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An insurgent movement is a war for the people. It stands to reason that government measures must be directed to restoring government authority and law and order throughout the country, so that control over the population can be regained and its support won. This cannot be done unless a high priority is given to the administrative structure of government itself, to its institution and to the training of its personnel. Without a reasonably efficient government machine, no programmes or projects will produce the desired results. -Sir Robert Thompson
It is usually stated that in insurgencies, “Governments are not generally outfought by an insurgency, but they are out-administered or out-governed.” To what extent does this diagnosis apply to the FARC challenge? Has FARC been able to compete with the formal government in creating some sort of “parallel state” and so disconnecting the people of Colombia from the government?
What has distinguished FARC throughout its self-proclaimed, Marxist-Leninist project has been the gap between its people’s war doctrine and ideology and the realities of the movement on the ground. Embrace of criminality as funding mechanism (drugs, kidnapping, extortion, and cattle rustling) and recruiting from societal youth outliers have resulted, since at least 1982, in a movement more akin to a cartel than an emerging parallel state (i.e., counter-state).
Nevertheless, FARC remains an ideological project, with its vocabulary and analytical categories derived from Marxist-Leninism. This has created a continuing tension between the criminal and insurgent elements of FARC’s nature. Efforts continued up until the early years of the new millennium, for instance, to ensure that all manpower received mandatory Marxist-Leninist instruction; and materials captured in FARC laptops and unit day-rooms were universally Marxist-Leninist (translated into Spanish). For doctrine, the works of Mao and the Vietnamese theorists, rendered into Spanish, were privileged from the 1960s, later augmented by FMLN doctrinal materials, which were direct, translated copies of the Vietnamese (with the upper echelon of the FMLN trained in Vietnam).
FARC’s strategic plan, therefore, was very “Maoist” in its outline and components, with particulars unique to Colombia placed within the three strategic phases used by Mao but also incorporating the notion of the “popular uprising” as found in the Vietnamese (and twice attempted by the FMLN). FARC recognized that only through a neutralization of state military power using mobile warfare (also termed maneuver or main force warfare) could it complete the process begun using terror and guerrilla warfare.
The generation of the FARC battalion-strength “columns” necessary to accomplish this took place in the “strategic rearguard” of the eastern llanos, beyond the heavily-populated western 40 percent of Colombia wherein lived 96 percent of the population. Power projection took place through the establishment of “fronts of war.” These, like beachheads in amphibious invasion, established presence on “enemy shores” and were sustained by the “strategic rearguard” for a year (as per doctrine). Thereafter, they were to be self-sufficient and expand their areas of operation.
Had FARC proceeded as required in a contest of governance, its activity within the “fronts of war” would have featured the appropriate mix of violent and nonviolent activities necessary to counter-state construction. Instead, the gang-like dynamic predominated, with only the armed component achieving any degree of staying power. When these were badly defeated in the mobile warfare battles of 1998-2002, the result was to lay open the route for decimation of the entire FARC effort. Reclaiming of the strategic initiative by the Colombian state occurred under a new government, that of Alvaro Uribe, 2002-2010, which in fact built its own effort upon state enhancement.
Which were the key components, sequences, and principles of Uribe’s whole-of-government/whole-of-society approach? Does it emulate Frank Kitson’s comprehensive approach in countering an insurgency? That is: “There can be no such thing as a purely military solution because insurgency is not primarily a military activity…For this reason insurgency can only be successfully countered by a government programme in which the activities of the country’s security forces are closely tied into an overall campaign consisting of political, economic and psychological measures…It cannot be said too often that countering insurgency involves a wide range of government activity, and operations by the security forces only help matters if they are conducted within an overall framework that ties the whole programme together.”
Alvaro Uribe’s assumption of the presidency of Colombia in mid-2002 resulted in an integrated, whole-of-government strategy, “Democratic Security,” which became whole-of-society with the explicit statement that all citizens were involved in the effort against the insurgents (of which FARC was the only group capable of threatening the integrity of the state). There followed actions which mobilized large numbers of citizens in legally defined, armed and unarmed groups, incorporated into a cohesive structure of state defense.
These resulted in force-multiplication since they were integrated into police and military deployments. Armed local forces, for example, ultimately deployed in close to 600 platoons, were manned through volunteers drawn from a slice of the annual draft, and were fielded as integral units of regular battalions, with regular lieutenants as platoon leaders. They were deployed to threatened small towns and served as a first line of defense. None were overrun in the course of the conflict.
State ability to rapidly reinforce local observation and self-defense was secured through a profound, wide-ranging reform movement which ultimately refashioned the police and the military. The emergence of significant personalities, such as General Serrano of the police and Generals Tapias, Mora, and Ospina of the army, combined with the superior political leadership of Uribe and his government to deploy a large security force fielded in nearly textbook fashion.
Police at the local could survive due to area domination provided by a force of draftees deployed in regular divisions, which in turn could call upon rapid response from all-volunteer counterguerrilla battalions (eventually fielded in mobile brigades, or BRIM). A wide variety of specialized units was generated to address the specific facets of FARC’s effort. These included everything from “high mountain battalions” to a nationwide road protection capability to infrastructure protection to special anti-kidnapping forces. Special operations forces of increasing strength and competence gradually emerged as critical components for neutralization of FARC personalities as well as the defeat of its effort to use kidnap victims to achieve strategic ends (e.g., to trade VVIP captives for recognition of FARC belligerent status).
That such forces could be generated resulted from a foundational effort that was also an explicit element of “Democratic Security,” enhancement of government effectiveness and transparency. Security and economic, social, political process worked in symbiotic fashion. Greater security allowed more robust normal life. This, in turn, led to greater revenues. Several extraordinary tax levies were passed by wide margins, but it was the more mundane strengthening of normal state processes which increasingly allowed the state to dominate the amply funded (perhaps the “richest” insurgent group in world history) but less strategically and tactically competent insurgency.
Regardless, what was “traditional” in this contest was the reality that a battle of rival mobilizations was at hand. This was understood by Uribe, who in his first term devoted extraordinary time and effort to town hall meetings conducted throughout the country and attended by all major government and military officials. These were generally all-day affairs which included breakout sessions that resulted in specific courses of action and mobilization commitments from both citizens and officials.
It was enhanced state legitimacy that was the foundation upon which all else was built. The greatly strengthened capacity of the state was enabled by the security forces, which in turn were able to become increasingly powerful and responsive. There were, of course, challenges, particularly in reincorporation of liberated areas, and these occupied Uribe’s second term (2006-2010) and the early years of the successor Santos administration.
What metrics do you have in mind in assessing the success of Uribe’s population-centric approach?
The difficulty in the search for metrics is that they typically draw analysts to the armed processes involved in insurgency and counterinsurgency. More appropriate is to use the same metrics that drive democratic governance. Can citizens engage in their normal economic, social, and political processes?
In at least one sense, Colombia had an ideal situation – which critics in certain cause-oriented groups simply refuse to recognize – it was a functioning democracy wherein the state and its governance, certainly during the Uribe administration, functioned with an astonishing level of popular support, active and passive. Inspired political leadership measured progress through measurement of a wide variety of “anti” (defensive) and “counter” (offensive) metrics. These ranged from “road counts” (i.e., traffic on roads) to “hotel occupancy” to economic progress.
Military leadership during the first Uribe administration focused nearly exclusively upon metrics of initiative (e.g., FARC attacks on towns declined to zero; kidnappings declined significantly). Different personalities in the second Uribe administration allowed classic “body count” to reappear, to the detriment of all concerned (cases of illicit killings, “false positives” became a serious issue).
Ironically, the latter issue surfaced as much from enhanced civil authority as intra-military processes. One of the results of the outstanding military personalities of the first Uribe administration and their very “American” orientation towards civil-military relations was a solidification of civilian authority. This has the unfortunate consequence of extreme civil pressure being placed upon the military to prevent occurrence of incidents (with numerous administration-directed command reliefs a part of the process).
Any conclusion concerning metrics thus must accept that using metrics of “normalcy,” though imperative, can be a fraught process. Critics, for instance, despite the continued vibrancy of the Colombian left-wing in politics (e.g., a former M-19 insurgent has recently been elected mayor of Bogota, the capital), invariably raise the specter of “criminal democracy” and a state hopelessly mired in violence and dispossession.
What exactly did the Uribe administration do for winning the competition for good governance and legitimacy with FARC? Or, to put the matter in another way, what specifically did the Uribe administration do in order to be able to compete effectively in winning “the hearts and minds” of FARC’s social constituency? Once, General Kitson said that in countering an insurgency, “the battlefield is not a physical one: it lies largely in the minds of the people.”
We have discussed this subject previously in some of its dimensions. The tragic flaw in all Latin American countries, Colombia included, is their economies, no matter how robust (and Colombia consistently performs well in macro-economic terms), lag in the generation of employment. Consequently, any criminal group will find marginalized elements sufficient to meet its manning needs. Enhanced criminality attendant to globalization has increased dramatically available resources, as is well known from the Mexico case – though it now seems all but forgotten that the Colombian situation of the narco-cartel years (exemplified by the Pablo Escobar reign in Medellin) was much worse and more violent than anything we are seeing in Mexico today.
Socially, the result has been that FARC has focused nearly exclusively upon the same youthful stratum that one associates with gang membership in the entire hemisphere (or beyond). Historical decimation of the native American population, a consequence of Colombia’s long incorporation in the Spanish colonial era, results in these young people being nearly exclusively Hispanic or black – and male. Recent research has claimed that women now comprise as much as one-third of FARC combatants, from a more generally accepted one-eighth (or slightly more), but these studies appear to focus overwhelmingly upon the traditional strategic rearguard elements. Attempts to generalize about the gang-like treatment of such women do not always jibe with my own research in other areas, where more traditional norms have been found.
Regardless, such considerations do not alter the prevailing “male peasant essence” of FARC. In many respects, despite its explicit choice of people’s war as its approach to insurgency, FARC has functioned as a large foco in search of a mass base. That is, it has acted as though “the struggle” alone were sufficient to ignite an upheaval of the masses. Only occasionally, as in the recent leadership period of Fabian Ramirez (killed in November 2010), has FARC reflected deeply upon its strategic and doctrinal shortcomings in an effort to pursue a more holistic approach to popular mobilization.
State efforts in this area have been in sharp contrast to the course pursued by FARC. Colombia at present is more integrated that at any time in its history, and the extent of democratic incorporation has proceeded in like fashion. As previously mentioned, the left remains a vibrant political force.
Less noticed is the role the military itself has played in this process through its social composition. Contrary to some media claims (unsupported by empirical evidence), the officer corps is not drawn from society’s elite, rather from the same middle class/lower middle class spectrum that one associates with Western militaries. The draft, despite its imperfections, was also never implemented as portrayed in the media (with high school graduates allegedly “prohibited” from combat). Colombian platoons have all the characteristics one associates with their Western equivalents, to include racial and diverse linguistic competencies.
Especially noteworthy is that volunteer slots (in strike units, all manpower is volunteer) – at all times when I have conducted fieldwork on the subject – have been filled completely by prior service manpower (largely “re-upping” draftees) of diverse racial and economic background. Coupled with a much strengthened noncommissioned officer (NCO) cadre, a product of the 1998-2002 reform era, the result has been a powerful force for social equality and advancement.
Taken as a whole, the result has been on display in poll after poll – a state in which human terrain remains dominated by the processes of democracy and the market. FARC has proved quite incapable of responding and continues to exist today not due to popular support but because of the continued expansion of the drug trade.
To what extent can we say that the Colombian experience in defeating FARC has highlighted enduring characteristics or fundamental principles in countering an insurgency? Which are these?
The Colombian experience can be considered a “model counterinsurgency,” because an insurgent challenge which was politically driven, regardless of the extent to which it was compromised by its involvement with criminality, was met by a superior counterinsurgent political response. Like politics itself, however, the process continues. Able to take advantage of not only expanded opportunities afforded by the drug trade but also sanctuary offered in receptive left-wing states, especially Venezuela (which is complicit in all aspects of FARC’s effort), FARC continues to survive. Yet its armed capacity no longer threatens the state, and its ideology has never achieved traction amongst the Colombian masses.
Noteworthy during the 1998-2002 period was the superior understanding of these realities in military as opposed to political circles. Only with the election of Uribe did civil thought interface smoothly with that of the security forces shield behind which democratic process was to function. Then, relatively young personalities within the Defense Ministry emerged as prominent in providing for government with first-rate strategic and operational thinking which led to a meshing of national and military strategies. The military’s “Plan Patriot” provided the successive domination of areas which drove “Democratic Security” forward.
Recently, in an SWJ interview with Colonel Alexander Alderson, the lead author of the 2010 British COIN Manual, it was my impression that he presented the Colombian experience in defeating FARC as a textbook case of counterinsurgency, reconnecting the people with their government. Do you see things in the same way, as a clear-hold-build textbook case of counterinsurgency?
If we can repeat what has been discussed so far: In counterinsurgency, the center of gravity is the relationship between the population and the state, as represented by the government; that is, legitimacy. To this extent, the Colombian case was textbook in that response used enhanced governance and economic capacity, embracing burgeoning social equality, to engage in superior mobilization against the counter-state challenger. That Colombia was able to do so stemmed in the first instance from correct analysis of the challenge and conceptualization of proper response. Neither came naturally nor without contestation, particularly from Colombia’s American allies.
In a critical error, the Americans attempted to convince Colombia that counter-narcotics was the center of gravity. Colombian military personalities, especially Ospina, who was educated at, among other U.S. schools, National Defense University (NDU), pointed out that this confused the strategic and operational centers of gravity, with FARC “structures” (i.e., units and organizations) a second operational center of gravity. Strategically, legitimacy remained the key. Only after 9-11 did Washington’s thinking align with that of Bogota, the process offering powerful testimony to the degree to which bureaucratic process has in the U.S. often become a substitute for strategic thought.
Nevertheless, what remains to be considered is the degree to which the post-Uribe context has transformed FARC such that the previous operational centers of gravity must be reassessed. In particular, two new operational concerns have emerged: the role of foreign sanctuaries and the role of internal political division, especially within the Colombian leadership.
The former concern is one that surfaces even as U.S. Latin American policy can best be characterized as distracted. The latter is perhaps an unavoidable consequence of democracy, but one that throughout Colombia’s battle with various insurgencies has surfaced regularly to thwart ultimate victory. New political faces return to worn, discredited processes of pseudo-negotiation in hopes of firing a silver bullet and reaping the electoral benefit.
Tactically, there are also concerns. Evaluation of progress has tended to focus upon the traditional metrics inherent to “clear-hold-build,” which I have suggested previously need to be assessed as appropriate to measurement of political governance. Largely overlooked has been FARC’s intense effort to utilize nontraditional weapons – such as kidnapping and concern for human rights, internally displaced persons (IDP), and environmental degradation – as leverage for achieving that which cannot be gained through violence. Subversion and infiltration of civil society are central to this effort, as is the exploitation of the current global situation, with its lack of attention to any irregular threat save that posed by violent radical Islamists.
The Iraq and Afghan campaigns have emphasized a certain need in creating local/community defense initiatives. How important and instrumental were the “neighborhood watch” programmes and the Soldados de mi Pueblo in changing the balance of power in favor of the government and against FARC?
This is a subject which we have discussed. What should be added is the reality that domination of human terrain – which can be termed population-centric warfare – is the critical “on the ground” element of counterinsurgency. This is always the case with any political process. Too often states, faced with insurgent challenge, focus upon enemy forces (with body-count the common metric) or upon point defense (lack of incidents being the common metric). Both of these miss the point, a subject to which much literature has been devoted.
Yet “population-centric” as a term can also lead to a trap. Protecting the populace must be linked to enabling the populace. The people must be involved in their own defense, and this will only be viable if they are empowered politically. A common mistake is to confuse “development” with economic progress and to assume it will lead to support. Social and economic advancement are but facets of political development.
It was a just such an approach that proved so debilitating to Sendero Luminoso during the Fujimori administration in the 1990s. Local economic and social development, coordinated by semi-autonomous agencies run by FONCODES, an office within that of the presidency, was used as the basis for both empowerment and mobilization for self-defense. This has been completely missed in treatments of Peru’s success – at least in the English language materials.
In Colombia, legal prohibitions against self-defense forces, included in the constitution at the behest of the M-19 Marxist-Leninist insurgency when it re-entered the political process, required the imaginative solution of calling for volunteers from a slice of the national draft levy. Initially called “Peasant Soldiers,” in conscious imitation of the Peruvian success, the name was changed – “Home Guard” is probably the best translation of Soldados de mi Pueblo – due to the demands of the individuals themselves. As they came overwhelmingly from the small towns to which they were deployed in defense, they were anything but “peasants.” Linked to unarmed neighborhood watch equipped with the means to communicate, the combination proved potent.
Beyond the local defense function tactically, the units served to generate intelligence upon which larger operations could be based. Motivating the process, though, it must be repeated, was empowerment. Those participating were citizens in a functioning democracy. They worked with the permanent armed local representatives of the state, the police, who themselves were a very different force following the Serrano reforms (1994-2000). The military, in the entire decade of the 2000s, consistently emerged in polls as the most respected institution in the country (never placing worse than second). As a result, all the pieces were in place for area domination enabling democracy and the market.
On what specifically did the “cycle of recovery” focus on, especially in the so called “build” phase of the administrative reintegration process of territories once dominated by the FARC “counter-state”?
A recognized weak spot in “Democratic Security” was its reliance upon the normal mechanisms of democratic governance for reintegration. Though a special mechanism, CCAI (“Coordination Center for Integral Action”) – the acronym reversed the “A” and “I” to avoid providing an obvious magnet for irrelevant carping, “CIA” – was already in existence during the first Uribe administration (2002-2006), it was only in the second administration (2006-2010) that it took on a more robust form. As such, it brought together government agencies in a presidentially-coordinated effort which had similarities to FOCODES of Peru. The intent was to provide impact aid in such manner as to “jump start” the normal but wounded processes of democratic governance in liberated areas.
Making the transition from impact processes to normal governance is invariably a challenge in counterinsurgency, as the U.S. has discovered at great cost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though not unaware of the methodology, the U.S. has found itself more challenged than the Colombians for cultural (i.e., social) reasons.
Societies which have yet to agree upon even the most basic rules of empowerment for nominal citizens living within national boundaries are unlikely to be able to build much that looks in any way like that to which Colombia aspires. The role of women is an obvious case in point. While in Colombia they are equals – indeed, the Defense Minister at one point was a woman – in Iraq their role continues to evolve, and in Afghanistan, they cannot yet be said to be citizens, as we understand the word.
In December 2011, former president Uribe published a piece in Foreign Policy, wherein he argued for a “Colombia model” for Afghanistan: ”A less recognized but equally important reason for Colombia's success is the role of the country's private sector and civil society. In some cases, the Colombian government was able to work in tandem with the private sector to undercut extremism. Together, we initiated a variety of public-private partnerships to address development needs, promote corporate social responsibility, and facilitate fraternal relations between labor and employers. A less recognized but equally important reason for Colombia's success is the role of the country's private sector and civil society. In some cases, the Colombian government was able to work in tandem with the private sector to undercut extremism. Together, we initiated a variety of public-private partnerships to address development needs, promote corporate social responsibility, and facilitate fraternal relations between labor and employers.” Do you agree? Could an Uribe model work for Afghanistan (and be applied in Afghanistan)?
It was Uribe himself who told me at one point that he was not following a “counterinsurgency model” but engaging in politics as he, a politician, understood it. This meant, he went on, that the people were the heart of the business and that politicians always had to go where the people were. We can easily rephrase this: “All politics is local.” In fact, “Democratic Security” as a strategy was built – if we may put it this way – upon the simple maxim that dead citizens are of no use to anyone. Hence the first task of the state was to secure the citizenry. Such a task could only be accomplished through the participation of everyone. It was not a government “additional duty,” as critics would argue is the norm in U.S. politics today.
Colombia was fighting on its own soil, for its own goals. Critical to the Uribe success was a willingness (and ability) to engage in self-assessment within a shared value-system. It is FARC that has consistently violated the most basic tenets of human dignity and behavior. Nothing illustrates this better than the heinous manner in which it has treated kidnap victims. Insurgents, when apprehended, must deal with a functioning judicial system built upon accepted values. It hardly needs iteration that in this respect, Afghanistan is not Colombia.
To the contrary, Afghanistan has yet to emerge as an actual country, though at times in its history it has shown signs of coalescing to an extent. “Democratic Security” was built upon the explicit assessment that the lack of state presence was at the root of insecurity. It can be argued that in Afghanistan the opposite is the case. Those areas to which the state expands its presence find themselves brought into a rapidly developing network of insecurity and criminality.
One example will suffice to highlight the profound difficulties involved in transferring the Colombian approach to Afghanistan: the role of the police. In Colombia, reform allowed counterinsurgency to be built upon a solid foundation of armed state capacity in local areas, which then could be reinforced. In Afghanistan in contrast, the police continue to be one of the major problems, their corruption and widespread drug use a stumbling block.
Nevertheless, as any number of reports have argued, the situation in Afghanistan is far from hopeless. What remains to be addressed adequately by the U.S. and its NATO partners is just how traditional legacy issues are to interface with nationbuilding. Colombia’s approach requires building legitimacy. In Colombia, there was very little doubt as to what society was fighting for; in Afghanistan, unity still comes only from what the country is fighting against.
Dr. Marks is Head of Department, War and Conflict Studies, College of International Security Studies (CISA), National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, DC. He has worked extensively in Colombia and authored dozens of publications on the conflict there.