â€œThe FARC have tried to go on the offensive, but they have not been able to do so,â€ said Gen. Reinaldo Castellanos, the head of the Colombian Army, back in December. â€œMilitarily they are evidently in retreat.â€
That statement, a pretty common one during the past year or two, has been called seriously into doubt by events of the past two weeks. After a long period of only sporadically committing acts of violence large enough to make the news, the guerrillas have launched a series of large-scale attacks, ambushes and pitched battles against the Colombian military.
- IscuandÃ©, NariÃ±o, February 1: An estimated 200 FARC fighters carried out a nighttime surprise attack on a riverine marine post near the Pacific coast in Colombiaâ€™s far southwest. The guerrillas launched homemade mortars, made from the small gas tanks that Americans know from their household gas grills, at the sixty mostly sleeping marines stationed there. Over half of the contingent were â€œcampesino marines,â€ participants in a Uribe government program that stations volunteer soldiers in their home towns after giving them three months of training. Fifteen marines were killed, and twenty-six were wounded.
- Puerto AsÃs, Putumayo, February 2: In an Iraq-style roadside bombing, guerrillas detonated mines just as a truckload of soldiers passed by. The attack occurred on the well-traveled road between Puerto AsÃs, Putumayoâ€™s largest city, and the town of Santa Ana, which hosts a military base, about ten miles to the north. The area has a significant military and police presence; much of it is funded by the United States, since Putumayo, a province in southwestern Colombia, was the initial focus of â€œPlan Colombiaâ€ 4-5 years ago. Eight soldiers were killed and five were wounded.
- Vistahermosa, Meta, February 2: Combat between guerrillas and Colombian forces killed five soldiers and twelve guerrillas. Vistahermosa, one of five south-central Colombian municipalities that was demilitarized to host the failed 1998-2002 FARC peace talks, is now part of the large zone where â€œPlan Patriota,â€ an ambitious U.S.-supported military offensive begun more than a year ago, is taking place.
- Pasto-Tumaco highway, NariÃ±o, February 7: In the only one of these attacks to target civilians, guerrillas staged several roadblocks on a heavily traveled highway in southwestern Colombia, burning several trucks, buses and taxis. Security forces arrived in time to prevent the kidnapping of twelve people.
- MutatÃ¡, Antioquia, February 8-9: The military killed several FARC fighters during firefights in an indigenous village in the UrabÃ¡ region near Panama. As the soldiers were returning to their base, the guerrillas regrouped and ambushed them. Nineteen soldiers and eleven guerrillas were killed. Gen. HÃ©ctor Fandino, the chief of the army unit responsible for UrabÃ¡ (17th Brigade), was relieved of his command.
- FARC activity in January: The FARC carried out a few large-scale actions in January as well, including a New Yearâ€™s massacre of sixteen civilians in Tame, Arauca; the killing of seven soldiers in a Tolima minefield, and an attack on a Tolima jail that freed 20 guerrillas.
(On a personal note, the two roadside attacks in the above list are unsettling because Iâ€™ve been on both of those stretches of road within the past year.)
End of the â€œtactical retreatâ€?
The early February eruption reminds Colombians of the 1996-2002 period in which the FARC â€“ attempting to move from hit-and-run guerrilla activity to what Mao called the â€œwar of positionâ€ â€“ launched frequent large-scale attacks on both military and civilian targets, occasionally overrunning rural towns and military outposts. The news of the past two weeks has analysts in Colombia wondering whether these days have returned. As Semana magazineâ€™s excellent cover story / editorial on the subject noted, on the morning of the IscuandÃ© attack
The news sounded like something from another era. The majority of Colombians had forgotten what it was like to wake up, turn on the radio, and hear an account of a violent takeover of a town, as occurred so often several years ago. Above all when memories are fresh of holiday vacations in which Colombians were able to travel throughout the country in peace, when highway traffic increased by 30 percent, when murders dropped by 15 percent in 2004, kidnappings 42 percent and forced displacement 37 percent.
Why did the FARCâ€™s â€œwar of positionâ€ stop after 2002? Supporters of Ãlvaro Uribe give the credit to his governmentâ€™s â€œDemocratic Securityâ€ policy, which continued the previous Pastrana governmentâ€™s increases in defense spending and military manpower, while deploying the security forces throughout the country and involving civilians as informants.
Of course the policy gets some credit â€“ it seems as though Colombiaâ€™s violence levels began their documented decline exactly in August 2002, after Uribe was sworn in. But skeptics insist that there is more going on. After all, they point out, the reductions in official measures of violence â€“ especially guerrilla violence â€“ are much greater than the increases in defense spending or military and police manpower. How, for instance, does a 28 percent increase in force strength lead to a 69 percent decrease in attacks on towns, or a 57 percent decline in massacres?
Official statistics show changes in security results during the Uribe presidency that are often far greater than increases in defense spending or force strength.
Colombian government sources consulted:
Departamento Nacional de PlaneaciÃ³n, La seguridad democrÃ¡tica en el Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2003 â€“ 2006 (PowerPoint)
Ministerio de Defensa Nacional, SituaciÃ³n Presupuestal del Ministerio de Defensa para el AÃ±o 2005 (PowerPoint)
Presidencia de la RepÃºblica, Resultados Seguridad DemocrÃ¡tica (Excel)
Presidency / Defense Ministry: The Effectiveness of the Colombian Democratic Security and Defence Policy August 2002 – August 2003 (PDF)
Vicepresidencia de la RepÃºblica, Resumen Ejecutivo del Informe Anual de Derechos Humanos 2005 (Word)
Skeptics also point out that the Uribe governmentâ€™s counter-offensive has so far had little impact on the guerrillasâ€™ leadership or force structure. â€œThey still have yet to step on the head of the snake,â€ says retired Gen. Manuel Bonnett, a former armed forces chief. Adds Alfredo Rangel, an advisor to the Pastrana governmentâ€™s Defense Ministry whose Security and Democracy Foundation is now a main source of critical appraisals of the Uribe security policies, â€œAccording to our analysis, the FARC have been badly hit in Cundinamarca [near BogotÃ¡] and eastern Antioquia [near MedellÃn], where they practically donâ€™t exist. But in the rest of the country, including the Plan Patriota zone, they are intact.â€
The most common explanation for the drastically reduced 2002-2004 guerrilla violence, then, is that the FARC chose to go into a â€œtactical retreatâ€ in response to the Uribe governmentâ€™s offensive. Faced with a â€œstormâ€ called Democratic Security, this theory goes, the guerrilla leadership decided to wait it out, as they had done previous presidentsâ€™ â€œtotal warâ€ efforts that eventually faded away. They retreated deep into the jungle, called a halt to most mass attacks on towns and bases, and ordered their fronts to avoid most engagements, limiting themselves to ambushes, snipers, mine-laying and similar small-scale surprise strikes.
By some measures, though, the FARC has remained quite active. A recent report by the Security and Democracy Foundation found that â€œthe number of insurgent attacks during Uribeâ€™s first two years â€“ about 900 â€“ is almost equal to all of the attacks that took place during the Pastrana administrationâ€™s four years â€“ 907.â€ Most of these 900 attacks, though, have been much smaller in scale than what came before.
So is the â€œtactical retreatâ€ ending? Itâ€™s really impossible to say. The FARC itself has never acknowledged that it was ever in any sort of retreat or slowdown. However, in a December 27 missive, the FARCâ€™s Eastern Bloc predicted that â€œour combat against Plan Patriota and other current war operations will transition from resistance to assault.â€
During the past 2 Â½ years, there have been periods of a week or two in which it appeared as though FARC activity was increasing, only to die down again afterward. (One example is June-July 2004, which saw a FARC massacre of 34 coca-pickers in the Catatumbo region of northeastern Colombia, an attack on an army column in Putumayo that killed thirteen soldiers, and a series of coordinated attacks on towns in NariÃ±o, among other events.) It is impossible to know whether the latest attacks are any different.
The Uribe security team, of course, assures us that everything is under control. While contending that the Democratic Security policy is working, President Uribe has blamed the recent setbacks on military mistakes. IscuandÃ© was the result of poor discipline; Puerto AsÃs owed to an officerâ€™s unauthorized decision to deploy troops; MutatÃ¡ cost a brigade commander his job. While his column in yesterdayâ€™s El Tiempo predicts that the February attacks spell the end of the FARCâ€™s â€œretreatâ€ and the beginning of the Democratic Security policyâ€™s â€œbreakdown,â€ Rangel does not expect a â€œmassive counter-offensiveâ€ to be in the offing. Instead, â€œthe situation could grow worse as elections [legislative late this year, presidential next year] draw near.â€
Why now? – political reasons
Why would the FARC choose this moment to go on the attack? Perhaps to coincide with the 2 Â½ year anniversary of the Uribe government, though that wouldnâ€™t make much sense. Perhaps to knock the paramilitary negotiations off course: MutatÃ¡, after all, lies on the edge of the zone where the AUCâ€™s Bananero Bloc, which demobilized its 450 members in November, used to operate. If we see FARC activity in other zones where paramilitaries laid down arms, such as Catatumbo or southern Valle de Cauca province, we will know that the guerrillas aim is to disrupt the AUC talks.
The timing may also be explained by another political objective: to prove that Colombia is indeed embroiled in an armed conflict. While that may seem obvious, the Uribe governmentâ€™s repeated position is that no conflict exists in Colombia. It was common knowledge that President Uribe would insist on this point at the February 2-3 meeting of international donors assembled in Cartagena, and indeed it was a central argument in his opening speech. â€œI have asked that our reality of violence not be called a conflict. It is a terrorist challenge to Colombian society and democratic institutions,â€ Uribe said, with an eye toward getting the international community to endorse this view.
While it sounds like so much semantic nonsense, it really does matter whether or not Colombiaâ€™s violence is considered a â€œconflict.â€ If the Uribe government can get the international community to avoid using the â€œc-word,â€ it can score a key tactical victory by taking away whatever international political space the FARC had left. If there is no conflict, then the FARC is not a combatant with political demands â€“ and therefore negotiations with the guerrillas about anything other than terms of disarmament are out of the question.
Far more troubling is that if no conflict exists, the standards of international humanitarian law do not apply. Even those who surrender stand a chance of being killed. Standards for treatment of prisoners are watered down. Medical missions, like the Red Cross, are at greater risk. The distinction between combatants and civilians need not be recognized.
In international legal terms, Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions, which includes all of these standards, only applies in conflicts between
Armed forces and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol. This Protocol shall not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature, as not being armed conflicts.
If Uribe can convince the world that the FARC do not meet the standard of â€œdissident armed forces,â€ then Protocol II does not kick in.
Like it or not â€“ and even though they commit frequent acts of terrorism â€“ the FARC still qualifies. â€œDespite all of their barbarity,â€ Rangel writes, â€œwe have to recognize that their recent actions are acts of war executed by a hierarchical military force, capable of carrying out sustained and coordinated actions, with uniforms and visible insignia, with a chain of command, and with presence and control in many zones of the national territory.â€ Analyst LeÃ³n Valencia, a former member of the ELN, made a similar argument in Wednesdayâ€™s El Colombiano.
The United States â€“ which has refused to apply Protocol II in its own wars in Afghanistan and Iraq â€“ backed Uribeâ€™s position in Cartagena (try to find the word â€œconflictâ€ in the statement of the highest-ranking U.S. representative, USAID administrator Andrew Natsios). Nearly every other donor nation present, however, was unwilling to drop the word â€œconflictâ€ from the meetingâ€™s final declaration. Their argument that a conflict exists was strengthened, obviously, by the guerrilla-military combat in IscuandÃ©, Puerto AsÃs and Vistahermosa in the two days before the declaration was signed.
International humanitarian law aside, it makes little strategic sense to deny the presence of a conflict. Calling the FARC terrorists is quite accurate â€“ they do use terrorism â€“ and seeking to deny their combatant status is a smart strategy for the government to use in its political war against the guerrillas (though it reduces the possibility of negotiating political reforms as opposed to demobilization only).
But if the government starts to believe its own rhetoric and allows this fiction to affect its tactics, it is in for more unpleasant surprises like the ones weâ€™ve seen since February 1. The FARC may use terrorism, but they are not ETA or the Red Brigades, operating in cells and controlling no territory. The way one fights them is completely different, and in fact requires a much more ambitious effort in which the military is only one part of the picture.
Retired Colombian Army Colonel Carlos VelÃ¡squez (the military-whistleblower-turned-college-professor mentioned in this previous posting) warned this week, â€œTo deny the political background of this confrontation could lead to a mistake with great consequences: to diminish or underestimate oneâ€™s opponent. If we adopt the governmentâ€™s position, the armed forces will be putting their center of gravity in the wrong place.â€ A U.S. security expert â€“ not an NGO do-gooder â€“ put it to me more succinctly in a conversation last year: â€œOf course the FARC havenâ€™t lost their ideology. Thatâ€™s why theyâ€™re still dangerous.â€
Why now? – tactical reasons
The recent upsurge in violence may mean that the FARC is making some tactical shifts that indicate how it will emerge from its â€œretreat.â€ For one thing, it appears that the group has shelved its alleged plan to increase its operations in cities; the latest attacks have been in remote areas.
For another, it appears that with the exception of the combat in Vistahermosa, the FARC is launching its actions in areas outside the southern Colombian zone where the Plan Patriota offensive is taking place. This may be an effort to relieve the pressure on the fronts fighting the Colombian military in that zone. The guerrillas may also be perceiving weaknesses among the military units stationed in other parts of the country, who may be stretched thin by the demands of the 17,000-man offensive in the south. It could be a bit of both.
It could also be that the guerrillas have made a decision to begin targeting the far-flung, lightly-manned military and police outposts that the â€œDemocratic Securityâ€ strategy has caused to spring up in small towns and along roads and rivers throughout the country.
The Uribe government has endeavored to provide a police presence in all 1,092 of Colombiaâ€™s municipalities (or counties); at least 200 had no police at all in 2002. It has also set up 600 detachments of campesino soldiers â€“ most of them with about 36 men each â€“ throughout the country.
IscuandÃ©, the marine post hit by the FARC gas-cylinder-bomb attack, is typical. The town had lacked any armed state presence since 2000, when the FARC destroyed the local navy post. In January 2004, to the applause of the local population, 70 marines, half of them hometown campesino soldiers, re-established a presence, turning the grounds of an old school into their new base.
When it came, the FARCâ€™s attack â€“ possibly helped by guerrilla infiltrators among the marines â€“ was overwhelming and devastating. According to retired General Ãlvaro Valencia, the guerrillas had all the advantages: in addition to far superior numbers, â€œgas cylinders charged with explosives, massive concentration around a difficult-to-defend position, the element of surprise, and the darkness of night to assure retreat.â€ Nearby police were at least able to arrive in time to prevent the guerrillas from taking over the base â€“ an element that was certainly absent from many of the FARCâ€™s attacks of the 1990s.
FARC supply points?
While I admit that I have as much military experience as Dick Cheney or Paul Wolfowitz, this part of Uribeâ€™s strategy always struck me as odd. While it is noble and desirable to seek to protect people throughout the country, does it make sense to disperse tiny units all over a vast national territory if they will be no match for determined guerrilla attacks?
The scattered police-and-campesino-soldier deployments bring to mind a passage in A Bright Shining Lie, journalist Neil Sheehanâ€™s brilliant book about Vietnam. During the early 1960s, U.S. military advisor John Paul Vann tried in vain to convince the South Vietnamese to stop stationing military and police in tiny rural outposts, which the Viet Cong were easily overwhelming and from which, as a result, they were recovering hundreds of U.S.-donated weapons.
What [U.S. advisory mission chief Gen. Paul] Harkins and his staff had failed to foresee prior to ordering the [armament] program full speed ahead was that no weapons should be handed out until the little outposts garrisoned by the territorials had been dismantled and consolidated. Otherwise the Saigon territorials would serve as a conduit to channel the American arms largess to the Communists, which was exactly what was happening. The Civil Guards and the Self-Defense Corps were the troops most frequently ambushed, and they manned the 776 outposts in the northern Delta which were the prime targets of the guerrillas. â€¦ The elimination of these â€œVC [Viet Cong] supply points,â€ as Vann and his advisors referred to the outposts in general, had been another of the priorities that Vann and Porter had agreed on. â€¦ He had recommended to Cao [his Vietnamese military counterpart] and the province chiefs that they consolidate the 776 outposts into 216 camps of company size or larger capable of defending themselves until help could arrive. These defensible posts could then function as bases from which to patrol and initiate local operations. [Page 100]
I know that was more military jargon than CIPâ€™s website usually contains, but does this discussion of small, hard-to-defend outposts, in areas where other units are unable to come to a timely rescue, sound at all familiar? A hallmark of the Democratic Security policy is to place small detachments in remote, guerrilla-heavy areas: campesino soldiers, police posts in municipalities and corregimientos that had none, units guarding highways or rivers. While Colombiaâ€™s military today has more mobile units and helicopters to come to the rescue, the vulnerability remains very real. One of the most remarkable aspects of the FARCâ€™s â€œtactical retreatâ€ is that the guerrillas have launched so few IscuandÃ©-style attacks on what, in many parts of the country, must present tempting targets. That may change, Iâ€™m afraid, if the â€œretreatâ€ is truly ending.
What to do, then?
President Uribeâ€™s first defense minister, Marta LucÃa RamÃrez, spells out a worthy goal when she writes that â€œDemocratic Security is based on a simple, consistent principle: that the state must offer protection to all of Colombiaâ€™s citizens without regard to political beliefs, religious creed, ideological conviction or socioeconomic level.â€ If the protectors themselves are beyond protection, though, they are not really protecting anyone. How to make this aspiration a reality?
One possibility is to pull the dispersed troops back, concentrating them on bases while sending out patrols, until an ambitious but slow military buildup provides enough manpower and mobility. This seems to be what the Pastrana government was doing, and it didnâ€™t work very well.
Another possibility is to keep increasing the military and police presence until an area is blanketed with bases, posts and barracks that can support each other if attacked. That seems to describe the Plan Patriota offensive. The trouble is that the troops involved in Plan Patriota, as our last posting points out, are on their own: the Colombian government is making no effort to bring the rest of its institutions into the zone being â€œre-conqueredâ€ from the guerrillas. No judges, courts, prosecutors, well-equipped mayors, roads, schools, clinics, energy, potable water, credit, land titling, technical assistance, or aid to the displaced. Just soldiers, mass arrests, and fumigation planes.
If the response is entirely military, the military is bound to get bogged down. And there are signs that this is happening with Plan Patriota. Last Sundayâ€™s edition of Caliâ€™s El PaÃs reports that â€œaccording to information provided by the Ministry of Defense, Plan Patriota, designed to fight the FARC in the south of the country, is seven months behind schedule.â€
A far better â€“ and perhaps even cheaper â€“ way for the Colombian government to consolidate its presence in far-flung zones is to carry out the military component in close coordination with the (re)entry of the civilian part of the state. Bringing other essential government services (beyond just security) would have the immediate effect of winning the populationâ€™s support. If residents of long-forgotten parts of the country can be convinced that a greater state presence will improve their lives, the locals will go to greater lengths to help the military to avoid attacks like the ones suffered so far this month.
Sen. Antonio Navarro, the former M-19 leader who now represents NariÃ±o, put it this way:
IscuandÃ© is a municipality situated in one of the poorest regions of the country. The stateâ€™s abandonment and neglect have been constant throughout its history. Those of us who know these corners of Colombia know that these are the forgotten lands. Faced with this reality, what would be its residentsâ€™ reasons for being actively in solidarity with a democracy that has done little more for them besides asking for their vote? Why should we expect that these fellow Colombians should feel morally committed to running the risk of informing on the FARC and clearly taking the side of our institutions?
Still not convinced that the strategy has to be much more than military? Writing about Iraq in Newsweek last November, Fareed Zakaria quoted an unlikely source:
The center of gravity in counterinsurgency operations is the local population. Winning and maintaining their support is crucial. Gaining territory is less important than eliminating support for the insurgents. Now if all this sounds like drippy analysis, it’s not my own. All of the sentences above are taken from the Army’s most recent manual on counterinsurgency operations (FMI 3-07.22), classified but now widely available on the Internet.
What would this look like in Colombia? The Uribe governmentâ€™s Democratic Security Strategy document itself [PDF file] points the way, albeit in vague terms, on page 42:
Consolidation of State Control over Territory: Once a basic level of security has been established, the State will embark upon a policy of territorial consolidation, re-establishing the normal operation of the justice system, strengthening local democracy, meeting the most urgent needs of the population, broadening state services and initiating medium to long term projects aimed at creating sustainable development.
Semana magazineâ€™s cover story / editorial offers some suggestions for this â€œconsolidationâ€ phase.
There would be less emphasis on the policy of mass arrests, which has alienated the population against the armed forces in many towns, and there would be more emphasis, for example, on cutting all links between the military and the self-defense groups [paramilitaries]. But above all, there would be less effort to attack political opponents â€“ including human-rights defenders â€“ in speeches and books, and more effort to bring the state to the countryâ€™s abandoned regions. To bring judges, prosecutors, schools and economic alternatives to the zones where the soldiers are fighting Plan Patriota with so much effort and sacrifice. After the rifle has to come legitimacy.
While aid from the United States and other foreign donors will be important, the effort required to truly govern â€“ and thus pacify â€“ long-neglected zones is so great that Colombia will have to provide most of the resources. However, the United States can, and should, do much more, and it can begin by taking two urgent steps.
First, stop fumigating small-scale coca growers, a strategy that is guaranteed to alienate local populations and to reduce any support that the Colombian government might enjoy in neglected, conflictive zones.
Second, change dramatically the balance of U.S. aid packages, in order to help Colombia meet these non-military needs. For the past five years, 80 percent of our aid has gone to the Colombian security forces, with only the remainder going to the kinds of programs that are so badly needed in long-neglected areas. Unfortunately, the Bush administrationâ€™s 2006 aid proposal promises more of the same. If we can learn anything from the FARCâ€™s recent battlefield successes, it should be that far-flung military deployments are not enough by themselves. The priorities of both of our governments â€“ Washington and BogotÃ¡ â€“ need to shift.