The Best Defense

Colombia's neglected success story

Here's a report from my friend and CNAS colleague Bob Killebrew, who has been hanging out in Colombia. It sounds like the we could learn a thing or two from the Colombian government. 

By Col. Robert Killebrew (U.S. Army, ret.)
Best Defense Bogota bureau chief

That the United States has had to painfully re-learn the lessons of counterinsurgency is by now a staple of strategic culture; the story of Gen. David Petraeus and our new counterinsurgency manual is well known even in places that wouldn't know a guerrilla from a traffic cop. 

What we don't yet fully understand is that the nature of insurgency itself is changing. In a sense, Iraq and Afghanistan are only the beginnings -- call them "insurgency 101" -- of a dialectical change in warfare that is locating crime, terrorism and insurgency in a shifting network of state and nonstate actors that will make fighting "insurgents," or drug cartels, or violent gangs, much harder for status quo states like the United States. In the hemispheric-wide narco-war that now covers North and South America, the Mexican drug cartels and their fellow travelers - including the Venezuelan government and their Iranian allies -- the only success story so far is Colombia, and some of their lessons are worth considering.   

First, context. Colombia had had a rocky time in the 20th century with its military establishment. By the late 1970s, the military existed virtually outside the government as part of a compromise deal to keep the generals happy and the politicians away from security issues.  As a result, when the Marxist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) began to make inroads in the 1980s, military action was divorced from the political life of the country, and though the military was fighting a war against the FARC, it was losing because the fighting had no political context. So a painful lesson the Colombians had to learn was to bring the military into a political relationship with the rest of the government, and for the government -- not just the generals -- to take ownership of the war.  

About that time, the FARC made a huge mistake; with cash support from the Soviet Union dropping, they began to deal with the Colombian drug cartels, first as security guards and ultimately as a producer. Today, the FARC is the major producer of cocaine in the world, and ideology takes a back seat to profit. There are other lawless gangs in Colombia, but the overall general model now is not inspired leftists, but criminal insurgents. This is a big deal in terms of popular support; some Colombian citizens and even most European countries sympathized in the ‘80s with Marxist views of social justice, but there is no sympathy for drug-dealing crooks.  

Second, the people of Colombia in 2002 voted decisively against further negotiations with the FARC -- who controlled vast swaths of the country -- and brought in hard-line Alvaro Uribe, who ran on a platform of "no more compromises." Public support was so high that tens of thousands of Colombians elected to pay extra taxes to fund the war effort. Today the FARC is on the ropes, pressed back into safe camps in Venezuela, foreign investment in Colombia is up, the streets of Bogota are full, and confidence is in the air. How did they do it -- or, more accurately, how are they doing it, since the fight isn't over yet? 

Most important, the Colombians have learned to put the fight into a political context, not the other way around. Uribe, who leaves office on August 7, has been personally involved in the fight, and he has brought -- in some cases dragged -- his ministers government-wide into the fight. This is a “whole of government" effort.

As part of building the political context, Uribe promised at the beginning of the war that Colombia would not sacrifice civil rights during the war. There has not been a day of martial law, one general announced with pride.  Nor has there been any effort to muzzle the free press.  The maintenance of civil rights and the integration of the police and military into the civil life of the country, so that citizens see them as protectors of their rights, versus the kidnapping, murderous FARC and drug gangs, has led to a surprising turnaround in public opinion to support the government, the military -- and, to a pleasing degree, the United States, which is seen as a key ally.  

As part of building the political context, Uribe promised at the beginning of the war that Colombia would not sacrifice civil rights during the war. There has not been a day of martial law, one general announced with pride. Nor has there been any effort to muzzle the free press. The maintenance of civil rights and the integration of the police and military into the civil life of the country, so that citizens see them as protectors of their rights, versus the kidnapping, murderous FARC and drug gangs, has led to a surprising turnaround in public opinion to support the government, the military -- and, to a pleasing degree, the United States, which is seen as a key ally.   

This has been a war over land. Colombia has vast tracts of sparsely settled jungles and plains, ideal for guerrilla warfare, and distant rebellions were historically tolerated until the FARC and others got close enough to actually threaten the state.  So the Colombian government had to take the land -- and the people -- back. It wasn't about destroying the FARC as much as pushing them out, winning back the population, keeping the guerrillas on the run, and making life so miserable that they'd quit -- as the commander of the Colombian armed forces said to me recently, guerrillas who are only into fighting for the money will quit more easily than ideologues.  And he emphatically said that killing the guerrillas is his last choice - better that they become to harassed that they quit, come in and re-integrate into the life of the country. 

So the Colombian government evolved a three-step, "whole of government" process.  First, the military pushes the FARC out of a geographical space. Close behind the troops comes the National Police, who have evolved into a quasi-paramilitary force acting under the rule of law to secure the gains the military has just made, and courts to hear complaints -- and the cops and the legal system stay permanently. Third, and with the cops and judges, comes economic assistance in the form of food grants, the making of truck farms, larger grants in in-kind assistance for  economic development, electricity, email connectivity, roads, schools and all the trappings of good government.  The assistance package also includes voluntary participants from industry and Colombian universities, and the whole thing is organized by an series of informal, mostly out-of-government volunteers who are unfunded themselves - very important to avoid statist politics -- but have the authority of the president himself to spend money and jaw cooperation from the rest of the ministries -- with presidential wrath at foot-dragging. USAID also contributes funds but, as one authority said gently, U.S. development funds come with so many strings - competitive bidding and so forth - that they lack flexibility to be employed quickly.  The important thing is speed, he said - so that the newly-liberated inhabitants of the former FARC territory see that the government can actually help them. 

As the Colombian military takes back land and development assistance begins, the National Police role as cops becomes vital to restore the rule of law and beat the remaining cartels - tracking bad guys down nationwide, building cases according to civil law and extraditing them to the U.S. for trial.  The American Drug Enforcement Administration, working with the Colombian Police since 1972, has become a transnational hub for law enforcement around South America and the globe, assisting police in a dozen countries to build cases, make arrests and extradite them to the U.S.  Why extradition?  Because, as one DEA executive explained, if the narco-terrorists are incarcerated in their own countries, they find ways to direct their empires even from jail.  When they leave for the U.S., succession fights begin immediately in Colombia.  "The bodies pile up," said one experienced DEA official, who didn't sound too displeased. 

Finally, and with little fanfare, the Colombians are now training the armies and police of other South and Central American countries as they themselves were once trained by us. They are offering help to the Mexicans, who are now where the Colombians were at the turn of the century -- teetering on the brink of losing their own sovereignty to narco-insurgents.   

For the Colombians, the distinction between crooks, terrorists and insurgents is meaningless; they point out that Pablo Escobar, the biggest Colombian drug cartel leader in the 1980s, was a terrorist before the word was in general use -- murdering judges and bombing civilian targets, killing soldiers and bribing politicians. Escobar, in fact, appears to introduced the car bomb to the Western hemisphere. (He was killed in 1993 by Colombian police advised by U.S. personnel.) Likewise, the Mexican drug cartels today are criminals, terrorists and insurgents at once; one General used the term "lethal gas" to explain how criminality and terrorism spread. Explaining why the Colombians are helping the Mexicans, one Colombian official said that the cartel insurgencies spreading throughout the Western Hemisphere have to be fought everywhere -- no country is safe alone, he said, including the United States. 

RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

Comments

Load More Comments