COIN and FID in Colombia

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.


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Just a side comment---in the counter drug effort focus on drugs as the CoG that is a given even years into the Columbia experience --- that has never really stopped in Columbia ie DEA "flying raid teams" that are currently operating everywhere in Central and South America. Kind of like a job creating project for former SOF.

Yes while focusing on FRAC there has always been a secondary effort of focusing on the drugs so while there were primary efforts directed against FRAC in a COIN sense drugs took a backseat, when the COIN campaigns were focused on the drugs (due to the drug funding of FRAC) as a primary effort then military activities against FRAC took a backseat. If you really analyze the article there is not a single mention of how to combine a COIN/CT/counter DTO campaign into a single focused whole government effort as I think that the “total” approach costs a government too much money to sustain so usually one element of the COIN/CT/counter DTO effort starts to take precedence and the others lag behind.

In some aspects this is exactly what we have on the ground in Afghanistan---the Taliban and related groups are so busy in the DTO/smuggling side of the business that fighting us is a secondary effort in some cases. Many talk about the "fighting season" in Afghanistan in reference to the weather---there is indeed a "fighting season", but it is around the poppy.

This article cannot be used as an example of how to formulate a concept in Afghanistan due to the fact that FRAC was never able to establish a “shadow government” in any major populated areas in Columbia. The Taliban have in fact established for approximately 80-90% of the country’s districts “shadow governments”. Even JSOC has not been able to effectively neutralize those “shadow governments” and reduce the 80-90% factor.

Example---the US has had experience in eliminating “shadow governments” and that was in SVN in the activities carried out in 1969 through 1971 in specifically targeting the local guerrilla infrastructure. We were so effective that many local VC groups had not a single local SVN citizen in them---the local VC units were in effect being backfilled with NVN military personnel. That was achieved though with 500K plus military personnel on the ground.

Despite all the counter drug efforts in Columbia as well as say Mexico that were designed to apply pressure on the DTOs as FRAC is a defacto DTO ---they simply pushed DTOs and drug cultivation into other areas/new countries that were not previously being affected. Like pushing on a water filled balloon.

There has never been a single overarching political/military campaign plan designed by the US government in addressing DTOs and especially DTOs that are military (regardless of politics) in nature.

Goes to what many here call having a strategy and then developing ones' tactics.


I have made some critical comments about operational design and design thinking in previous posts, but my comments were directed at the author's description of design in overly complex terms that distracted from what we need from design. That is perhaps normal with new concepts, and once we get more experience from it we'll be able to explain it in plain English, which will not distract from the complexity embraced in the process.

Our current JOPP and MDMP process in my view discourages planners from embracing more than one problem at a time, so we default to a plan for this and another plan for that, which of course is normally dysfunctional. To make matters worse we have different C2 chains and different pots of money for each operation, so we unintentionally end up working at odds to one another.

I think we can use design to embrace the total operational environment and understand how all these factors interact (crime, insurgency, foreign influence, etc.), and then determine what changes we want to see and assess if those changes are possible, and then develop a holistic approach to make those changes. I know that seems a bit grandiose, but I would hope design would actually serve as appetite suppressient and help us narrow our objectives to those that may be achieveable and not result in major secondary effects that are largely predictable and very disruptive.

I know the above thoughts are fuzzy, but I'm confident we can do better if focus more on understanding the problem/situation, and then develop our responses.

Whether intentional or unintentional, I can see the McCormick COIN Diamond Model being the basis for the strategy discussed throughout the interview, and based on the overall context of this insurgency it appears to be relatively effective, though victory is not currently in sight for the reasons addressed at the end of the article which are the availability of safe havens and political infighting within the Columbian government (the same process that undermined the French efforts in Algeria and Vietnam).
The entire article was excellent, but I thought a few of the remarks were exceptionally insightful.
The FARC was foolish enough to engage in decisive combat with the State, without having a supporting political strategy.
“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.”
“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.”
“In a critical error, the Americans attempted to convince Colombia that counter-narcotics was the center of gravity.” BREAK “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.”
A good example of a government using a whole of government and whole of society to conduct a counterinsurgency effort, which is enabled by security forces providing an effective security shield. I don’t see any evidence that the governments of Iraq or Afghanistan will pursue a similar approach, and we can’t do it for them, so I don’t think this situation is going to be transferable.

Bill M,

Couple of running thoughts that may compliment(keep in mind that I have not yet read Mackinlay's Insurgent Archipelago. I've purposely stuck with the classical insurgency model until I've seen enough evidence to force me to consider something else).

1. Is McCormick's Mystic Diamond a more proper fit for small wars that should be included in FM 3-24? He builds off Lietes and Wolfe and others. His model shows a way. Kilcullen's conflict eco-system is derived from McCormick.

2. Americans convincing Colombia COG was counter-narcotics. I was wondering if the Marks left off the part where perhaps the USG did this intentionally/forcefully to STOP human rights violations within the Colombian Gov't.

3. While Colombia has somewhat stabilized, Central and South America has seen increased levels of violence and narco-trafficking over the last decade. What is this?


1. All of those are great points. Personally I think then LTC Wendt's article on COIN modeling in the Special Warfare Magazine should have formed a strong basis of our COIN doctrine. The models are simply a way to well model the conflict in a way that is helpful in developing an effective COIN strategy based on the context of the overall situation. The models are not perfect, but simply a guide that can provide a useful understanding to what appears to be chaos to the untrained. I think they're useful in framing operational design for COIN also, but care must be taken not to bias the design process also.

2. Those in the know can offer an explanation on why we pushed the counter-narcotics as the COG, but it was my impression based off previous readings and discussions with peers who worked there that the U.S. was interested in counter-narcotics, but didn’t want to get involved in Columbia’s COIN fight. Much like the U.S. willing to support the Philippines address the terrorist threat, but not provide support for their COIN efforts. While I can understand our desire to avoid getting involved in their internal issues that don’t impact the U.S., on the other hand you can’t effectively isolate these problem sets since they’re thoroughly intertwined.

3. I don’t know what is happening in Columbia, and we have Latin American experts who are contributing members of SWJ, but I suspect the situation in Columbia is far from stabilized, but rather the FARC issue is at least currently contained and not currently a threat to the State. However, moving the beyond the traditional COIN issues to a more comprehensive security assessment, the security situation in many parts of Latin America has apparently exceeded the ability of the State to control it, so while these gangs, 3d generation gangs, cartels, etc. may not desire to over throw the national government, they are definitely effecting state capture at the local government level in order to facilitate their illicit activities and gradually undermining the legitimacy of the State. I understand the argument that these criminal organizations are not insurgents in the traditional sense, but I also the line between the two is graying when you assess the impact on the State. The security threats are not isolated to a particular nation and many of the gangs and Cartels are transnational in nature, and in their efforts to provide their product and services to the global market they’re expanding their operations throughout Central America, and they have enough money to seriously challenge the former banana republics who don’t have enough money to invest large sums in security forces. This problem is limited to LA, they have also pushed into West Africa to push their product into Europe, and no doubt they’re pushing their product into the Asia-Pacific region to meet the growing demand for the growing middle classes there. The poorer nations like Cambodia, Burma, Bangladesh, etc. will be at greater risk to being subverted by this transnational criminal activity. See the links below for some more insights. We’re still too myopically focused on Islamist extremism and ignoring other threats at our own peril. Of course we are now starting to relook potential State threats again with the new focus on the Asia-Pacific region, but we’re largely ignoring irregular threats that are not associated with Islamic terrorism.

Logically, wouldn't the easiest solution be to make the next FM 3-24 the Army, Marine, Air Force, Special Operations Force, AND Special Forces manual?

Imagine that bringing everyone to the table, collaborate, and get us on the same page?

For location, I would propose either Monterey or Fort Bragg.

But, this would require leadership.


JP 3-24 exists, but obviously the core of it was lifted from the FM, but there are some differences in it. I would be curious how many Special Forces NCOs and Officers in the ranks or in the doctrine producing field believe FM 3-24 is seriously flawed and why? I know there was a lot of concern about who was leading the production of it years ago, but part if not most of that discontent was due to ego (and not unnecessarily unfounded since SF continued carrying the COIN torch (in practice and producing doctrine) during the COIN middle ages (post Vietnam to post 9/11) when the General Purpose Forces were narrowly focused on major theater wars. You know better than I the huge egos that exist in the Monterey region, and again not unfounded based on their academic expertise in the field, but in the end to be effective you have to be able to work effectively as a member of the team. I do agree with one of academic experts there when he said we would have produced a better product if only a few experts produced it, instead of bringing in the numbers they did who only had experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which are abberrations and terrible case studies to build a more generic COIN doctrine on that has wider application. Bob Jones is right when he states our COIN doctrine is largely based on the supposed lessons of the colonial era, and while you can't completely dismis those lessons they can be misleading.

Bill M,

1. SWJ has a foundation for the military to draw from if they choose to.

2. I've been reading up on Steve Jobs and sometimes we have to look past ego and transformation requires the right type of hands on approach in the right environment.

3. Monterey or Bragg could work. Rand 1962 was in Santa Monica to keep it OUT of DC and away from the politics.

1. Lots of folks around the globe have experience in conducting COIN, and there are lots of academics who have focused on narrow aspects of COIN, but individually and collectively that doesn't necessarily equate to the right team for producing doctrine. We'll probably get more of what we have now, a lot of bad or outdated ideas carried forward into the future. That begs the question on what team should produce the doctrine, but I think we have to be careful to avoid a doctrinal model that largely consists of techniques and tactics that the team has used or studied. Borrowing from Bob Jones I think most of all we need a manual that discusses insurgency at length, and then a shorter manual that discusses U.S. COIN principles, then a TPP book to ensure tactical lessons aren't lost.

2. Agree, but who? Right now 4 out of 5 people in the SWJ community are biased by Nagl's book and FM 3-24. The outliers are often to far adrift to be helpful. Where is that reasonable leader who can dispassionately identify what actually works?

3. Both Monterey and Bragg have their own cultures and biases, you can't escape it. Assuming we believe COIN is more about the political and psychological than the warfare (though the warfare may be a critical aspect), then why wouldn't we do it D.C. where we can discuss how the USG as a whole will tackle these challenges in the future? Keep the think tanks out of it initially, they can be brought in later. The only left and right limit I would impose if I was king was to ensure the doctrine conformed to the way our government actually works, not some idealized concept based WOG harmony assumption we had when it was 3-24 was first written. The roles of the military should be focused on warfare, security and capacity building initially, and then if the other necessary areas can't be filled by the interagency partners, get them to admit it and state that when this happens DOD is in charge, and then and only then push DOD into the poltical and economic aid (beyond the tactical level) business. In most cases we should be doing FID, and the host nation should be doing the heavy lifting, so capacity should be less of an issue, we just need to find expert advisors to help the HN with "their" plan.

I think we should constantly remind ourselves that Iraq and Afghistan are abberrations of our making due to strategic "choices" we made. Our COIN doctrine should not be focused on these scenarios, but the tens of other situations where we assisted or conducted with COIN. That doctrine largely exists and was effective when applied by a skilled soldier.

Bill M,

You are beyond right, and I don't know how to overcome the limitations that you laid out unless we just start over.

I guess the question that I would ask is what would you do if a young E6 arrived to your team with some severe bad habits on marksmanship and room clearing?

On the ODA the Team Sergeant would either take the errant one under his wing and retrain him, or designate one of the other team members to retrain him. Some individuals (not many) are too immature to retrain and their bad habits are due to more to personality traits than bad training, and in that case we would try to get him off the team. If that failed how he would be employed would be limited(outside security), versus putting him on a clearing team would be another option. This is a relatively easy problem to address. However to make it more relevant to what we're discussing let's assume that the majority of the team has bad habits and their culturally accepted and a new CPT (team leader is assigned who was a former NCO and well trained). He realizes he has work cut out for him to retrain the team, and may even have to fire some of the team members, but to his surprise he finds out that the bad habits and culture extends to the Bn and Group, and any changes he tries to make will be opposed and he will actually be at risk for trying to do the right thing. That is where we're at with our COIN doctrine.

Bill M---part of the cultural problem for SF so to speak is that their own internal culture of the mid 80s until GWOT up to now was in fact DA and Strat recon as that is how they survived the VN drawdown and rebuild period.

Those of us that were part of SF in the late 50s through to 1973 fully understood and could blindfolded practice, COIN/FID/UW ops or even shift to a conventional fight with UW in support of a conventional fight.

IE we had the Bad Toelz area and we had Det A in Berlin for UW, we had team members who had been on ODAs supporting the CIDG program, members who had been on White Star missions, most of us had also trained in the Jungle Warfare Center, members who been in Project Delta, members who had worked with the VN National Police as part of the Phoenix program, both National and Corp level MIKE forces, Desert One, Son Tay, members of Road Runner teams and the list goes on into the early 70s with the support to the King of Jordan in Sept 1970 and training elements of the Greek Army who were part of the Greek putsch government.

We had no cultural problems---there is inside SF today a major war going on over VSO and the command of SF is being constantly rotated as part of the "Joint" concept. Old SF in the mid 80s fought hard to get the first BG assigned as the SF Cmdr (he had to come out of the SF force)---now it is AF, then Marines, then Navy---joint has not helped at all.

And UW as practiced by my generation---where are those teachers?--all retired ---there was no knowledge transfer so SF is relearning it all over again.


I was speaking of a fictional organizational culture to illustrate a point in response to MikeF's question, not an actual cultural problem in our ranks (at least not for the example given). The point is our COIN doctrine is culturally accepted by the larger DOD culture, so challenging its tentants will likely be unsuccessful.

Getting to your point, when I entered SF those old timers you speak of were team sergeants, SGMs, and a few senior E7s with Vietnam and other relevant Cold War experiences, plus a hand full of officers. I lived through the transition of a UW focused force to spending a lot of time practicing DA/SR, and to be frank a lot of those DA/SR missions weren't much value added, and had little probability of success at that time. The technology now changes the probability of success, but none the less you're right that we have lost our UW centric culture. I do think it is on the rebound though.

Some of things I recall:

We had 3 active duty SF Groups and one of them was on the chopping blocks (7th). Although unconventional warfare was happeing globally, the Army didn't see a need for UW. The myopic view of many senior Army leaders was there was only one no fail mission and that was defending Western Europe, and if you didn't contribute to that mission your funding was at risk. Obviously UW could have contributed signficantly to that mission, but the Clauswitzian bias on the thinking of our leaders led them to see value only in directing effects against the Soviet military forces in a direct manner (SR/DA). Fortunately the leaders with a more holistic vision won out over the one way Charlies and SF not only survived it expanded. Still in many regards the harm was already done.

LTG Guest felt the only way to protect to SF was to tie them to existing war plans in a conventional way (SR and DA), and while I don't know if this was true or not, some said he only did it to weather the storm and hoped to bring SF back into the UW fold.

I also recall the self inflicted wound when Delta was first standing up. Some SF leaders fought tooth and nail to keep that mission in SF which quite frankly distracted from our UW focus. A 12 man ODA is not the ideal task organization for Direct Action, but SF Soldiers are frequently ideal men to man the more specialized SOF organizations (much as they did in Vietnam). That resistance drove a divide between two organizations that should have had a complimentary relationship, but again many leaders saw everything as threat to our budget and made what now appear to be some irrational decisions.

Post Desert Storm several SF officers (seniors and their junior lap dogs) and some of dumbest SF CSMs to ever curse SF claimed UW was dead and the focus du jure was coalition ops (always refight the last war), so our guys had to become masters of conventional warfare. The old timers had to find unique ways to keep the UW body of knowledge alive. Sort of like the monastaries keeping advanced Western civilization alive during the dark ages. We have SF officers today that think SERE is a waste of time and want to eliminate it, because they don't believe SF will be a position where they will be isolated persons. That leaves more time for what they consider more relevant training. The dumb ideas just keep rolling in like waves hitting a beach.

Another detrement to our UW culture were the SF officers that felt it was important to maintain a close relationship with the Army, and in fact were more conventionally minded than Special Operations minded despite claims to the contrary. As commanders they ensured SF didn't drift too far away from conventional thinking and practices, and constantly reminded us we were soldiers first. Few of us were sure what the hell they were talking about, since we assumed we understood what it meant to be a muddy boot soldier, so they must have meant garrison crap and ensuring we run our rifle ranges like a third grader (the way the Army did then when every soldier was treated like a fool) to ensure we conformed. Our goal was to get into the bush so we could get away from these idiots and train.

The worst factor to impact us over the years was micromanagement. It increased to the point that almost all training is mandated from higher, and it is impossible to accomplish all the mandated tasks to any level of efficiency. Team Sergeants lost the art of training their teams for their missions, because now they are only allow be executers of someone else's plan to ensure we're all standardized and not drifting too far from conventional army crap, such as randomly selecting 10 Army Common Tasks that have to tested annually even if they have nothing to do with your mission. Our team sergeants are still quite capable, but they'll have to relearn the art of designing training to enable ODAs to do UW again. Know doubt they will if given the chance.

Post 9/11 the information technology has enabled micromangement, and sadly since it was enabled our leadership embraced it for that purpose. There was time when an ODA was given a mission they didn't have to ask mother may I for every move outside the wire, but that time no longer exists and this new culture of control is severely limiting what SF could do. That means senior leaders have to be prepared to underwrite mistakes when their made, and they will be, but more often than not the results will be largely positive.

If we're serious about SF becoming a UW centric culture again, I think the only way to make it work is to form an OSS like organization, and those who want to stay married to the conventional Army should stay there. The conventional army has a critical role, more often than not more critical than SF, but they have their role and we have ours, and while they are often mutually supporting, but they shouldn't be the same roles.

I do think we are relearning, and there are some good ideas getting serious consideration now due to influential leaders tired of the B.S. and committed to changing the system. If they're successful our nation will be better off for it.

Bill M---well put---the point of no return for SF's future will be if they seriously learn from the VSO program.

JSOC is fine at the kill/capture side of the house but the day to day grind with the local population and more importantly if VSO is sucessful at countering the Taliban shadow government---then there is a SF basis for UW.


Two Field Grade SF Officers (and former Rugby teammates of mine) passed this along last night,

"Men, Special Forces is a mistress. Your wives will envy her because she will have your hearts. Your wives will be jealous of her because of the power to pull you away. This mistress will show you things never before seen and experience things never before felt. She will love you, but only a little, seducing you to want more, give more, die for her. She will take you away from the ones you love, and you will hate her for it, but leave her you never will, but if you must, you will miss her, for she has a part of you that will never be returned intact.

And in the end, she will leave you for a younger man."

James R. Ward, OSS