote for the American Enterprise Institute's The American (here is the SWJ link from January 11, 2010).

I show what the U.S. and Afghan governments can learn by studying how Colombia reformed its army and greatly improved its security situation.

An excerpt:

Ten years ago, Colombia faced a security crisis in many ways worse than the one 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 presence of government throughout the country.

Over the past decade, with the assistance of a team of US advisers, Colombia rebuilt its army. In contrast to the current plan for Afghanistan, Colombia focused on quality, not quantity. Its army and other security forces have achieved impressive success against an insurgency in many ways similar to Afghanistan's. Meanwhile, despite the assistance of nearly 100,000 NATO soldiers and many billions of dollars spent on security assistance, the situation in Afghanistan seems to be deteriorating.

Afghan and US officials struggling to build an effective Afghan army can learn from Colombia's success. This article explores the similarities and differences between the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Colombia, examines how Colombia reformed its security forces, and discusses how to apply Colombia's success to Afghanistan.

I discuss the similarities and differences between the security challenges in Afghanistan and Colombia. I then argue that Colombia's relatively small but elite professional army, its emphasis on helicopter mobility, and its local home-guard program provide a model for reforming Afghanistan's security forces.

Click here to read the essay at ASPJ.


carl (not verified)

Sat, 07/03/2010 - 2:52pm

The first two recommendations of the article, quality over quantity and increased use of local self defense forces are great. They are so fundamental and vital that one wonders why so many people have such a hard time getting them; until one realizes that quality is not something easily converted to a power point bullet point and local forces mostly don't get glory for the high level people. (color me cynical.)

I strongly disagree with the third point, provision of a large helicopter force for the Afghan armed forces. Such a fleet would be very useful for the Afghans IF- they could train the pilots, if they could train pilots to train their own pilots, if they could do the same for mechanics and avionics techs, if they could set up and run a logistical system, a mtx tracking system and the people to do all that etc. That is just to get the helos flying. They would also have to learn and implement all that tactics and training that make the machines useful, keep that training up and learn to adapt it for the conditions etc.

The biggest if that underlies all the above ifs is if they could pay for it all. They couldn't. They couldn't do any of the above for themselves without extremely high levels of external support for years and years to come. Starting a large rotary wing air force is no small matter. If we provided Afghanistan with a helo fleet the size of Columbia's how many would be flying is one year, two years or three? How many would be flying at all without extensive contractor support.

I think overall we would be doing the Afghans a disservice by encouraging to go the many helo route. Aside from the technical difficulties, all the high quality people needed to man the helo force might be very much better used manning a quality infantry and police force. It would be better to find ways to match Taliban mobility that more closely fit Afghan capabilities. The Talibs are Afghans. They don't have helos and they get around pretty good.

Ed, I don't think there all that much difference in the appeal of FARC and the Taliban. Part of the appeal of both was making the here and now better. One of the big things for the Taliban has been getting rid of the warlords/racketeers. That is a here and now benefit. I am also a bit leery of statements to the effect that Talibans distorted view of Islam is viewed with favor by the "Afghans." From what I've read, their view of that of rural Pathans and not all that popular.

This statement "The Taliban on the other hand have ruled Afghanistan well within most Afghans' memory." is one of the reasons for hope in the fight. Afghans do remember when the Taliban ran things and a lot of them didn't like it at all.

Mike Few (not verified)

Fri, 07/02/2010 - 12:07am


Excellent analysis. You've given me some great thoughts to consider.


Ed (not verified)

Wed, 06/30/2010 - 2:45pm

I feel this paper seriously underestimates the many differences between Colombia and Afghanistan, but let me start off with another point.

No-one doubts that the situation in Colombia has improved, but it is much too early to talk of victory. Both the FARC-EP and ELN are still active; neither have been wiped out or surrendered. Indeed it can almost be comical to read an announcement that such-and-such a FAR or ELN front has been annihilated for the second, third or fourth time, or that combat had taken place between the army and a guerrilla front that was supposedly wiped out according to a previous announcement. Guerrilla warfare continues and the guerrillas have stepped up their use of mines and roadside bombs as their ability to wage semi-conventional war has been reduced. The article neglects to mention the resilliance of the guerrilla forces. We're dealing with groups that have existed for over 45 years, which have shrunk and retreated into the mountains and jungles in the past, only to reappear again. The ELN in particular has been in much worse shape than this in the late 70s, but bounced back when conditions improved. In classical Marxist guerrilla theory the guerrilla exists not so much to conquor the government militarily, but to act as the "motor" or "detonator" for a wider uprising or political movement that can overthrow the regime. With such an ideology, when faced with difficulties, the guerrilla tendency is to retreat and become less active, awaiting better days, rather than to surrender.

Now to the differences between Afghanistan and Colombia.

The article doesn't mention the political difference between the two insurgent groups. Colombian guerrillas are Marxists of various shades while the Taliban are Islamist. Many sources attest to the low level of political support for the guerrillas in Colombia. Marxism generally has a difficult time winning over the peasantry - as Che Guevara and his followers found to their cost. I would suspect that the Taliban's Islamism conforms much more closely to the traditional beliefs of the Afghan population than the FARC's Marxism does to Colombia's.

Marxism promises an earthly paradise and this is its great weakness, as it is now widely known that it has repeatedly failed to deliver. This fact cannot be lost on the peasantry of even the remotest Colombian village. Islamism on the other hand has a much easier time as its promises are for the next life and it appeals to faith rather than reason. Therefore the failure of Islamism to create prosperous, free or democratic societies is far less of a hindrance than Marxism's failures.

Marxists have never held power in Colombia. It was said that Manuel Marulanda, the FARC's late founder-leader had never even visited Bogota. The Taliban on the other hand have ruled Afghanistan well within most Afghans' memory. Their return to power is therefore far less fantastical than the idea that the FARC or ELN could take power in the minds of the population.

The difference in wealth and system of government is acknowledged, but it fails to convey just how radical the differences are. It's all too easy to lump Colombia and Afghanistan together as Third World countries. This may be true, but it neglects the fact that Colombia is closer to the First World than it is to Afghanistan on almost any measure, so deeply backward is Afghanistan.

Colombia has a long history of being a nation of the western type and two hundred years of independance. Apart from a small number of Amerindians it is essentially nationally unified. Not so Afghanistan with its Pashtuns and Tajiks and Hazaras etc. Afghanistan has never been a nation of the Western type.

Lastly, Colombia has a well developed civil society, for which there is little evidence in Afghanistan. This has been seen after many guerrilla atrocities such as kidnappings or bombings where huge numbers of Colombians have turned out in demonstrations against the guerrillas and where the press have mounted a vigorous campaign to drive home the political and moral bankruptcy of the guerrilla.
Afghanistan on the other hand has surely witnessed the repeated devastation of whatever middle class it may have had, the core of such a civil society, by decades of communist and Islamist terror and disorder.

I feel it is one thing to help a government that already has all the basic ingredients of success and merely lacks equipment and training. It is quite another to try and create that effective government from scratch.

Excellent article. I also like the part about the Home Guard. One interesting concept with home guards or militias is that it allows a soldier to keep serving the cause, while still being able to give time to their family.

The same is true for private security, and the underlining theme is choice. A militia man or contractor has more choice when they serve in this capacity. They can choose the type of company or militia, the time they want to give, the task that they think they would be good at, best of all, they can be close to home.

There is another advantage to the home guard, and that is for identifying spies within the community that might be working against the government. You must have capable men with loyalties towards the government, or contracted to the government, watching the local communities and looking for these shadow government elements that are a threat.

Our early militias during the Revolutionary War were great for that. The militia or private security company, can actually be the home guards, all while the main military goes off to fight the war in the mountains or overseas.

Mike Few (not verified)

Wed, 06/16/2010 - 9:53am


Y'all done some great work in the Phillipines as well. I think some of the lessons are transferable, but we have to recognize the distinct differences. Here's a couple.

1. Phillipines is a series of islands.
2. Phillipines has 2-3 low-level insurgencies that have persisted for over a century.
3. The US has a special relationship with RP. Even though we have a sordid past there early on, we still remain good friends.

In any case, I think one lesson learned from both RP and Colombia is seeing how SF reacted and actually did FID once Congress placed many restrictions on what they could and could not do. At one point in the Phillipines, US combat advisors was limited to 50.


Ed (not verified)

Tue, 06/15/2010 - 12:39pm


Most of my experience is within PACOM, specifically the Philippines. A lot of what we did and are doing there is similar to the approaches in Columbia. My experience in Afghanistan is very limited, but the utility of the approaches in RP and Columbia seem to be possibilities. Thanks for the response. I'll return to lurking now.

Mike Few (not verified)

Tue, 06/15/2010 - 12:26pm


Robert did not address the most important lessons from Colombia. He focused on the military effort.

In truth, Plan Colombia was State Department led. The Ambassador was the commander. The main effort was governance. The military was a secondary effort.

Political Advisors assisted the lawmakers in drafting fair laws. Judiciary Advisors assisted the courts with ensuring fair trials and fair sentencing. FBI agents adviced local law enforement on security. DEA Agents adviced on anti-narcotics issues. Economic Advisors assisted in ensuring fair commerce and trade.

The goal was to have the local citizen perceive the government as fair and legitimate.

SF's, not SOF's, role was discreet and in the background hoping to help build a professional army.

And yes, many "voices in the wilderness" have been screaming this approach.


Ed (not verified)

Tue, 06/15/2010 - 12:13pm

"<b>Assisted by no more than 800 US trainers</b> (who do not accompany the Colombian army into combat), Colombia has focused on selecting quality leaders, training the noncommissioned officer corps...In Afghanistan the goal is rapid expansion of the armys head count, regardless of whether the necessary leadership structure exists to sustain this increase. The lesson from Colombia is to <b>freeze the expansion of Afghanistans national army</b>, emphasize soldier quality and leadership development, and create specialized units for required security tasks."

<p>I am still amazed by our attempts to rapidly create our own image, and in bulk to boot. Predominately SOF efforts Columbia and the Philippines have been succeeding without much fanfare and on a much more manageable budget. <p>I wonder if a similar approach would work in Afghanistan? It would seem to be less invasive and less expensive (personnel, equipment, money, etc.). Are there any voices in the wilderness suggesting a similar approach?

William F. Owen

Tue, 06/15/2010 - 9:45am

You know what? I'm impressed with this article. It's actually useful.
Good job.
We need more like this.