A Colombian recipe: Four lessons Afghanistan can learn from the Colombian-FARC peace deal?

In November 2017, Colombia brought an end to its 52 years arm conflicts by signing a “definitive ceasefire and disarmament” agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a guerrilla armed group found in the mid-1960s.

The Colombian conflicts left as many as 220,000 dead, most of them civilians, 25,000 missing, and 5.7 million displaced between 1964 and 2017. Following the peace deal, 10,000 FARC fighters surrendered their weapons and transitioned into normal civilian life.

How did Colombia succeed to sign a peace deal with the FARC? What are the similarities between FARC and Taliban? And what lessons Afghanistan can learn from the Colombian-FARC peace deal? Please find the answers here.

Similarity between the Colombian FARC and the Afghan Taliban

Colombia, similar to Afghanistan, has been suffering from centuries of internal conflict, decades of guerrilla war, and increasing growth of drug cultivation and smuggling.

Vanda Felbab‐Brown of Elcano Royal Institute believes that the conflict in Colombia is “purely by the desire for financial profit” and FARC made substantial financial gain from the drug trade to keep its operations sustained for fifty-two years.

According to Felbab-Brown, FARC made US$100 million a year from the drug trade, comprising fifty percent of its total revenue. FARC’s other sources of income included gas smuggling, oil exploitations and other illegal businesses such as extortion and kidnapping.

Similarly, the conflict in Afghanistan is also driven by greed and Taliban together with other insurgent groups are running their war machines from the profit out of drug trade and exploitation of other natural resources in the country.

While Taliban make US$400 million from drug trafficking, comprising up to 20 percent of its total revenue, the group’s other sources of income include taxation of all economic areas from its areas of control, illicit logging, illegal trade of wildlife, exploitation of natural resources, and donations from Pakistan.

Colombia as the world’s largest producer of coca leaf and cocaine and Afghanistan as the world’s largest producer of poppy and opium are both relying on revenue from drugs. Therefor, both FARC and Taliban have been benefited huge political backing throughout their history.

Since state presence and authority have been weaker or absent in far villages and towns of Colombia and Afghanistan, both FARC and Taliban used these remote areas as their fighting base to train and arm their fighters.

As Taliban and FARC have much in common, Afghanistan can learn many valuable lessons from Colombia and its peace deal with FARC.

First lesson: destabilise enemy’s position in remote villages and districts

Prior to Colombia’s current peace deal with FARC, all previous attempts in finding a solution for settlement through peace talks have been unsuccessful.

By 2002, the new Colombian president Alvaro Uribe had no control over its 158 municipalities. Kidnappings, corruptions, and terrorist attacks remained widespread throughout Colombia.

According to Colombian ex-defence minister and current president Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s first attempt was to recover the control of these municipalities and establish permanent state presence there. In order to do this, president Uribe needed military efforts.

Since FARC did not submit to government’s conditions, president Uribe made a large-scale military campaign against the guerrillas, resulting to a dramatic decrease in the number of FARC fighters, down from 20,000 in 2002 to 8,000 in 2006.

In four years, president Uribe succeeded to secure main roads, decreased the numbers of terrorist groups from 32 to 6, brought down the numbers of homicide by 50 percent, and increased governmental authorities in regional and remote areas of Colombia.

The current Afghan government also lacks full authority and presence on its remote villages and strategic regions.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (CIGAR) 2018 report shows that Taliban has full control over 12 percent of Afghanistan remote villages and districts (73 districts out of total 407) and influence over 73 districts, roughly 23 percent of the total Afghanistan population.

While the losses of remote villages and districts in the hand of Taliban became common under Hamid Karzai’s presidency, the fall of strategic regions and bigger provinces became a new normal under CEO Abdullah and president Ghani’s unity government.

It is therefore very important for Kabul administration to expand its police presence and government authorities at remote villages and regional strategic areas in order to destabilise the Taliban bases.

According to Santos, once the military forces captured a remote region from the enemy, they must remain there during the course of peace process, otherwise the insurgent groups will re-emerge in the area and bring more atrocities.

Second lesson: start peace talks from the position of strength

In 2010, Uribe’s defence minister Juan Santos elected as Colombia’s new president to start peace talks with the FARC from the position of power.

The new president continued to target FARC’s high-ranked members, increased restriction on foreign support to FARC, diplomatically isolated FARC in the region and international arena, and began the peace talks with a pre-condition: that FARC has to release all hostages prior to the negotiation.

The first secret meeting between the FARC and Colombian government was held at Colombia-Venezuela border in March 2011. By September 2012, after dozens of exploratory meetings, a general agreement was made to bring an end to their conflicts, including “definite ceasefire” and surrender of weapons.

In contrary, president Ghani’s peace offer to the Taliban is from a position of weakness. In February 2018, president Ashraf Ghani offered a ceasefire, prisoner release and recognition of Taliban as a legitimate political party with no pre-condition and backing force.

Therefore, the Taliban leaders did not show any interest to his offer, not only because the offer came from a weak regime who lacks full authority beyond Kabul, also because a weak administration cannot fulfil its peace commitments.

Third lesson: Keep the peace process goal oriented

The Colombian-FARC peace process continued despite the occurrence of many catastrophic incidents during the process. These incidents included the targeting of FARC leadership and high-ranked commanders, continuous assassinations of government officials and police and day-to-day bomb blasts throughout the country.

But the Colombian peace negotiators succeeded to come out of all previous understandings and decided not to bring war into the negotiating table. Both parties decided to not allow the events of conflicts to affect the peace talks. They agreed to keep the process goal oriented.

Unfortunately, the Afghan peace process has been interrupted dozens of times in the last 15 years. In many occasions, events such as the arrest or targeting of Taliban’s high-ranked members, the killing of government high-ranked officials and other major bomb blasts resulted to suspension of peace process, either by Afghan government or Taliban group.

In 2010, for example, the peace process suspended when the Pakistani ISI arrested Taliban deputy leader Mullah Ghani Barader in Karachi. In 2012, Taliban unilaterally suspended the process by considering the peace dialogue with Kabul as pointless. The assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council in 2011 and the targeting of Taliban leader Akhtar Mansur in 2016 are additional examples that caused interruptions to peace process.

Therefore, it is very important for Afghan government and Taliban group to build trust with each other and keep the peace talks goal oriented.

Fourth lesson: Do not always rely on international cooperation

According to president Santos, international agencies “don’t always act with the same interests”, so it is very important to align the support of international agencies in coordination with the plan and activities of the local government forces.

The presence of the US-NATO forces is one of the main causes of current war in Afghanistan. Taliban is not only considering the US-NATO as foreign invaders, the US-NATO’s ground and air strikes have also brought atrocities to innocent Afghan civilians as well.

Therefore, it is very important to keep checking international cooperation while maintaining their political and economic support during the peace process.

Colombia-FARC final peace agreement

In 2015, after three years of continuous negotiations, president Juan Santos and FARC’s central commander Timoleon Jimenez (Timochenko) met for the first time in Cuba to shake hands with each other and announce the final agreement to be signed in 2016.

As the 2016 plebiscite failed the peace agreement, Colombia and FARC signed a revised agreement in 2017. Once the agreement was passed by the Senate and House of Representatives, FARC also formally brought an end to its existence as an armed group.

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