- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Major Michael L. Burgoyne, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist
In this time of fiscal austerity, continued support for Colombia is both a necessity to allow Colombia to secure its country and an investment in a valuable partner.
Given recent positive trends, it is easy for some to erroneously assume that U.S. support to Colombia is no longer required. On October 18, 2012, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government initiated formal peace talks in the hope of ending a five decade internal conflict. Unlike previous efforts however, the FARC finds itself in a difficult negotiating position. During the last attempted negotiation, the FARC boasted some 20,000 fighters and was threatening the capital. After a decade of successful security policies, the FARC’s numbers have been cut in half and the group has been reduced to guerrilla activities. Colombia’s focus on "democratic security" has facilitated healthy growth in the Colombian economy and direct foreign investment. Colombian GDP has averaged 4.45 percent growth, resulting in an increase of $233 billion over the last decade. In addition, the government has signed free trade agreements with the United States, the European Union, and Canada. Perhaps most importantly, virtually every measure of citizen security has improved: kidnappings have declined 89 percent, homicides have been reduced by 49 percent, and there has been a 66 percent reduction in terrorist attacks.
Since the inception of Plan Colombia in 2000, the United States has supported Colombia with training, equipment, and security assistance. To date some $9 billion has been focused on supporting Colombian counter-drug and internal security efforts. Although this support seems costly, in fact, it is a very small price tag compared to large-scale deployments to conduct security force assistance and foreign internal defense in Iraq and Afghanistan. The consistent support for Colombia, however, is now beginning to dissipate. The 2013 budget from the White House lays out a 15 percent reduction in military and narcotics aid to Colombia.
When evaluating security cooperation with Colombia, it is imperative to remember the following key points:
1. The war is not over. Despite the deserved praise of Colombian and U.S. efforts, the Colombians are still in the fight. Last year, 243 Colombian soldiers were killed and 821 were wounded. The FARC has been cut in half but still numbers 8,000 combatants. The FARC is also not the only threat facing Colombia. The National Liberation Army (ELN), another insurgent group, maintains some 2,000 guerrillas. Most importantly, the lucrative cocaine trade will not disappear with the FARC. A dedicated effort to control the growth of criminal bands (BACRIM) will be necessary to prevent Zeta-like groups from rising from the ashes of Colombian political insurgency.
2. The Colombians initiated an innovative new counterinsurgency strategy, creating joint task forces specifically designed to destroy the FARC system. The design methodology and outcomes of this initiative may prove critical as an example for other partner nations facing criminal groups. This is a worthwhile effort that the United States is trying to support, but it is very challenging given current Colombian resources.
3. The U.S. effort through Plan Colombia and the Colombian Strategic Development Initiative has not necessarily created lasting institutions that can sustain organizations once U.S. support is removed. For decades, the Colombian military has been understandably focused on current combat operations, often at the expense of building institutions. The Colombian Army’s doctrine and education systems, as well as its personnel and logistics systems, require substantial improvement to ensure that, when budgets shrink due to continued success against the FARC, the military will retain its hard-won institutional knowledge.
4. Colombia has been a reliable and extremely valuable regional security partner. Most recently, Colombia (for the second time) participated in the multinational operational exercise PANAMAX as the Combined Forces Land Component Command. They performed exceptionally well, leading a joint multinational staff and working with their U.S. counterparts. The Colombian Army is composed of battle hardened veterans with a strong understanding of U.S. doctrine and systems. Their leaders and soldiers have an unsurpassed knowledge of counterinsurgency and transnational organized crime groups. They are arguably the most capable army in the region. Once the Colombian internal threat is under control it can be expected that the Colombian role as a regional and global security exporter will increase.
The United States has made a very wise investment in Colombia. Continued U.S. support will enable Colombia to consolidate control of the country in the coming years and allow them to take on a broader regional security role. If the United States drastically cuts support to Colombian security efforts, this would be akin to spiking the ball on the one yard line and could delay Colombian consolidation for several years.
Colombia, in many ways, is a test of the light-footprint, long-duration approach to counterinsurgency. David Galula warns that in the final phase of a counterinsurgency "the main difficulty is a psychological one and it originates in the counterinsurgent’s own camp. Responsible people will question why it is necessary to make such an effort at this stage, when everything seems to be going so well." It remains to be seen if the United States can display strategic patience and follow through on its investment in Colombia.
Major Michael L. Burgoyne, a U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer, currently serves as the Andean Ridge Desk Officer at U.S. Army South. He holds an M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University and co-authored The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.