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Colombia at the tipping point?

Colombia at the tipping point?

By Tom Mahnken

At a time when Afghanistan’s difficulties and Iraq’s fragility grab the headlines, it is worth highlighting the remarkable progress that Colombia has made in combating its long-running narco-terrorist insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Colombia’s success was brought home to me and to a group of leading counterinsurgency experts from across the globe this week at a conference held under the sponsorship of the Colombian Ministry of Defense and U.S. Southern Command in Bogota.

It was not long ago that the FARC controlled large swathes of Colombian territory. Within these safe havens, the narco-terrorists established parallel political and economic institutions and forced the local population to grow coca that the FARC used to fund its activities. From these safe havens, the FARC launched waves of kidnapping, murder, and terror, which grew to threaten Bogota itself.

In recent years, through the competent application of counterinsurgency best practices, the Colombian government — indeed, the Colombian people — have been able to turn the tide against the FARC. The Colombian experience deserves treatment at greater length than I can offer here, but its main features include:

  • The development and implementation of a comprehensive strategy, the Policy for the Consolidation of Democratic Security, for defeating the FARC and other terrorist groups.
  • The personal leadership and involvement of President Alvaro Uribe, as well as the formation of an interagency integration group run out of his office to implement the strategy.
  • The professionalization of the Colombian armed forces and the development of specialized counterinsurgency units, such as Joint Task Force Omega and its Rapid Deployment Force.
  • The mobilization of popular support against the FARC, demonstrated most concretely on February 4, 2008, when around five million Colombians took to the streets in a public rally (organized using Facebook) against the FARC.

The results of this approach have been striking. Through a series of precisely targeted operations, the Colombian military has killed or captured a large portion of the FARC’s leadership. It has also brought to justice large numbers of drug traffickers and members of the right-wing paramilitaries that grew up, often with a wink and a nod from the government, to combat the FARC. On July 2, 2008, the Colombian military launched Operation Jaque, a sophisticated effort that rescued hostages, including three Americans, that the FARC had been holding for between five and ten years.

More impressive than operations to kill or capture FARC leaders have been efforts to get insurgents to demobilize and rejoin Colombian society. The fact that progressively more, and more experienced, insurgents are laying down their arms is perhaps the most compelling measure of the success of this approach.

It is trite but true to observe that military efforts form but a small part of a successful counterinsurgency strategy. Colombia’s approach is notable for its commitment to following up military operations to clear FARC-held territory with dedicated social and economic development measures. Visitors to the La Macarena region in the southeast part of Colombia can now see efforts to reintegrate — actually, to integrate for the first time — whole swaths of Colombia into the life of the nation.

President Uribe speaks passionately and articulately of the need for the Colombian state to build just, democratic institutions throughout its territory and to recover the monopoly of force and justice within its borders. Along those lines, it is notable that his government has waged counterinsurgency without seeking or receiving extraordinary legal powers.

Colombia deserves the credit for its success against the FARC, but U.S. assistance played an important, though supporting, role. U.S. efforts to assist Colombia (and the Philippines) thus deserve scrutiny as examples of the indirect approach to counterinsurgency. In some instances, the U.S. military may have to intervene directly to eliminate terrorists. More often, however, it will support local partners as they seek to defeat insurgents on their own territory. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in the 2008 National Defense Strategy, "arguably the most important military component of the struggle against violent extremists is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we help prepare our partners to defend and govern themselves". 

One hears among the Colombian military much talk of "victory" and "irreversibility", but these remain goals rather than reality. Military success is not the same thing as final victory. Successful counterinsurgency requires patient, dedicated effort over years and decades. And as Carl von Clausewitz wrote two centuries ago, "in war, the results are seldom final." 

The FARC has demonstrated throughout its life that it is an adaptive foe.  Moreover, democracies have all too often demonstrated the tendency to take their eye off the ball when things appear to be going well. The United States could choose to be a fickle partner, reducing its assistance in a short-sighted move to economize rather than reinforcing success. 

If Colombia has yet to achieve final victory over the FARC, one suspects that it has reached the tipping point. But just as importantly, in an integrated, whole-of-government approach to counterinsurgency, it appears to have developed the formula that will bring eventual victory.