Blurring the Lines Between Civilian and Military Life in Colombia and Afghanistan

You may think that Afghanistan and Colombia don’t have much in common. The former, a mostly rural society living in rugged deserts; the latter, a modern society with lush ecosystems and crowded cities. But you may know that these two nations suffer from civil wars fueled by drug trafficking and heavy U.S. involvement. And they now share one more similarity: Uncle Sam wants to use his strategy in Colombia as a template for his approach to the Afghan conflict-an intervention model in which humanitarian, development, and security affairs are blended under the command of military and police forces, further militarizing civilian matters and eventually allowing war to penetrate all civil sectors. In some areas in Colombia, soldiers do the state’s job, acting as doctors, engineers, and even clowns to entertain children.

Indeed, the government of Colombia clearly believes that its strategy for dealing with the nexus of drugs and conflict is applicable to Afghanistan, offering to train Afghan security forces in interdiction measures (1), while prominent U.S and NATO government officials are being shifted around between Latin America and the Middle East (sidebar).

This trend of civilian-military mergers is happening globally: in recent years, the Pentagon has expanded into areas that are traditionally the domain of civilian agencies, stretching traditional concepts of security. Between 2002 and 2005, the share of U.S. global development assistance funneled through the Pentagon budget increased by some $5 billion, from 5.6% to 21.7%. (2) There has, however, not been a corresponding rethink within civilian agencies. (3)

This model follows the failed war on drugs, whose oversized budget has destroyed many farmers’ livelihoods but has not reduced consumption in the wealthier countries.

What implications may this strategy have for Afghans and future U.S. foreign policy?

The Colombian Experience

This strategy is known in Colombia as the Integrated Action Doctrine. Developed by the Colombian Ministry of Defense and US Southern Command around 2003, it seeks to bring civilian government institutions and services into areas recently taken over by military operations. It is funded mainly by USAID and the Colombian government. In theory, it follows a phased strategy that “begins with military operations, moves into quick social and economic-assistance efforts to win the population’s support, and is to end up with the presence of a functioning civilian government and the withdrawal of most military forces” (4).

Integrated Action’s mastermind, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, explains this model as requiring “the aligning of police and military efforts with anti-drug and social, economic, and development efforts” (5) noting that all military and social actions are interdependent field reports, however, note that the military wing of Integrated Action is more heavily funded and has greater decision-making power than civilian agencies.

The most advanced example of Integrated Action is in La Macarena, in central Colombia, a fertile region controlled by guerrillas for decades. In response to army offensives, guerrillas have left town centers, but remain strong in rural areas where they manage drug-trafficking. In La Macarena, military and police personnel provide one-time health services, build road infrastructure, and teach school (6). Part of their rationale in doing so is saving money: shipping low-pay soldiers from elsewhere is less expensive than providing jobs to the locals. Ironically, they also hold anti-recruitment trainings to deter children from joining the guerrillas.

Government officials often use La Macarena as their poster child, but many in the area are not convinced of the strategy. Promises of humanitarian aid for farmers who substitute other crops for coca are not being kept, many are victims of illegal crop spraying, and there have been major delays and corruption in land titling and distribution (7). Murder of civilians by soldiers who are then reported as guerrillas killed in combat continues to occur in La Macarena: In May 2009, members of the army’s 10th Brigade shot Mr Milciades Rivas, then tried to set up a montage to make him appear as guerrilla (8). Furthermore, community leaders complain about the army’s monetary rewards to encourage neighbors to accuse each other of being guerrilla supporters in their rush to show results. And civilian involvement with soldiers and policemen comes with another serious effect: guerrillas accusing people of welcoming the security forces. The result: non-combatants remain caught in this vicious cycle.

Colombia’s national police assert that “the state has come to La Macarena for good (…), and not just with our security force, but with its entire apparatus to bring health, education, and better life conditions to its citizens” (9). However, the social presence of the state seems restricted to quick-impact, high-visibility projects which do not get to the roots of the conflict: unfair land distribution, lack of opportunities for small producers, and political exclusion.

This socio-military program has been further tarnished by a recent discovery of a large mass grave which seems to contain bodies buried since 2004, after the Colombian army gained control of this territory.

Integrated Action has been replicated in six other Colombian areas, including Apartado, in the northwest corner of the country. This region is home to the peace community of San Jose de Apartado, whose members have declared themselves “on strike with the war” by vowing not to take sides or support armed groups. FOR has provided them with international accompaniment and support for eight years.

The interim balance of San Jose’s experience with Integrated Action is not positive. “This is part of a war package,” said Jesus Emilio Tuberquia, a peace community leader. “This amounts to a greater militarization of our territory. And we are very skeptical of the army.” This skepticism is warranted: soldiers have either committed or turned a blind eye to countless murders of San Joseans, the most notorious was a massacre in 2005 for which ten army members are being prosecuted. Currently, says Tuberquia, when brigadiers commit human rights violations, they force the victim to sign a waiver to give up their right defend.

This is not the impression you would get if you got your information only from the US Department of State’s official blog. “In the first Uribe administration, beginning in 2003, the Colombian government adopted a (…) approach to combating insurgency that focused on protecting and providing services to the local populace, and training its own personnel in human rights and the rule of law. As a result, the Colombian military has established significant trust and credibility within the local population, many of whom had until recently been very suspicious of the Colombian military’s methods and motives” (10). If the authors had consulted local sources other than the army and police, it would have been clear to them that the rule of law is not “the rule” in this area. In February, another peace community member named Fabio Manco was assassinated by paramilitaries (11).

Many felt the long awaited winds of change when Mr. Obama took office. But, while Congress has recently reduced its military aid budget to Colombia, US and Colombian officials signed an agreement last year to grant the United States liberal use of seven military bases in Colombia for ten years. For more information on this agreement and what you can do, visit


Colombian and US military officers are eager to implement lessons learned from Colombia in Afghanistan, where this doctrine is known as the Comprehensive Approach. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explains: “applying our learning (in Colombia) to a place like Pakistan and Afghanistan is certainly part of the approach I take in review for this strategy”(12). Colombia’s chancellor Jaime Bermudez shares Mr. Mullen’s enthusiasm. “Colombia was the only Latin-American country to participate in the London Conference on Afghanistan” in January of this year (13).

In Afghanistan, the United States has pledged over $20 billion in security assistance and $11 billion in reconstruction and humanitarian aid during the last seven years (14). The main focus remains military operations – NATO and US have almost 400 military bases in the country (15), more than Afghanistan itself -, followed by agriculture. NATO’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams are the main drivers of reconstruction programs.

Anywhere it is implemented, the main risk with this strategy is its interference with the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants while going against the foundation of humanitarian work: freedom of access, objective diagnoses of the victims’ needs, and independence of humanitarian agencies from governments (16).

Alternative Solution

There are no easy, one-size-fits all solutions to the Colombian and Afghan conflicts. But one major rule for the Integrated Action model to even have any positive effect is for humanitarian aid to NOT be controlled by armed forces. The program must have major civilian oversight and execution to prevent the devastating effects already experienced in Colombia.

In the Colombian movie The Rose Seller, a street kid is asked why he’s barefoot. “Why have shoes if there is no home?” he answered. An analogy to Integrated Action model is, “why have bridges if there is no land to farm?” Quick-impact projects will only temporarily relieve the problem if not accompanied by fair land distribution, economic opportunities for the little guy, and an end to government corruption.

Natalia Fajardo fights for social and environmental justice in Vermont. She holds an Environmental Science degree from UVM. Originally from Colombia, she volunteers for the Mingas-FTA collective.

Sharing strategy: Personnel shifted around between Colombia and Southeast Asia

  • William Wood: U.S ambassador to Colombia, 2003-2007, has been the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan since 2007. Avid supporter of Plan Colombia and its failed illegal crop spraying program, he now pushes its implementation in Afghanistan.
  • Ann Patterson: U.S ambassador to Colombia, 2000-2003, has been the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan since 2007. Also a main promoter of Plan Colombia.
  • Navy Adm. James Stavridis: From 2006-2009 he served as Commander for SOUTHCOM (Army branch responsible for all US military activities in Latin America), he is now in the chain of command for NATO´s presence in Afghanistan
  • In January 2010 Colombian officials announced they would send military personnel to Afghanistan to “support de-mining, insurgent demobilization, and troop training”, among others.
  • In February 2007 a contingent of five members of the anti-drug police in Afghanistan received training by the Colombian police.
  • In March 2007 two Colombian policemen were trained in Kabul by the Afghan anti-drug police.



2. Stewart Patrick and Kaysie Brown, “The Pentagon and Global Development: Making Sense of the DoD’s Expanding Role”, Center for Global Development, November 2007, p. 1.


4. After Plan Colombia: Evaluating “Integrated Action”, the next phase of US assistance. Download at


6. commission eclecial justicia y paz

7. After Plan Colombia: Evaluating “Integrated Action”, the next phase of US assistance. Download at

8. CINEP’s Human Rights and Political Violence Database

9. Revista Policia Nacional de Colombia, primera edicion, año 2006 no. 266. articulo El Estado llego a la Macarena para quedarse, por ex MinDefensa Camilo Ospina Bernal,pagina 9





14. Quarterly Report to the United States Congress”, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, First Report, 30 October 2008, p. 21 (Table 3).