Case Analysis: The FARC in Colombia
Lee E. Taylor II
Introduction & Background
Colombia’s longstanding conflict against the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—the country’s main insurgent group, known as FARC—provides scholars and strategists with a counterinsurgency case study spanning over fifty years. While no insurgency is alike, FARC is particularly unique in this regard as it is arguably one of the longest running guerilla movements. It was not until recently that the Colombian government and armed forces began achieving significant strides in combating the insurgents, ultimately reaching a peace agreement in June of 2017. Beginning with a brief historical overview of FARC, this paper intends to address and analyze the state’s approach to counterinsurgency (COIN) over the years, identifying successes and failures at the tactical-level, strategic-level, and the assessment process. Additionally, this paper suggests potentially relevant amendments to strategy that could have been considered by the Colombian government. An understanding of this particular case offers not only relevant lessons for the U.S. in our continuing small wars operations, but also on national interests in Colombia—including economic considerations and counter-narcotics efforts—could become threatened by FARC’s dissident groups.
Arguably fitting the mold of an egalitarian insurgency movement, early FARC ideology was rooted in Marxist-Leninist philosophy. Identifying a singular event marking the beginning of the FARC is not easy, but some argue that as early as 1964 the Colombian government tried and failed to eradicate a small group of communist “independent republics.”[i] Many escaped, evolving over the following years into communist guerillas. Throughout the 1970s they infiltrated rural villages, spreading Marxist ideology and steadily grew in numbers. The group operated with enough latitude to eventually establish a reputable base of logistical support. FARC reached approximately 3,600 members with 32 fronts by the end of the 1980s.[ii] Their overarching strategy included a long-term plan to build sufficient military power in contesting the federal government, ultimately aiming to take control of Colombia and liberate the people of capitalist and imperialist influence, as outlined in the 7th FARC Conference of 1982.[iii] Initially, FARC modeled its insurgency after Maoist guerilla theory, trained by Vietnamese, Cuban, and El Salvadorian operators to utilize mass mobilization—[iv] FARC would eventually abandon this doctrine for terror-centric tactics, discussed later in this assessment.
Doctrinal Evolution – 1964 to 2002
Early Colombian counterinsurgency doctrine would continue much in the same way it began against the “independent republics,” with an enemy-centric approach that levied much of the responsibility on the army (COLAR). Julio César Turbay, President of Colombia from 1978 to 1982, set the precedent with a statute that afforded the military great freedom in pursuing, detaining, and in some cases torturing guerillas and suspected collaborators.[v] This did not help to reaffirm government legitimacy in Colombia, struggling at a time of financial crisis and drug trafficking. A DoD analysis of FARC in Colombia suggests this actually contributed quite positively to FARC’s image and recruiting presence, bolstering the insurgent’s reputation as the “people’s army” in combatting a corrupted government. The Colombian government responded by initiating a new policy in the early 1980s, including greater concern for integration of FARC into the political process. Negotiations took place in the remote Sumapaz mountain ranges, but many critics still noted the government’s inability to achieve progress in coercing FARC to surrender their arms. Private actors formed their own security services, lacking faith in the federal government. Responding again in 1991, Colombia’s congress successfully reformed aspects of the constitution that addressed grievances previously exploited by the insurgent movement: Government corruption, citizen rights, and government decentralization.[vi] The primary security concern had yet to be resolved, although small strides were made in establishing government legitimacy and detracting from FARC’s appeal.
While the FARC never retained sufficient military capabilities to directly contest the government’s armed forces, the guerillas achieved moderate success in challenging small formations, eventually growing large enough to harass military bases. FARC succeeded in sabotaging oil facilities and pipelines, extorting both big oil companies and the federal government as means of financial support. “Throughout the 1990s the FARC continued to expand, surging to over 10,000 members and over 60 fronts.”[vii] They continued to launch deadly offensives, including a three-day campaign that attempted to take the capital city of Vaupes by force in 1998. These combat capabilities were achieved under the direction of professional commanders, many of whom received military training from within the Soviet bloc countries. It became increasingly difficult for the military to confront the insurgents tactically following FARC’s participation in the drug trafficking trade, beginning in the early 1980s (although this would fail to foster long-term strategic success for the group, mentioned later). According to estimates of security forces in Bogota, the insurgency’s revenue for 1998 had reached $285 million in USD, aiding in the acquisition of more advanced weaponry.[viii] FARC leveraged their successes to demand a zona de despeje, demilitarized spaces granted by the government in exchange for advancing a potential peace agreement.
President Pastrana, taking office in 1998, continued to unsuccessfully pursue negotiated settlements with FARC, allowing the insurgents to exploit demilitarized zone around Bogota as safe haven. It was thus the responsibility of the armed forces to respond to insurgent successes. Military reformers with a foundationally understanding of counterinsurgency would fill the leadership deficit left by Pastrana, including General Tapias, General Mora, and General Ospina (who would later become Commander of the Colombian Army). COLAR made key adjustments in pursuit of taking the tactical advantage over FARC, enhancing professional military education programs, joint operations training, and—most notably—transforming a primarily draftee army into a professional, volunteer force. The military's COIN framework relied on the geographic positioning of 18 COLAR brigades, utilizing counter-guerrilla units and joint task forces to strike essential targets, while draftee formations maintained presence in local areas.[ix] Despite COLAR’s operational successes following these changes, the government had yet to dedicate sufficient political will or the necessary resources to support good COIN strategy. Pastrana is heavily criticized for the state’s lacking strategic involvement that made it difficult to consolidate territorial gains made by COLAR. U.S. aid and assistance to Colombia throughout this period, in the form of Plan Colombia, could not assist much in this regard, as the initiative was restricted exclusively to counter-narcotics (CN) efforts, creating a firm barrier between CN and COIN.[x]
Uribe's Democratic Security & Defense Policy
President Alvaro Uribe Velez is credited with imposing the doctrinal modifications that most appropriately supported Colombia’s counterinsurgency campaign against FARC. Uribe’s Democratic Security and Defense Policy, the government’s new COIN strategy, recognized that negotiations with FARC were highly unlikely to prove successful, and reintegrating FARC into the political process would rely heavily on compelling the insurgents with armed action. The new policy identifies a dual center of gravity among the insurgency: 1) the insurgent units themselves; and 2) their sources of sustenance.[xi] The armed forces—still primarily COLAR—would continue leading the effort with the support of the National Police and other key actors, all under the Minister of Defense to centrally focus efforts. Most importantly, however, the Democratic Security approach directly addresses the lack of personal security in Colombia, prescribing methods of re-establishing state presence and civil function across territories. President Uribe would capitalize on advances made by COLAR following their internal reforms, introducing home garrisons and increased state responsibilities following the army’s territorial victories. This closely parallels the “clear, hold, build” method established in Army FM 3-24. Understanding that success is directly dependent on political commitment, Uribe levied a one-time war tax that raised $670 million.[xii] The government dedicated the resources necessary to place a “grid” over Colombia, first clearing strategic areas with COLAR and Joint Command, then establishing a sufficient security force to allow for the restoration of local government. The military continued with their reformations—draftees were substituted with volunteers at the rate of 10,000 per year—as local forces were trained and armed.[xiii] The integration of police and local forces consolidated gains that had eluded Uribe’s predecessors, adding legitimacy to Colombia’s democratic process. The renewed involvement of the state extended efforts beyond just the military and security services, depending on increased cooperation with judicial and civil authorities. State services were strengthened and improved under the Democratic Security approach, allowing COLAR to not only retain focus on their primary objective—to combat the insurgency—but also avoid alienating the population by bearing legal responsibility, as had occurred in the past.
While not sufficient in defeating the insurgency, COLAR achieved tactical successes that were necessary to fully support the Democratic Security policy. Plan Patriota was the military’s operational strategy for addressing the two centers of gravity mentioned earlier. Reflecting on the experience, General Ospina writes that COLAR's mobile brigades were one of the most important resources in this regard.[xiv] These self-sustaining counter-guerrillas could harass and engage the insurgents for long periods of time, "forcing them to fight, wearing them down, preventing them from resting, and especially making them see that this action would be permanent."[xv] The military reform process that began under President Pastrana and continued throughout Uribe’s presidency produced more effective warfighters, leveraging Plan Patriota with tactically inclined soldiers. Non-commissioned officer professionalism enhanced small unit leadership, the transition from draftee to volunteer rendered warfighters of higher quality, and realistic training programs fostered adaptability in the field. The battlefield successes that followed were, by estimates of the military, forcing FARC onto the defensive. By 2004, Ospina estimates that FARC reached an average desertion rate of 7.8 insurgents per day.[xvi] Plan Patriota was successfully debilitating FARC’s ability to recruit, sustain, and initiate, all key tenets of Uribe’s strategy forcing FARC to the negotiating table.
Tactical- and strategic-level successes worked in tandem in Colombia, supporting one another to restore a state of normalcy among daily life. With the issue of personal security improving, Uribe's policy could address the overarching political-strategic hurdle of fully restoring and maintaining government legitimacy. In irregular warfare with asymmetric victory conditions, legitimacy can be regarded as the government's center of gravity. Uribe secured this in two significant ways, both including a renewed respect for the law. First, Uribe asserted that counterinsurgency objectives must be achieved legally, stepping far away from the practices of the 1970s that included torture. This also meant the government would cut ties with illegal paramilitary forces—those that evolved from the aforementioned private actors practicing their own means of security—as the government had previously armed and encouraged the actors, depressing public confidence.[xvii] Second, an independent and effective justice system is necessary in establishing trust and legitimacy among the people. This lends the strategic advantage of discrediting insurgent rhetoric, so long as the state’s justice system is truly fair. Colombia has improved their justice system in several ways, including increased capabilities in combatting drug trafficking and a general transition from an inquisitive justice system to an accusatory system (likening their system to that of the United States).[xviii]
COIN Assessment Under President Uribe
Seeking an accurate reflection of progress in conducting counterinsurgency operations requires a balance of quantitative and qualitative assessments, which often do not work harmoniously. Policymakers are inclined to rely on quantitative metrics, demanding structured progress reports that can articulate data quickly. This is especially true for business-minded leaders, as we have seen in Secretary McNamara’s pursuit of “body count” and Hamlet Evaluation assessment models. While quantitative metrics build the foundation for analysis, overreliance on them alone does not leave a strategist with situational context. One could argue this is a particularly important consideration in protracted conflicts, as insurgencies are often shrouded in ambiguity and evolving objectives.[xix] Quantitative methods risk oversimplifying the nature of irregular warfare, but they are relatively easy to convey and comprehend—this creates a demand, sacrificing accuracy for efficiency (as was evident for the U.S. in Vietnam).
Colombia was not immune to similar pitfalls in measuring success throughout Uribe’s new strategic approach. “Political authorities and the press felt it necessary to give the public the numerical equivalent of sound bites that elevated quantitative measures to heights the military itself did not subscribe to."[xx] Many of these political figures held strong business backgrounds, paralleling McNamara’s inclination to apply civilian sector concepts. Metrics demanded and consumed by these politicians and media outlets highlighted many of FARC’s tactical-level successes—including mine casualties among security forces—but lacked situational context.[xxi] Further, assessments were highly politicized as president Uribe sought re-election—“abuse of statistics became a routine part of the present political debate surrounding President Uribe’s desire to earn a second term.”[xxii] Quantitative analysis of COIN progress fostered misconceptions, giving otherwise inconsequential FARC attacks strategic value. This was done intentionally at times as President Uribe’s political enemies fabricated statistics to suggest significant proliferations of FARC incidents.[xxiii]
The Colombian armed forces did not share the same reliance for quantitative explanations in measuring strategic-level success against FARC. General Ospina, as a student of the American War in Vietnam, warned of dangers associated with the “Vietnam body count trap.” Less interested in purely quantitative metrics, General Ospina urged for an assessment of the situation’s nature. The empirical reality in measuring COIN progress reflects the nature of FARC attacks—casualty counts and force-exchange ratios tell a different story if FARC maintains the initiative throughout the incident, or if the insurgents had been on the defensive (like the aforementioned mine casualties). In this regard COLAR was trained not to count bodies, but rather to measure FARC’s initiative and armed capacity. “The least reliable way to judge results is to match FARC casualties with the organization’s order of battle. The top figure of some 17,000 combatants (reached during the Pastrana administration) is now put at below 13,000…”[xxiv] COLAR recognized success at times when it was possible to measure the degradation of FARC’s ability to initiate attacks and sustain itself (discovering dwindling supply cashes and a sharp rise in FARC desertions, for example). An important lesson exists here for policymakers and strategists alike. Even credible reports of FARC-initiated attacks can suggest progress when judged qualitatively, such as the insurgent’s transition from main-force warfare to terror-based tactics.
Missteps & Missed Opportunities
FARC’s strategic decisions in response to President Uribe’s Democratic Security Policy began to highlight the group’s political weakness. The government’s increased military pressures forced the insurgents to abandon attempts of transitioning to maneuver warfare, resorting to terrorism and defensive measures. As previously mentioned, FARC placed great stock in the use of anti-personnel mines, a major strategic error. Improvised mines and explosives—as indiscriminate weapons of destruction that are internationally banned—contributed significantly to FARC’s lack of popular support. Polls consistently found the movement with minimal sympathy.[xxv] Of the 11,000 Colombians killed or seriously injured by FARC’s mines, almost 50% were civilians.[xxvi] FARC’s increased reliance on kidnapping and violent crimes for funding also proved detrimental in this regard as well, as did their alliance with the narcos. From the U.S. Marine Corps’ interpretation of Mao Tse-Tung’s On Guerrilla Warfare, “Mao has aptly compared guerrillas to fish, and the people to the water in which they swim. If the political temperature is right, the fish, however few in number, will thrive and proliferate. It is therefore the principal concern of all guerrilla leaders to get the water to the right temperature and to keep it there.”[xxvii] Instead, Colombia’s guerilla movement alienated themselves from the people at a time when their lacking military posture desperately needed a base of popular support. Their transition over the decades from the “people’s war” to Che’s foquismo apparently proved self-destructive.
While this recognizes a strategic misstep on the insurgent’s behalf, the government missed opportunities to capitalize on and fully exploit it. As local forces secured affected areas, insurgents were forced to move. Now fractioned into smaller groups, it became easier for strike units to track and eliminate FARC leaders—similar to the mobile brigades maintaining engagement with FARC, but specifically speaking of operations that target leadership. While this was employed as effective psychological warfare, soldiers routinely fell prey to anti-personnel mines in pursuit of insurgents through the dense jungle. The targeting of high-value leaders generates attention, bolstering public and political support, but perhaps not decisively enough to justify the risk. Considering the strategic value of eliminating FARC leadership is measured by its use as propaganda, the counterinsurgent could have similarly exploited FARC’s indiscriminate use of mines as rhetoric to eradicate any remaining—and already dwindling—forms of active or passive support for the guerillas. It appears President Uribe did not fully leverage this potentially valuable use of propaganda. Additionally, the government could have considered investing in more advanced close air support and strike capabilities as a force multiplier, continuing the prosecution of high-value targets with reduced risk to personnel.
Another key criticism is the government’s lack of regard for transportation-communications infrastructure as an influential factor. Colombia is a large country with unforgiving terrain and a relatively large rural population. Bard O'Neill, director of insurgency studies at the National War College, makes note that guerilla war is common in underdeveloped countries because of poor transportation and communication networks, isolating rural inhabitants.[xxviii] With these conditions present in Colombia, poor infrastructure favors the insurgent. Appropriating funds to a large-scale project developing roadways and communication avenues would make sense strategically from the government’s perspective, easing the strain on resources in responding to the insurgency and providing security. As FARC’s base of support has always been rural rather than urban, imposing a strategy to connect remote, strategic regions could have assisted COLAR and the state in their approach to COIN.
Today, some 2,000 former-FARC revolutionaries have refused to demobilize, despite a 2017 peace agreement that reformed the guerilla movement into a formal political party, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force. Colombia’s current president, Ivan Duque Marquez, should certainly remain mindful of the lessons learned from the 1964 to 2010 experience (the year Uribe left office), as should bordering nation states, considering FARC dissidents are spilling into Peru and Ecuador. Uribe has demonstrated that the counterinsurgent, even as a democratically-elected institution, must regard legitimacy as a commodity that the government has to defend. National integration was crucial in this regard, promising a basic level of personal security and following through with a consolidation of tactical successes, restoring a state of “normalcy” for citizens. In Colombia, an enemy-centric approach to COIN has proven not only viable, but necessary in combatting the FARC—this is not likely to change for the fighters that remain. There is a lesson for the U.S., as well. American assistance to Colombia received little attention throughout this paper because, while the billions of U.S. dollars dedicated to military support was substantial, this was still a campaign developed and driven by Colombia. U.S. assistance was most effective only after the de-segregation of CN and COIN support—directly related to shifting U.S. interests after 9/11—better aligning U.S. aid with a Colombian-led strategy. As today’s self-described “FARC rebels” continue engaging in criminal activity and drug trafficking, it is not unreasonable to envision a scenario in which the U.S. government reverts to their counter-narcotics focus. Tangential to the issue of an insurgency, this would likely prove to be an inefficient distribution of resources.
[i] Major Jon-Paul Maddaloni, 'An Analysis of the FARC in Colombia: Breaking the Frame of FM 3-24,' School of Advanced Military Studies, U.S. DoD, 2009.
[iv] Thomas Marks, "A Model Counterinsurgency: Uribe's Colombia (2002-2006) vs. FARC," Military Review 87/2 (Mar-Apr 2007), 50.
[v] Major Maddaloni, 'An Analysis of the FARC in Colombia'
[viii] Roman Ortiz, "Insurgent Strategies in the Post-Cold War: The Case
of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 25/2 (January 2011), 129.
[ix] Marks, "A Model Counterinsurgency,” 52.
[x] Ibid, 51.
[xi] Marks, "A Model Counterinsurgency,” 50.
[xii] Ibid, 55.
[xiii] Ibid, 56.
[xiv] Carlos Ospina Ovalle, "Was FARC Militarily Defeated?" Small Wars & Insurgencies 28/3 (June 2017), 537.
[xvi] Ibid, 539.
[xvii] David Spencer, "Lessons from Colombia’s Road to Recovery -- 1982 to 2010," National Defense University, Strategic Issues in U.S./Latin American Relations 2/1 (May 2012), 25.
[xviii] Spencer, "Lessons from Colombia’s Road to Recovery," 29.
[xix] Emily Mushen & Jonathan Schroden, "Are We Winning? A Brief History of Military Operations Assessment," CNA Analysis & Solutions (September 2014), 35.
[xx] Marks, "A Model Counterinsurgency,” 59.
[xxi] Ibid, 60.
[xxiii] Marks, "A Model Counterinsurgency,” 60.
[xxiv] Ibid, 59.
[xxv] Ibid, 50.
[xxvi] John Otis, "Inside the Struggle to Clear Colombia of Mines," TIME USA, April 2015, https://time.com/3767261/farc-colombia-mines/
[xxvii] U.S. Marine Corps, 'Mao Tse-Tung on Guerrilla Warfare,' FMFRP 12-18, U.S. DoD.
[xxviii] Bard O’Neill, Insurgency & Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005), 77.