The Success Story Next Door

The Success Story Next Door by David H. Petraeus and Michael O'Hanlon, Politico.

… To be sure, there are serious problems in all of these places, among others. But there is also good news - a rare commodity at a time when many in the United States are questioning America’s ability to do big things in the world. With smart strategies and the right resources, the United States can still make a huge difference, especially when it has effective and willing partners.

Colombia is a great example. Its main insurgent group, the FARC, is now apparently showing at least some interest in peace talks largely on government terms. The on-again off-again negotiations in Havana may or may not work out, but because the Colombian government has the upper hand, they still reflect good news: Colombia has come a long way in its half-century fight against drug trafficking, insurgency, kidnapping, and murder. At a time of acute doubt over the future of the Middle East in particular, Colombia provides a model for hope as well as a reminder of what is required to make such progress possible…

Read on.

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The United States and its allies believe that the root driver of many conflicts and problems is the fact that certain states and societies are not adequately organized, oriented and ordered along modern western political, economic and social lines.

The evidence that this theory is the correct, they say, is found in noting that states and societies that are more organized, oriented and ordered along modern western lines generally experience fewer insurgencies -- and they are also less likely to exhibit a host of other difficulties common to the less-modern/less-western states and societies, such as: genocide, terrorism, humanitarian disasters, crimes against humanity, poor response to natural disaster, killing of one's own people, etc. Now to some important distinctions:

a. Apples:

If the United States is lucky enough to encounter countries (such as the Philippines and Colombia?) that (1) already have somewhat "effective and willing partners," (2) already are configured somewhat along modern western lines, (3) are of less strategic value and importance and/or (4) exhibit less-critical problems, then corrective action may, indeed, be undertaken and accomplished via "Small COIN," "Small CT" and/or "Small Aid." Herein, we just need to help our friendly host nation partners "tweek" things a little.

b. Oranges:

On the other hand, if the United States is unlucky enough to encounter unfriendly countries (such as Afghanistan and Iraq?) that (1) have no effective and willing partner waiting to work with us, (2) are not already configured somewhat along modern western lines, (3) are of more strategic value and importance and/or (4) exhibit more-critical, difficult, profound and complicated problems, then it would seem that corrective action along such lines as "Small COIN, "Small CT," and/or "Small Aid" would be unrealistic and inadequate and, therefore, would not suffice. This because, unlike the "Apples" example above, here in the "Oranges" case the United States must not only start from scratch but also perform most or all of the early and middling work itself.

Does this explanation as to

a. The adequacy and appropriateness of the "Small" method in the much smaller and much easier cases (such as the "Apples" example above).


b. The inadequacy and inappropriateness of the "Small" approach in the much bigger and/or much more difficult cases (such as the "Oranges" example provided here)

does this explanation make sense?

Personally I have never seen much evidence to support that Gen Petreaus understands why "the surge" achieved temporary effects in Iraq or virtually no (positive) effects in Afghanistan, let alone why our efforts in Colombia have trended in positive directions.

Colombia and the Philippines often get held up as success stories, particularly by the SOF community. I believe, as a Special Forces strategist (who thinks about these things far too much) that the formulae is fundamental and simple. My take:

1. Define objectives narrowly.
2. Ensure that all US/foreign activities are clearly subjugated to the sovereignty of the host nation and serve to reinforce the perceived legitimacy of that government in the eyes of their own people.
3. Ensure all US military operations are clearly subjugated to the control/intent of the US Ambassador.
4. Seek first to understand. Work to help others become a better version of themselves, not a lesser version of us.

In rural Colombia and Philippines security forces are often the only, or most visible aspect of national governance. When our SF forces are forced to work within such narrow constraints we naturally focus on activities rooted in professionalism, humanitarianism and demonstrating respect towards the people those security forces encounter. This in turn leads to less popular support to active insurgents, less attacks on security forces, and drives an evolution of the security force culture because they see how it makes their jobs easier and safer to perform.

The fact is that "Big CT" is as failed a concept/program as "Big COIN." Less is more when helping a partner or ally address the root drivers of insurgency and trend toward a more natural stability. At the end of the day, populations don't fail governments, it is governments that fail the people.

My personal take.



You forgot 5.

5. Make sure you know who the enemy is. If is a big army next to the country you are working in and they are conducting a proxy war against you, do something about it or at the very least don't give them money they will use to kill your people.


I think William Easterly and other critics of "Big Aid" make parallel arguments to yours, in a sense.

"Big Aid" or too large aid packages set up an ugly dynamic in host countries, especially among decision-makers in local government. Aid is meant to improve services but instead decreases legitimacy of the host government for a whole host of complicated factors (one being there is no incentive to reform in order to please the population. The focus is on the aid-giver, not what the local wants in some instances. Many in this class that are at a high level within the governing structure are educated together in the West and pick up the same ideas in the same places.)

We (the US and other Western nations in the realm of "Big Aid") have set up a series of patterns in our engagements with other nations where our energetic foreign policy apparatus wants to do big scale things for, perhaps, all sorts of personal reasons including ideology, and this only introduces one more source of disorder into an already disordered environment.

Reply to Carl: Of course AFG is different than Columbia....I'm not trying to draw a simple yet flawed comparison in that respect. What I am trying to point out is that Gen P's success story for Columbia would have similarly been a lot more relevant to the problems in Afghanistan circa 2003-6. Instead he chose a completely opposite solution set and the rest is history. Well, not yet because we're still trying to figure out how to withdraw ourselves from it and declare victory in the meantime.

Since he's left service this isn't the first article he's published that whitewashes or attempts to justify Afghanistan COIN failures.


Gen P wasn't in Afghanistan circa 2003-2006. So he didn't chose anything for that conflict. Other people did. If you want to blame a commander on the ground in Afghanistan, it gets a little complicated since we've had so many and the chain of command was...shall we say, complex. That was a big part of the problem, and that was controlled by the genii inside the beltway.

As far as small war failures go in Afghanistan, boy were there a lot. The most glaring being willful refusal to recognize a primary enemy, and probably the critical enemy, in Afghanistan was/is the Pak Army/ISI. I never did figure the logic of financing your enemy, 'cause there ain't any. When you run a war like that, you're effort is likely doomed no matter what you do.

Via e-mail from COL Bob Killebrew (USA Ret.):

As someone who has also spent some time with and on the Colombian experience, it's my opinion that this piece is right on target. Colombia has come light-years since the US started its aid, not only in a security sense, but in (re)building its political sector from a sclerotic oligarchy to a more representative democracy; it's the best example of successful counterinsurgency in the world that I know of. The Colombian officials to whom I spoke -- at every level -- were quick to point out that their efforts are based on the rule of law and their constitution, and they have a land reform program right out of the counterinsurgency manual. The suggestion that the judicial sector has to be rebuilt -- true -- shows to me that Petraeus and O'Hanlon have taken the trouble to find the weak points as well as the strong.

I might add also that everybody on the political side to whom I talked -- up to the level of the then-national security advisor -- is young and US-educated. On the military side, they are US-trained and grateful, not only for US assistance, but that (as one general put it) "You didn't come in and try to take over." So we got the aid about right. The US DEA. especially, has been successful in helping the Colombians retrain. One agent told me that he thinks the Colombians are the best narcotics cops in the world.

One of the underpinnings of the Colombian experience -- and a very expensive and risky strategy -- is an extensive program for retraining guerrilla soldiers and bringing them back into society. Many of the ordinary FARC troops -- and others -- were forcibly recruited while young; many are illiterate, and many more have no experience in functioning in a normal society. The government has integrated a very sophisticated intelligence operation with retraining centers around the country that separates those who truly want to "come in" from fakers with criminal records, educates and supports those who can be rehabilitated and then re-integrates them into Colombia's mainstream, sometimes (if they desire) with new identities.

The program is controversial inside Colombia; my taxi driver said to me "Why should we be supporting these people who have been fighting our soldiers?" and it is expensive. IMHO the Colombian experience needs much more exposure in the US, particularly in policy-making circles.

Oh, so the good general is saying Columbia is a success story because the the Columbians addressed their own problems, figured out a strategy, looked at the causes versus the symptoms, and took charge of their political and military ways ahead? And we supported through aid and SFA? You mean everything opposite from what happened in Afghanistan because of the general's last good idea?

Maybe if Gen Petraeus of 2013 wrote this article for Gen Petraeus of 2009 to read, we wouldn't of FUBAR'd Afghanistan as bad as we did at the strategic level.


Columbia is not Afghanistan. For one thing, the conflict in Columbia is an internal one. They are not the object of a proxy war being waged against them by a neighboring country's army, a far larger and more powerful country, as is Afghanistan. So different things for different places and circumstances, vastly different places and circumstances, different planets almost different.

Secondly, Gen P certainly can be legitimately criticized for things (The Atlantic quoted him as saying he could work with the ISI because had an understanding with them. Boy was that dopey.), but the overall course of action in Afghanistan was dictated by the genii inside the beltway both civil and military, so Gen P has lots of company.