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A Colombian experiment in nation building

An effort to combat drugs and rebels could be a model for the US in Afghanistan.

VISTA HERMOSA, Colombia — The rows of white containers on the edge of this Colombian farm town bring to mind FEMA housing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

But rather than a botched response to disaster, these trailers signal Colombia’s commitment to an experiment in nation building that is providing insight for American planners in Afghanistan.

Located inside an army base on the edge of the Macarena mountain range in southern Colombia, the so-called Fusion Center brings together Colombian government agencies, local politicians, police and army troops as well as U.S. military and development experts. They have been tasked with pushing Marxist rebels out of the zone, eradicating the drug crops that finance the insurgents, and building roads, schools and clinics to win over a hostile local population.

It’s a formidable task. But after two-and-a-half years, the U.S.-backed pilot program — known as the Macarena Consolidation Plan — is showing some encouraging signs.

According to United Nations figures, the amount of land planted with coca — the raw material for cocaine — has been reduced by about 75 percent in the six targeted townships.

In its place, crops of corn, rice and sugar cane are taking hold. Some areas are still hot zones, but security has improved to the point where local mayors no longer have to administer their towns from the safety of Bogota or the provincial capital.

“This is cutting edge,” said Susan Reichle, the director in Colombia of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.

While U.S. officials have considered similar designs for Afghanistan — where the booming heroin trade provides millions of dollars for Taliban insurgents — “what’s interesting about Colombia is that they’re actually doing it,” Reichle said. “And they’re doing a really good job.”

Meticulous coordination of military maneuvers with drug eradication and humanitarian aid projects may seem more like common sense than some radical new doctrine.

But turf wars can paralyze government action. International donors sometimes restrict how their assistance can be used. Armies, police departments and anti-drug agencies are often rife with corruption and sometimes work at cross purposes.

“People who do counter-narcotics take drug eradication as their metric of success, while people who do counterinsurgency say: ‘Don’t touch those poppy or coca fields because that will turn the population against us,’” said Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia’s deputy defense minister and an architect of the Macarena Consolidation Plan.