Insights from Colombia's "Prolonged
Colombia is the second oldest democracy in
the Western Hemisphere after the United States, but political violence
has plagued its history since independence. The causes lie in the
unique geography, demographics, and history of the nation.
Since the end of World War II, Colombian violence
has been dominated by insurgencies. Though the insurgents have used
terror, that has only been one of the tactics employed in pursuit
of their larger aims.
Colombia faced fairly small insurgencies before
the 1980s. At that point, unable to mobilize popular support, the
insurgents began funding their revolutions through criminal enterprises
such as drug trafficking, extortion, and kidnapping. These activities
proved lucrative beyond all expectations. As a consequence, the
insurgents began to ignore popular mobilization completely, relying
increasingly on terror to force the people to obey their will.
The combination of these factors led one of
the insurgent groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC), to develop
a strategy to take power- with several distinct phases and a number
of supporting tasks to be accomplished within each phase. The war
grew worse year after year, despite increases in defense spending
and growth of the public security forces. It was only after the
military understood the insurgent strategy and designed its own
strategy to defeat this plan that the war began to turn in the government's
In the end, then, no matter what the enemy
is called-insurgent, terrorist, narcotrafficker, or narcoterrorist-successful
counterinsurgency depends on a thorough understanding of the enemy
and his real intentions. The government's response must be shaped
by this understanding.
Early lessons learned
To counter insurgents, one must remember that
they have doctrine. When captured, they have often been carrying
the works of Mao Tse-Tung and Truong Chinh (the Vietnamese theorist
of people's war) translated into Spanish.
These insurgents were Colombians, fellow citizens,
a point that should never be forgotten in internal war. After their
capture, they were induced to discuss the process by which they
became insurgents. Several points emerged:
• All internal wars have their deepest
roots in grievances and aspirations that create a pool of individuals
who can be recruited, after which the organization takes extraordinary
measures to shape their worldview and keep them in the organization.
• Thus, leaders of a subversive group
are the most dangerous members. Followers may be dangerous tactically,
but leaders read, find ideology, and come up with "big picture"
solutions to the ills of society. They will then commit any crime
tactically to gain their strategic end.
• Insurgents have organization, which
helps them develop plans and approaches, much like the military.
They have procedures and rules. They attend schools and strive to
learn. They have a set of core beliefs, which one can combat once
he understands them.
• Combating insurgent beliefs is not
simply a military task; it is a struggle for legitimacy. If all
members of a society accept that the government is just, none will
allow themselves to be won over by insurgents. So all elements of
national power must be mobilized, and all parties must participate
in the battle for the survival and prosperity of society.
Colombia's Internal War
There have been three main illegal armed actors
in Colombia in recent history. FARC emerged by the mid-1980s as
the primary threat to the state. Marxist-Leninist in its ideology,
funded by criminal activity, and manned by combatants recruited
from the margins of society, it has followed people's war doctrine
for waging its struggle. The organization has a precise strategy
for taking national power, which it follows to this day.
FARC's rival, the National Liberation Army
(Eje_rcito de Liberacio_n Nacional, or ELN), also developed a strategy
and was ascendant in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it was
never able to achieve the cohesion, power, and strength of FARC.
Due to subsequent military losses and waning of political support,
the power of ELN was much diminished.
Finally, the vast areas of ungoverned territory
in Colombia and the terror actions of FARC and ELN generated public
mobilization against them in self-defense autodefensas (often called
"paramilitaries" by the media, which is not the best translation).
These groups gained power through an alliance with drug trafficking
organizations that did not like being taxed by the guerrillas. By
1996, many of these organizations merged to form the United Autodefensas
of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC). These combined
forces grew quickly, became as strong as FARC, and perpetrated a
dirty war against the insurgents, fighting terror with terror.
In addition to these three main threats were
a number of minor groups and the drug traffickers. The resources
and ambition of the Medellin and Cali cartels made them national
threats because they fielded armies of their own, carried out acts
of terror and violence, and had varying relationships with FARC,
ELN, and AUC. The threat these groups posed eclipsed that of the
three enemies mentioned above through much of the 1980s until the
death of Pablo Escobar and the arrest of the leadership of the Cali
cartel in 1993.
Meanwhile, FARC had been steadily building
its power. In 1996, things became critical as the organization transitioned
from guerrilla war to mobile war-what the Vietnamese defined as
main force warfare- while the Colombian army remained in a counterguerrilla
posture. Mobile war employs large units to fight government forces
but, unlike conventional war, does not seek to defend positions.
While the army had spread its forces to conduct
saturation patrols to fight small bands, FARC now operated in large
columns, complete with crew-served weapons and artillery (improvised
gas tank mortars). Predictably, the result was a series of engagements
in which FARC surrounded and annihilated isolated army units. It
was only when the military recognized that FARC was employing mobile
warfare techniques as practiced in Vietnam and El Salvador that
measures were taken to stabilize the situation. Three important
lessons emerged from these realizations:
• The Western concept of a continuum
with "war" on one end and "other than war" on
the other was irrelevant. The enemy did not conceptualize war that
way. There was only war, with different combinations of the forms
of struggle depending on the circumstances.
• Military forces had been so focused
on the contingencies of the moment, especially the drug war and
the actions of the Movimiento de Abril 19 (M-19), that they failed
to see the larger strategic picture. This left the military open
to strategic surprise when main force units (guerrilla columns in
battalion or larger strength) appeared, operating in combination
with terror and guerrilla warfare, much as Western armies use combinations
of regular operations and special operations.
• There was a disconnect between the
political establishment and the military. The political establishment
regarded the problem as solely one of violence: the insurgents were
using violence, so the violence of the security forces had to be
deployed against them. Moreover, the war was the problem of the
military, not of the political establishment. There was no concept
of a multifaceted, integrated response by the state.
The learning curve was steep, and as the military
was regaining its balance, it suffered a series of reverses, one
of which can be compared to Custer's Last Stand at the Little Bighorn
in circumstances and casualties. In March 1998, at El Billar in
southern Caqueta_, the FARC annihilated an elite army unit, the
52d Counterguerrilla Battalion of the army's 3d Mobile Brigade.
By the time reinforcements could land on March 4, the battalion
had been destroyed as an effective fighting force, with a loss of
107 of its 154 men.
Regaining Strategic Initiative
Ironically, it was when Andres Pastrana assumed
office that regaining strategic initiative began. The irony lay
in the fact that President Pastrana was elected on a peace platform.
Recognizing that the conflict was political, he opened peace negotiations
with FARC and attempted similar discussions with ELN to end the
violence. This included ceding a demilitarized zone (DMZ) twice
the size of El Salvador to FARC in which the negotiations could
take place free of conflict.
At FARC's insistence, however, there was no
ceasefire outside the DMZ. While Pastrana took on the political
responsibility of negotiating peace with FARC, he left the conduct
of the war outside the zone to the military. The negotiations were
critical because they demonstrated conclusively that FARC was not
really interested in ending the violence, but rather in using the
peace process to advance its revolutionary agenda. This bad faith
on the part of the rebels opened the door for a more aggressive
approach, which, in turn, helped the military to regain the strategic
The success of this effort was due both to
new leadership and a new method. The chain of command that was set
in place in December 1998 remained throughout the Pastrana administration:
General Fernando Tapias as joint force commander and General Jorge
Mora as army commander. General Tapias was able to interact with
the political establishment and represent military interests to
the civilian leadership while General Mora was a good military leader,
mobilizing the army to make the necessary internal reforms to regain
In eastern and southern Colombia, IV Division
faced FARC's strongest operational unit, called the Eastern Bloc,
which had inflicted the worst defeats on the military, and it abutted
the DMZ on two sides. FARC was using the DMZ to mass its main force
units for new offensives.
Instead of negotiating peace, FARC launched
five major offensives out of the DMZ, some even employing homemade
but formidable armor. Assessing the success of IV Division against
these attacks, the following factors are prominent:
• The division operated as a part of
a reinvigorated and reorganized military. There was scarcely an
element that was not reformed and improved, and the division worked
closely with true professionals.
• The enemy's strengths and weaknesses
were assessed correctly, but especially their strategy, operations,
and tactics. That meant operations took place within a correct strategy.
There was great pressure, especially from the
American allies, to focus on narcotics as the center of gravity,
but the real strategic center of gravity was legitimacy.
FARC had three operational centers of gravity:
its units, territorial domination, and funding. The first is self-explanatory.
The second resulted from the government's traditional neglect and
abandonment of large rural swaths. The final one resulted from FARC's
perversion of people's war. The organization had little popular
support, so attacking its bases, mobility corridors, and units had
the same impact as in major combat. Finally, FARC's domination of
the narcotics industry was possible due to its control of large
areas of rural space.
Thus, to elevate counternarcotics to the main
strategic effort would have been a critical mistake-one that was
never made. Despite this success story, however, neither the personnel
nor the resources were available to provide security for the populace.
A variety of techniques were used, such as offensives to clear out
areas, then rotating units constantly in and out of the reclaimed
locations, but these were poor substitutes for permanent, long-term
presence. That had to wait for the next administration.
An Integrated National Approach
When Colombia's next president, Alvaro Uribe,
took office, the missing pieces fell into place. Strategically,
a national plan, "Democratic Security," was formulated,
which made security of the individual the foundation. This plan
involved all components of the state and used the public forces,
under Plan Patriot (Plan Patriota), as the security element for
a democratic society. Legitimacy was a given, but the population
needed to be mobilized, and that was the central element of what
took place operationally. The people were involved in better governance
and in "neighborhood watch," and a portion of the annual
draft was ultimately allocated to local forces.
A revived economy provided funding for additional
strike and specialized units as well as a substantial increase in
manpower (Plan Choque). Volunteer manpower was greatly augmented
and became a third of total army strength (which now exceeds 200,000).
The changes were relentless and extensive.
During this period, the public forces worked
closely with civilian authorities in a national approach to national
problems. Contrary to the inaccurate and vindictive criticisms leveled
against the armed forces in some quarters, Colombia's military did
not violate its oath to serve democracy during the era of military
rule in Latin America.
It is noteworthy that there has been only one
poll in recent years that has not identified the military as the
most respected institution in the country, and the single exception
placed it second. That says a great deal about its relationship
with the Colombian people. Still the military has worked hard to
improve its already good record on human rights and its respect
for international humanitarian law. At times the criticisms from
international organizations are truly astonishing. Colombian military
personnel are subject to law in much the same way as their U.S.
counterparts, and this is critical in the war against bandits.
The military's goal during the Pastrana administration
(1998-2002) was to regain the strategic initiative. It did so by
attacking enemy strategy, operations, and tactics. The goal during
the Uribe administration (2002-2006, with perhaps a second to follow)
was to move to the strategic offensive by strengthening normal pacification
activities throughout the country, using local forces and specialized
units to reincorporate areas. In addition, the military employed
joint task forces to attack FARC strategic base areas, as was done
in Operations Libertad 1 around Bogota and Omega in Caqueta_, the
latter designed to eliminate the "strategic rearguard"
FARC used to launch its main forces.
The results so far are that FARC can no longer
function in large units, so it must engage in operations similar
to what the United States faces in Iraq. Improvised explosive devices
are the major cause of casualties. While these devices kill and
mutilate, the focus on them is evidence of FARC strategic and operational
Both ELN and AUC have been addressed principally
through negotiations. Demobilization has its own difficulties and
critics, but it is preferable to combat operations. Even some FARC
units have begun to surrender, although the organization has resisted
this trend and is determined to use terror and guerrilla warfare
in an effort to repeat the cycle of past years.
Yet the ground has shifted beneath FARC's feet.
Minefields and murder can disrupt life in local areas, but the relentless
maturation of the democratic state makes the rebels' defeat inevitable
if things continue as they are going. Mobilization of the eyes and
ears of the neighborhood watch, linked to local forces, area domination
forces, and strike forces, all within a grid of specialized forces
and the actions of a democratic state, guarantees that FARC combatants
will eventually be found and invited to return to their place within
FARC's massive resources from the drug trade
and increasing reliance on external bases slow progress in our campaign
because they allow an insurgency to engage in antipopular conduct,
to include use of terror, and not suffer the same consequences that
would result if a mass base was essential. Hence, light should not
be sought at the end of the tunnel too soon. Instead, Colombian
metrics will be similar to U.S. metrics in the war on terror-measures
of the perception that citizens are secure, the economy prospers,
and society allows the fulfillment of individual desires.
In Colombia, every indicator that can be measured
is proceeding in a positive direction, from the decline in murder
and kidnapping rates, to the growth of the economy and freedom of
movement. These factors can be quantified, but there is no way to
tell when a magic line is crossed where one less murder suddenly
makes all the difference in the way Colombians see their country.
What is known is that the citizens will show their feelings through
the ballot. That is why the military defends and serves a democratic
state, and that is as it should ever be.
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