With the great increases in insecurity in Afghanistan since 2006 and President Barack Obama’s decision to increase U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by 30,000 soldiers, analysts and policymakers are looking for analogies to understand the conflict’s dynamics and speculate on the counterinsurgency effort’s outcome. One of the analogies is the counternarcotics and counterinsurgency campaign in Colombia.
There are striking similarities between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and its relationship to the drug economy in Colombia and the Taliban’s relationship to the drug economy in Afghanistan. After all, Colombia has been the world’s largest producer of coca and cocaine for more than 15 years, much like Afghanistan has been for poppy and opium.
Those who embrace this analogy argue that the Taliban and the FARC are essentially narcotraffickers with access to vast drug profits — on the order of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year — with which they can acquire sophisticated weapons and hire thousands of combatants.
IDEOLOGY VERSUS PROFIT AS MOTIVATION
Many analyses of the violent conflict in Colombia today describe the persistent violence there as motivated purely by the desire for financial profit. There is no doubt the intensity of ideology in the Colombian conflict has declined substantially over the years. The reasons are several.
Unlike in the case of Peru’s Shining Path, for example, the FARC’s socialist ideology was never well-defined to begin with, and the demise of its old leadership and its isolation from the rest of the country only further decimated the group’s intellectual capacity during the past several years.
Moreover, the end of the Cold War discredited socialist teachings of violent revolution of the masses and their resonance among Latin America’s citizens. Bolivarianism, a 21st century version of socialist populism, has breathed some life into socialist rhetoric in Latin America, and the FARC has attempted to latch onto and incorporate it into some of its statements. But this does not seem to have improved its mobilization capacity.
The various deals to divide up the drug territories as spoils of war between the FARC and its sworn enemies, the rightist paramilitaries, further strengthened the perception that ideology was no longer a part of the conflict. The decision in the mid-1990s of the FARC’s recently deceased leader Manuel Marulanda to institute self-financing for each of FARC’s operational units only raised the importance of the various illicit economies in the belligerents’ overall strategy.
Profits are not used mainly for personal enrichment but for the funding of the war machine. This is not to say, however, that drugs are not seen as a crucial means to allow the struggle to be undertaken. Thus, the presence of coca cultivation in a particular locale is frequently a magnet for the FARC and other groups seeking to dominate that territory and control the drug trade in the area.
By contrast, the Taliban’s ideology is not only more clearly defined — a mixture of nationalism and religious fundamentalism — but more intensely felt by many of its leaders and even rank-and-file combatants. At the top level, the Taliban’s leadership council, which is known as Quetta Shura and is led by Mullah Omar, is probably most intensely driven by an ideological compulsion based on a fundamentalist vision of Afghanistan. During the past few years, as this core leadership has become more closely aligned with al-Qaida — facilitated by their shared refuge in Pakistan and their shared identification of the enemy as the U.S. and NATO and the NATO-supported Afghan government — Mullah Omar’s embrace of the global Salafism, or Islamic fundamentalism, has also become more prominent.
The network led by Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani in eastern Afghanistan is fairly strongly motivated by the extremist cause. Although the members of the network finance their operations by participating in illicit logging and timber smuggling to Pakistan, the financial profits from the illicit economy clearly remain only a means to support their ideological project.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s network also participates in a variety of Afghanistan’s illicit economic sectors. But Hekmatyar is less motivated by an ideology of any sort and more focused on personal power accumulation and profits.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE FARC’S AND TALIBAN’S ATTITUDES TOWARD THE DRUG ECONOMY
When the FARC first encountered the coca economy in the Caguán region in the late 1970s, it decided to prohibit it on Marxist-Communist grounds as a social vice. Immediately, its policy toward the illicit coca economy generated widespread dislike of the group because part of the population was dependent on it.
Progressively, the FARC came to first tolerate, then tax, and later even regulate both cultivation and at least some processing. The FARC’s international drug trafficking capabilities have been greatly weakened by the Colombian military’s increased force levels and improvements. It has been selling its coca paste and cocaine mainly to Colombian drug trafficking groups and Mexican drug organizations.
The Taliban became aware of the opium economy in Helmand Province in late 1994 and early 1995, and prohibited poppy cultivation as it violates the Quran. However, as this proved politically unsustainable even among its core constituencies in Helmand, by 1996 the Taliban adopted a laissez-faire approach to drug cultivation that progressively evolved into taxing the farmers as well as providing security for and taxing the traffickers. The new edicts the Taliban issued read: “The cultivation of and trading in chers [cannabis, used for hashish] is forbidden absolutely.”
The consumption of opiates is forbidden, as is the manufacture of heroin, but the production and trading in opium is not forbidden. In practice, however, heroin labs were not busted and trafficking with heroin was not interdicted. The 10 percent tax on opium, formerly paid to the village mullahs, was now directed to the Taliban’s treasury, earning an estimated $9 million in 1996-97, from the south’s regular output of 1,500 tons of opium.
A 10 percent “zakat,” or religious tax, was also levied on the traffickers. As the 1990s progressed, these taxes were increased to 20 percent, generating $45 million to $200 million a year.
In 2000, the Taliban surprisingly banned poppy cultivation once again. The absence of viable alternative means of subsistence and income drove the majority of landowners and sharecroppers heavily into debt. While banning opium cultivation, the Taliban did not ban or otherwise attempt to interfere with the sale and trafficking of opium and heroin during that period. In choosing to curb the production, the Taliban was balancing its domestic popular legitimacy with its international legitimacy, which was severely undermined by the regime’s brutality and violations of human rights, treatment of women, sheltering of al-Qaida, and the vast poppy cultivation.
The second motivation that likely drove the Taliban’s decision to impose the ban on cultivation was the desire to boost the price of opium and consolidate its control over the heroin trade.
THE FARC, THE TALIBAN AND DRUG FINANCING
Regarding both groups, their actual levels of profit from the drug trade are highly disputed. In the case of the FARC, drug revenue constitutes about 50 percent of its income. The rest comes from income from other illicit economies, including smuggling gas from Ecuador and Venezuela, siphoning oil from Colombian pipelines and extortion and smuggling rackets for legal goods such as cigarettes.
The evidence suggests that eradication efforts reduced the FARC’s profits, but not enough to cripple the insurgency. However, the creation of military zones of encirclement within coca-growing areas, where the FARC has been pinned down by military action, has substantially curtailed its income. A study released by the White House said the FARC’s annual drug profits fell by a third between 2003 and 2005; in 2007 they were estimated at $60 million to $115 million a year, The Washington Post reported. But the guerrillas adapted by switching to other illicit economies, including extortion and kidnapping, and even made some efforts to trade in low-grade uranium.
Drug income estimates for the Taliban vary widely, from tens of millions to hundreds of millions a year. Drugs constitute only a portion of the Taliban’s income, somewhere between 20 and 50 percent. This income comes from taxation of poppy fields as payment for their protection and taxation of drug traffickers’ labs and convoys. The Taliban are believed to have access to drug smuggling networks in Pakistan, and Afghan refugees participate in these networks.
Other sources of Taliban income include taxation of all economic areas where they have a strong presence, illicit logging, illicit trade in wildlife and donations from Pakistan and the larger Middle East. Efforts to eradicate the poppy crop, undertaken in Afghanistan with varying degrees of intensity between 2003 and 2008, have so far had little effect on Taliban finances.
THE FARC, THE TALIBAN AND POLITICAL CAPITAL
Both the FARC and the Taliban derive substantial political capital from their sponsorship of the illicit drug economy. By doing so, they protect the population’s basic, reliable, and frequently sole livelihood; and they can mobilize the illicit economy for the provision of various social services underwritten by profits from drugs. Political capital in this context means legitimacy with and support from the population and its willingness to deny intelligence on the group to government forces.
An important reason for the decrease of the FARC’s political capital has been its decision to take control over coca paste sales, push out small traffickers and set monopoly prices for coca paste. The FARC did this in order to deprive the paramilitaries of profits from this higher-value phase of the trade. When the FARC eliminated small traffickers from the territories under its control, it not only stopped bargaining on behalf of the coca growers for better prices and working conditions as it used to, but it started abusing them in other ways. For example, the FARC is now setting lower prices for coca paste and is sometimes unable to pay for it.
The Taliban, on the other hand, is not facing any decrease in political capital as a result of its “mismanagement” of the illicit economy, because unlike the FARC, it never provided an expanded menu of regulatory and protection functions.
COUNTERNARCOTICS AND COUNTERINSURGENCY POLICIES
A defining characteristic of the FARC could be its longevity. The drug economy has given the FARC extended life by providing the group not only with vast financial resources but also with steady political capital among the population dependent on the illicit economy.
Analysis has shown that the Colombian military has been able to substantially weaken the FARC even though efforts to destroy its income through eradication have not succeeded. Instead, success against the FARC came from the Colombian military’s improved tactics and strategy and from better resourcing its military campaign. Palpable security improvements in Colombia are undeniable: the FARC is no longer stationed on the hills above Bogotá, nor does it have a stranglehold on Colombian cities further away.
NATO is struggling to reverse the trends in a similar way in Afghanistan and wrest the momentum away from the Taliban. President Barack Obama’s counternarcotics strategy for Afghanistan, announced in the summer of 2009, promises to mesh well with the counterinsurgency and state-building effort.
Opium in Afghanistan
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime found that land used for opium cultivation decreased 22 percent from 2008 to 2009 due to government leadership, an aggressive counternarcotics offensive and the introduction of food zones to promote legal farming. During that time, the opium yield decreased 10 percent, to 6,900 tons, because farmers extracted more opium per bulb.
Evolution of the FARC
Besides its increasing involvement in narcotrafficking to obtain profits, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is changing the way it conducts warfare. The terrorist group is trying to develop a new generation of urban militants, said Román Ortiz, lead analyst for the security and defense consultancy Triarius Group of Colombia.
“[There is an] emphasis on recruitment of university students to become urban operatives to develop urban terrorism operations,” Ortiz said. FARC is also hiring gang members to carry out terrorist attacks.
Even though its membership has decreased from an estimated 17,000 guerrillas to about 8,000, this reduction could make the group more cohesive in coordinating terms, he added. In their desperate attempt to obtain followers, the FARC is shifting from Marxism to Bolivarianism. This ideology, which emerged in the 1980s, is similar to socialism but does not forbid private property. “Instead of focusing on a political system of parties, it gives a bigger role to charismatic leaders.”
Their international connections are playing a bigger role. “They have developed a global logistic network: They can move narcotics in Mexico or Brazil and at the same time buy weapons in Jordan or China or Eastern Europe,” Ortiz said. Indoctrination has also expanded internationally. The group is training and giving political advice to radical groups across Latin America, following a tactic pioneered by the terrorist group al-Qaida.
Vanda Felbab-Brown is the author of Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs and an expert on international security implications of illicit economies and strategies for managing them. Edited from the article “Narco-Belligerents across the Globe: Lessons from Colombia for Afghanistan?” published by Real Instituto Elcano. To see the article in its entirety, go to www.realinstitutoelcano.org.