LITTLE IS HEARD OF U.S. involvement in counterinsurgency (COIN) in Colombia. That which does appear is often inaccurate and ideologically skewed. Yet progress in America's "number three war" has been significant and appears all the more impressive given the increasing difficulties experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What is noteworthy is that the approach being used is "classic counterinsurgency." In this, there is considerable irony, because many of the significant aspects of the campaign were developed and implemented by American-educated leaders, assisted, both directly and indirectly, by Americans. That the Colombians have improved upon the original foundation makes examination of the case all the more compelling and urgent.
Background to Conflict
Upon taking office in August 2002, President Alvaro Uribe Velez of Colombia was faced with a difficult strategic situation that required a fresh approach. This was forthcoming in a new document, the Democratic Security and Defense Policy, which radically reoriented the state's posture from negotiating with to confronting its principal security challenge, an insurgency inextricably linked to the narcotics trade and other criminal activity.
Although multifaceted in its dimensions, the new policy effectively assigned the cutting-edge role to the Colombian armed forces, most prominently the dominant service, the army. It required the forces to pursue COIN aggressively against a well-funded, entrenched adversary within a complex international environment decidedly unsympathetic to internal war campaigns. Regardless, the armed forces performed in impressive fashion.
These same armed forces had already set the stage for the shift in policy by pursuing a reform movement that had enabled them to conduct more aggressive operations even as Uribe's predecessor, President Andres Pastrana (1998-2002), had unsuccessfully sought a negotiated settlement with the main insurgent group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), and to a lesser extent with the distant second group, Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional, or ELN (National Liberation Army). Continued combat was necessary because neither FARC nor ELN altered its military posture during negotiations. To the contrary, FARC used Bogota's provision of what was supposed to be demilitarized space, the Zona de Despeje (or Area de Distension), to facilitate an intensification of the conflict via main force warfare while it continued to conduct terror and guerrilla actions.
Thus, Colombia's COIN approach during the Pastrana years was not the result of deliberation and consultation within the government, but of an uneasy, unstated compromise, as Pastrana and his intimates negotiated with a duplicitous insurgent leadership on one hand, while on the other, they confronted the security force's growing unwillingness to accept the administration's increasingly discredited strategic calculus. When, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, Pastrana attempted to push through a second Zona, this one for the ELN, he faced a virtual popular revolt in the designated area. Cutting his losses prior to the first round of that year's presidential elections, Pastrana ordered the military in February 2002 to reoccupy the original Zona.
Situation Prior to Uribe's Election
Lack of government leadership during the Pastrana years had left security matters to the army (Ejerctio Nacional, or COLAR); navy, of which the marines were a part; and air force. The state, in other words, did not engage in counterinsurgency. This meant that although annual military plans included a basic civic action component, they were necessarily incomplete. That this did not prove disastrous stemmed from the nature of the major security threat, FARC (ELN was essentially a law and order concern).