Several days ago Shawn Snow published an essay in Foreign Policy arguing in favor of a Plan Colombia-type aid program for Afghanistan. Snow highlights the Afghan government’s pressing need for improved air strike and intelligence capabilities in its fight against the Taliban – two assets the United States has assisted Colombia with for over a decade. While Snow is correct that Washington can, and should, increase its assistance to Kabul in these areas, his choice of Plan Colombia as the model to follow for Afghanistan is misguided for one major reason: Afghanistan requires more help than a Plan Colombia-type program could provide.
The differences in U.S. material and operational support between Plan Colombia and U.S. operations in Afghanistan are staggering. First, as Snow notes, U.S. assistance to Bogota since the start of Plan Colombia at the turn of the century has totaled approximately $10 billion. While this is a significant amount of money, it represents only 5% of the total funds spent by Colombia and its international partners in combating the FARC during this time period. Currently, NATO is spending roughly $5 billion a year supporting the Afghan government, a sum of money that represents roughly two-thirds of the Afghan government’s budget.
Second, and in line with this disparity in funding, U.S. forces play a much smaller role in the fight against the FARC than they do against the Taliban. The United States has approximately 10,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan despite announcing the official end of combat operations there at the end of 2014. By comparison, in Colombia, even during the peak years of fighting under Plan Colombia, U.S. forces never reached 1/10th of this number. Moreover, there’s a difference not only in the number of troops but also the missions they are tasked with. In Afghanistan, U.S. troops are launching counterterrorist raids, providing tactical air support, and even helping the Afghan Army retake captured cities. In Colombia, by contrast, U.S. forces play an advisory role, providing training, material support, and intelligence, while abstaining from combat operations.
These disparities reflect the different needs of Afghanistan and Colombia as well as the difference in U.S. interests in each country. For example, as bad as things were in Colombia 15 years ago, they were still better than Afghanistan today in terms of the government’s stability and capabilities. As such, there was a foundation upon which Plan Colombia could build, meaning the U.S. could take a back-seat role in the struggle. Likewise, the United States has less pressing interests in Colombia than in Afghanistan. While the FARC are a despicable group, they pose little threat to the safety of Americans. Unlike the Taliban, they have never offered safe haven to terrorist organizations focused on attacking the U.S. homeland. Moreover, Afghanistan borders three countries of supreme importance to U.S. national security interests: China, Pakistan, and Iran. Its stability is important for the region and the U.S. presence there serves as a useful outpost for Washington.
Consequently, Colombia does not serve as a viable analogy for what the future of American involvement in Afghanistan should look like. The goal of Plan Colombia was to nudge the Colombian government in the right direction and provide unique military and law enforcement assets. It was never intended to be the vehicle through which the United States fought Colombia’s battles as a major combatant. In contrast, the U.S. was the dominant actor in Afghanistan for over a decade and continues to play a leading role in providing security for the country today. This fact, as mentioned above, reflects the needs of Afghanistan and U.S. interests there. Shifting to a purely advisory role a la Plan Colombia would not satisfy these objectives.
Instead of a secondary, advisory role, the United States must remain engaged in Afghanistan as a full-fledged partner, offering an enduring political, economic, and military commitment to its development as a secure and stable country. As such, the best model for the future of America’s role in Afghanistan is Washington’s relationship with South Korea, not Colombia. Following the 1953 cease-fire that paused the Korean War, the United States faced much the same situation as it does today in Afghanistan. U.S. troops had just spent years fighting a bloody war that remained unresolved. South Korea, on its own, could not be expected to defend itself, especially if China and Russia became involved again in a resumption of the conflict. And, South Korea represented a geographically and symbolically important node in the broader fight against communism.
Faced with this situation, Washington decided to remain fully committed to its wartime ally. For almost 70 years, Washington has stood by Seoul in its unresolved conflict with North Korea. What’s more, throughout this period Washington has not only defended the South but has also helped it develop economically, militarily, and politically to the point where Seoul can now be expected to take the lead in providing for its own defense. In this capacity, the United States played the role of a committed, long-term partner and the results were incredibly impressive.
Of course there’s no guarantee that a similar commitment would produce similar results in Afghanistan. For all the things they have in common in this scenario, South Korea and Afghanistan are widely different countries. No analogy is perfect. History is sui generis, and the dangers of relying on past events as a heuristic tool are well documented. That said, as long as policymakers and scholars reach for historical analogies in their decision-making and analytical processes, it’s important that they reach for the best-possible ones so as to maximize their effectiveness. Therefore, moving forward, South Korea, and not Colombia, offers the best model for the future of American involvement in Afghanistan.