Colombia is facing a key challenge familiar to many countries attempting to transition out of armed conflict: conducting peace negotiations while armies are still on the battlefield. With the FARC rebel group’s recent violation of its self-imposed ceasefire that resulted in the killing of 11 Colombian army soldiers, the peace talks have had a bumpy couple of months. But despite what some have argued, the sky is not falling. The talks are best understood as an elaborate political kabuki dance, high on posturing and symbolism, and regularly featuring both setbacks and shows of good faith. Though negotiators are walking a dangerous tightrope, the peace process has proven robust so far. So despite several mishaps (including another battle at the end of April), the progress to date and the underlying structure of the conflict are still forcing the parties toward a deal.
True, recent incidents in Colombia have been unnerving. Although the FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire over Christmas that was partially reciprocated by the Colombian government’s temporary halt to airstrikes, it was broken when the 11 army soldiers on patrol were attacked and killed by a FARC unit on April 15. This tragic incident and previous skirmishes are compounded by a deeper mistrust built up over a conflict that has lasted over fifty years and claimed over 220,000 victims. Colombians can’t be blamed for their suspicion, and the government’s reluctance to commit to a bilateral ceasefire was reinforced by the testy Caguan negotiations from 1999-2002. During that effort, the FARC took numerous towns, massed on the edge of Bogotá, and even shelled President Álvaro Uribe’s inauguration ceremony. The words “Colombia” and “failed state” often appeared in the same sentence. It is therefore understandable why some might believe the talks to be at risk today, and why the U.S. envoy to the talks, Bernard Aronson, admonished the FARC to “show they are serious.” But what many observers have missed is that the conditions in Colombia today are different.
There are several reasons why the peace process remains strong. The talks have already made historic progress and the FARC has made many shows of good faith: it has given up on its call to institute a socialist state, admitted responsibility for its role in the conflict, listened to victims and asked them for forgiveness, aided with removing land mines, and ceased kidnapping and recruiting of child soldiers. Important sub-agreements have been reached on land reform, political participation, and the drug trade.
The posturing of the armies on the battlefield is also better viewed as a “tremble” rather than as a sign of an impending collapse of negotiations. Game theorists invoke the concept of the “trembling hand” to represent a player’s mistake or an accident that sends the game toward deeper conflict. In one recent such “tremble,” a FARC front commander attacked energy towers because news of a cease-fire was delayed in reaching him. Nevertheless, the process has proven robust in the face of such trembles — including previous attacks by both sides. Negotiations have continued to progress and FARC negotiators have been helpful and responsive in mitigating flare-ups of conflict. Case in point: the mysterious capture of General Alzate by the FARC in the western department of Chocó in November of last year (when he ventured into a FARC-controlled village) was successfully resolved through his timely release. Even after the latest fatal skirmish, which some accounts suggest was accidental, the FARC has recommitted to a ceasefire.
Perhaps most importantly, the structure and incentives underlying these talks are different from those that prevailed during the previous talks in Caguan. The alternative of resuming fighting remains far less desirable for both sides than a negotiated agreement. The FARC is weak and still prefers a deal, which is why they are still at the table, have begun to implement policy changes and pressed hard for a ceasefire.
The government also has much to gain and little to lose by continuing to negotiate. It has proven difficult to finish off the FARC militarily, given its places of refuge in the jungle and in the mountains. A political agreement would be much neater than trying to hunt down every last rebel. There is also the worry that if the FARC is defeated militarily, it may splinter into criminal bands. So far, the FARC is also not using the talks to mask a massive remobilization, as it did during the Caguan talks. And although the Colombian government was burned by this remobilization, it will be much harder to fool this time around. The FARC is far weaker today: its force strength has dropped from around 18,000 to 7,000 troops. The Colombian military is also much stronger as a result of Plan Colombia assistance and other training and procurement programs. If the FARC engages in militancy or if negotiations break down, the government will not have sacrificed its position and the military would be able to continue pressing an offensive that has proven effective at pushing the FARC onto their heels.
This doesn’t mean there are no threats to the stability of the talks. There are. Perhaps the biggest risk factor is the armies that remain on the battlefield, which can lead to accidents and clashes. A security dilemma persists in which neither actor can simply sit still and allow themselves to be vulnerable, and both sides still have constituents they must appease and missions to achieve. The FARC must still hide its camps, evade the army, and fund itself. It has shown greater restraint in offensive operations against the military and police, but has also bombed oil pipelines. The conflict has also continued to displace civilians. Further, the FARC Central Secretariat and negotiators in Havana may also have uncertain control over some parts of the battlefield, particularly fronts in southern and western Colombia that are more closely linked to the drug trade.
The government is also responsible for squandering trust during the talks. Earlier this year, President Juan Manuel Santos invoked former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin when he said, “We are going to negotiate as if there were no terrorists, and we will fight the terrorists as if there were no negotiations.” Indeed, Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón cannot in good conscience order his troops to sit on their hands and refrain from defending the Colombian people. The military has continued operations, including killing FARC leaders and, in one incident in late 2012, killing over 20 FARC soldiers in southern Colombia. Colombian military intelligence also broke the FARC’s communications encryption, leading to an eavesdropping scandal last year when the military set up an operation in the back of a lunch counter in downtown Bogotá to monitor the peace talks in Havana. If the FARC’s communications cannot be assured, the group may justifiably doubt the government’s willingness to comply with norms of the negotiation, or hold up its end of a final agreement.
The slow pace of talks is also not helping. The process is already in its third year and since reaching three sub-agreements in quick succession, there has been little good news of late. The talks have continued behind closed doors in Cuba as negotiators toil with the most difficult parts of the agenda: justice and punishments for FARC members, reintegration of the guerrillas into Colombian society, and the technical details of the agreement’s final implementation. A lack of recent “wins,” along with bad news from the battlefield, have only fueled skepticism by opponents (such as former President Uribe) and volatile public support.
The loss of civilian lives and soldiers on both sides is tragic. But it is not yet a threat to the peace process, because too much has been invested to endanger the historic progress that has already been achieved. There may be a few more unfortunate trembles yet before a final deal is concluded. But sustained progress in the negotiations, exercising patience and restraint, and enduring international support will help keep both parties at the table. The trembles suggest that rebel spoilers could materialize as a future hazard to a final agreement, but that will only become apparent once success is realized. For the moment, the trembling hands in Colombia appear to be steadied.
In the photo, Colombian soldiers render funeral honors to their comrades killed in a FARC attack on April 16, 2015.
Photo Credit: LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images