The lessons of counterinsurgency and nation-building in Colombia can also apply to the Arab world.
A 50-year ideological struggle, hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced, mass graves, murder, rape, torture, a virulent insurgency threatening the overthrow of the entire social order, a rebel enclave carved out of the heart of a big nation. It sounds a lot like the Middle East today, but the grim tale of the tape also applies to the beautiful Andean nation of Colombia over the past half-century.
Today, however, there is enormous progress in Colombia. And it’s worth pausing, if not to celebrate these accomplishments quite yet, then at least to consider the lessons we might apply as we grapple with seemingly intractable problems across the Arab world.
First, the good news: Colombia has made unprecedented strides over the past decade. The strength of the major insurgency group, the FARC, has been halved between 2002 and 2010, from 16,000 fighters down to 8,000. Between 2002 and 2012, the murder rate dropped from 70 deaths per 100,000 people to 31 per 100,000. Kidnappings have dropped by more than 90 percent since 2002. And there are other successes to crow over: There are ongoing peace talks for a lasting settlement between the government and the FARC; the country has re-elected President Juan Manuel Santos on a platform of conflict resolution; trade and the GDP are up; Medellín, the nation’s second-largest city, is lauded as the "most innovative city in the world"; and Colombia is popping up on tourist "top 10" lists everywhere. The country even made the final round at the World Cup.
Obviously, there are big challenges ahead — concluding a negotiated settlement with the FARC; stemming the production and export of cocaine; reducing corruption; and enforcing human rights — but Colombia is clearly not the basket case it was a decade ago, as was heartbreakingly recounted in a Canadian diplomat’s memoir, The Saddest Country.
Clearly, something has changed over the past decade. Could what has worked in Colombia be applicable in the turbulent Middle East, or for that matter in other conflict-ridden areas of the world, including parts of Africa and Asia?
Here are some key takeaways that provide lessons for places elsewhere around the globe:
Outside assistance, especially from the United States, can help. While Colombia’s success is overwhelmingly attributable to the vigor and determination of the Colombian people, the international community has been helpful. For example, the $7 billion U.S.-Colombian program "Plan Colombia" provided a relatively modest but important level of financial aid, hundreds of military advisors, military assistance, human rights training, counternarcotics assistance, and advice on the justice system and rule of law. European partners, via the work of the European Commission, also provided over €600 million worth of assistance.
Interagency cooperation is key. There are no purely military solutions to pulling a nation or region out of the death spiral of violent extremism. We cannot kill our way to success. This means that all the branches of government — both within Colombia and in the larger international community — had to work together to achieve real progress. In Plan Colombia, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the Agency for International Development, the Department of State, the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Agriculture, and the Drug Enforcement Administration all had parts to play. "What made Plan Colombia interesting and different was that, while it was set up as an interagency project, its leadership was lodged in the Department of State," notes Thomas Pickering, former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs.
Private-public partnerships are vital. So often the youth of a region take to the streets and fall under the sway of violent messages because there are very few real alternatives. The creation of jobs provides hope, especially in a conflict region. The private sector must be encouraged to take risks through incentives and subsidies, both domestically and through the international community. The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect on May 15, 2012, does this by lowering tariffs and duties between the two nations, thus increasing profit margins on both sides. Many major companies from both the United States and Europe (and increasingly Asia) are arriving to participate in an economy that is rapidly expanding as a result of lower violence, greater political stability, and the effects of the FTA.
Get the message right. Strategic communications are critical, and can be encouraged both through technical assistance to harness social networks and through advice on how to shape the fundamental narrative. The message was that the people of Colombia had to take control of the destiny of their country, which is the essential heart of a successful counterinsurgency campaign. In Colombia, a grassroots strategic communications campaign was built over several years, culminating in a series of multimillion-person marches, with the message of taking their nation back from violence and chaos. Building this message of pulling together to defeat an insurgency and bringing it to life is crucial.
Technology matters. Certain key technologies are very helpful in countering violent extremism, as well as the related challenges of illicit trafficking and illegal migration. Access to high-tech surveillance satellites, signals intelligence through phone and radio intercepts, infrared satellite access to show jungle camps, significant numbers of air-delivered precision-guided weapons, advanced night-vision devices, and portable logistic support (generators, vehicles, light aircraft) all come to mind in the Colombian case. These enablers may be less glamorous than pure hard power, but they can be critical.
Take on corruption as a priority. In Colombia, frustration with inequality and corruption created the spark that set off larger anti-government movements such as the FARC. To be legitimate in the eyes of the people, governance has to be evenhanded, relatively transparent, oriented toward human rights, and free of corruption. The work done in Colombia by anti-corruption task forces coached by U.S. interagency teams from the Department of Justice, FBI, and DEA, for example, had an effect. Over the past few years, the apprehension, prosecution, and conviction of military members for reporting "false guerrillas" in order to cover up extrajudicial killings also showed the public that officials would be held accountable.
Success depends on the people. Even if the international community does everything above perfectly, will Iraq right itself? Will Syria suddenly stabilize? No. It will ultimately depend on the will of the people of the Arab world — or any other nation or region — to wrench their society back from the destructive influence of violent extremism. But we can certainly help — with financial, political, educational, developmental, and limited military support, much as we did in Colombia — and we should, despite the intense frustration.
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It is interesting to note that the expressions in both Arabic and Spanish for "Hopefully it will happen, if God wills it," are very close linguistically: inshallah and ojalá, respectively. This is the result of the merger of the two cultures on the Iberian Peninsula in the days of the Umayyad Caliphate, when the languages bled into each other and the Arab world was at its peak of global influence. Perhaps it’s time for a new merger, where the good results we can celebrate in Colombia can provide ideas and approaches for the bitter struggles of the Arab world.