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Colombian model could improve Afghan counterinsurgency efforts

A number of lessons learned from assisting the Colombian army in its fight against its own domestic insurgency could help the US prepare Afghan forces more efficiently for the fight against the Taliban, analysts claim.

Colombian soldiers at a FARC jungle camp

Colombia's success against FARC could help Afghanistan

When US President Barack Obama announced his intention to bring his troops home in his December 2009 strategy overhaul, it was hoped that Afghanistan's army would be ready to assume responsibility for the country's security before the first wave of withdrawals begins in July 2011.

The reality of the situation on the ground suggests this was an overly optimistic target, however. The Afghan army appears to lack competent leadership at all levels despite the US government spending billions of dollars on training and support over nearly a decade.

At the turn of this year, the number of combat-ready battalions was well under the level expected ahead of the US withdrawal, while a staggering 19 percent of Afghan soldiers reportedly quit or desert every year. NATO forces continue to take the lead in battles against the Taliban because the Afghan army remains incapable of doing so.

Now, a number of US military analysts have suggested that the Pentagon should look at the successes US forces have enjoyed supporting counter-insurgency efforts in Colombia as a blueprint for a new approach to the conflict in Afghanistan.

Writing in The American magazine, Robert Haddick, managing editor of Small Wars Journal and a former US Marine Corps officer, notes that there are obvious differences in the challenges faced in both countries, notably that "as fractured as Colombia was in the late 1990s, at one time it had an effective central government."

But, he says, there are also many similarities suggesting the methods used to peg back the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) insurgent groups in Colombia could be used against the Taliban.

In both countries, insurgents have benefited from the geography, with Colombia's FARC rebels operating out of triple-canopy jungle while the Taliban uses caves and mountain hideouts. Colombia directed US military and financial aid into a large helicopter force which gave its army greater mobility in chasing down the rebels.

Fighting insurgents in rugged terrain

Seen from behind the iron sights of a .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the crew window of a UH60 Blackhawk, another UH60 Blackhawk flies low on the horizon 16 March 2005, over a farming community in the Dhi Qar Province of Southern Iraq.

The Afghan army would benefit from being more mobile

Analysts believe that instead of using US funds to increase the size of Afghanistan's standing army, an emphasis should be put on making the current force more mobile and improving the connections between ground forces and airborne troops.

"Colombia's success is not due purely to better air mobility and heliborne units, although this is indeed a key element," Robert Munks, a senior Americas analyst at Jane's Defence, told Deutsche Welle.

"It is a combination of this, plus greater use of intelligence-led operations and vastly improved interoperability between highly militarized police officers on the ground and special forces deploying either on the ground or by helicopter."

Nathan Freier, a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, believes that the importance of the Afghan National Army's (ANA) nascent air assault capability should not be overestimated

"Air assaults are graduate-level military actions marrying the competencies of well-trained and experienced ground and air forces," he told Deutsche Welle. "Thus, it takes time to accumulate robust air assault capabilities. In my view, it would be difficult to push the ANA harder and faster in this regard."

Colombians refine target-specific military units

An Afghan soldier at sunset

Specialized units could be more efficient than large regiments

Those who argue that a larger Afghan army stands a better chance of success against the Taliban are contradicted by supporters of the Colombia model of quality over quantity.

Instead of increasing numbers - unlike the plans for Afghanistan which sees the 97,000-strong army expanding to 240,000 by 2015 - Colombia's army employed a mere 800 non-combat US trainers to hone specialist units and promote quality leadership rather than trying to pour numbers into the military structure.

With a more efficient army tailored to the challenge in hand, coupled with a policy of luring less-committed rebels away from the 21,500-strong FARC with promises of cash and job opportunities, Colombia essentially defeated a rebel group larger in number than the current Taliban insurgency and pacified a country twice the size of Afghanistan.

"The quality of Colombian forces has improved markedly in the last decade, owing to better equipment and training," Munks said. "The use of dedicated jungle and mountain units that are designed to cut corridors of communication between FARC fronts has also helped boost overall capability."

Some analysts suggest the US should freeze the expansion of Afghanistan's national army, emphasize soldier quality and leadership development, and create specialized units for required security tasks just as it did in Colombia.

"More elite forces, especially for offensive operations, would clearly be better, if the ANA could raise, absorb, and employ them effectively," Freier added. "In the end, however, self-reliant Afghan general purpose forces will be the 'war winners' in a protracted counterinsurgency."

Differences could outweigh similarities, suggest analysts

Taliban fighters

Afghanistan has more problems than just the Taliban

While aspects of Colombia's strategy could help the Afghan army's fight against the Taliban, Robert Munks cautions that the problems arising from the differences between the two conflicts may outweigh the benefits derived from the similarities.

"I would be wary of suggesting that the Colombian experience can be lifted and replicated in Afghanistan," he said. "The Colombian armed forces were already markedly more advanced than their Afghan counterparts, even before increased US assistance, while Colombia's government institutions, for all their faults, are also significantly stronger and less corrupt than in Afghanistan."

Nathan Freier, however, believes that the challenges in Afghanistan are too fundamentally different for the Colombian model to work.

"I don't think Colombia's war against the FARC is a useful analogy for the Afghan counterinsurgency," he said. "The allied war in Afghanistan has included both progressive resuscitation of a collapsed state and bottom-up construction of a security apparatus capable of defending the new political order."

"The Afghan challenge is more fundamental than a capability and capacity deficit."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge

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