By 1995, Colombia was in a tailspin with peace held hostage by multiple terrorist groups. There was little hope of deterring rampant drug-related crime. The jungle interior was without infrastructure or control. There was a near wholesale absence of security. Like Afghanistan, Colombia faced what seemed a long climb out of darkness, and hopelessness had the upper hand. A bipartisan U.S. Congress stepped into that void to tremendous positive effect and successive Colombia leaders acted with great courage. The new Colombia emerged from that mess. I know, because I worked directly with successive Colombian presidents, attorney generals and police leadership to help craft and support the new Colombia.
To assure civil security, the Colombia people shifted their expectations for their country’s future and acted on those new expectations. They embraced the need for civil security, security training and the goodness of deterrence. That is what we now need in Afghanistan: a focus on civilian-led security training that parallels our onetime commitment – ours and the Colombians’ – to their nation’s security. There was no need for partisanship then, none now.
Dark as those early days in Colombia were, no one gave up. Today, the Colombian government is in what should be the final stages of negotiating an end to war, and civilian-led security training has opened a new chapter in the country’s history. Not only have the onetime cartels been pulverized, but Plan Colombia produced a 58 percent drop in heroin poppy cultivation and 47 percent drop in coca cultivation. President Uribe then supported a regional reduction in drug production, helping the Andean region pull back from 224,000 hectares of coca in 2001 to 166,200 hectares in 2004, with successive declines thereafter.
U.S. agencies and contractors trained Colombian security forces, while these Colombian security forces pressed their new-found advantage against narcotics-funded terrorists. The results were eye-popping. There was a new awareness of how vetting and human right training enhanced trust of security forces. By 2005, sustained training had raised Colombian troop strength by 34 percent, improved readiness with specialized training and created more than 50 mobile police squadrons and 15 mobile army brigades.
New security forces began to envision a time when the terrorists were not on the offense, but in decline. They created deterrence in former terrorist regions. Desertions from the three top terrorist organizations spiked, at one point falling by 80 percent in one year. Between 2002 and 2005 alone, terrorist ranks halved from roughly 25,000 to 12,000. Demobilizing large numbers of former combatants became a concern – but a problem worth having.
Objective numbers began to validate the training-to-security model. Plan Colombia reclaimed 158 municipalities for rule of law, and for the first time in Colombia’s history, all 1,098 of Colombia’s municipalities were under control of federal authorities. More than 1,500 courthouses were erected in parallel with justice sector training, and a prison system with a capacity for holding 25,000 prisoners – another indicator of deterrence – emerged. In 2004 alone, 10,727 prosecutors, judges and criminal investigators were trained, with nationwide training over the next five years.
With what results? Terrorist events fell precipitously, from 1,645 in 2002 to 846 in 2003, more each year thereafter. The number of persons internally displaced from civil war was cut by 49 percent in 2003 and continued declining. Kidnapping rates began falling by 30 percent per year, while the national murder rates fell between 20 and 50 percent a year.
What happened next? Every day Colombians stood up and reclaimed their country. Public confidence rose, and with it foreign investment and prosperity. Employment rose from 9.7 million workers in 2001 to 11.3 million in 2005, and kept on rising. Interest rates on credit for commercial transactions dropped from 35 percent in 1999 to 7.5 percent in 2004.
In short, the cycle of violence and fear, poverty and hopelessness was broken by hard work, training of security forces, and sustained belief in the future – ours and theirs. That is the model we now need to encourage Afghans to follow, and to follow ourselves. If they do their part – and if we stand by them – the outcome could be better than most imagine. The success we saw in Colombia could be repeated in Afghanistan. It is the right step to take.
Hastert was the longest serving Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, serving from 1999 – 2007. He is now a member of the public policy & law practice of Dickstein Shapiro in Washington, DC.