â€œI don’t think we will put much energy into trying, the old saying, win hearts and minds. I don’t look at that as one of the metrics of success.â€ â€“ Gen. Thomas F. Metz, a senior U.S. commander in Iraq, August 2004
In a recent meeting with a senior Colombian Army official, the subject turned to U.S. military assistance. He told me that he had found U.S. helicopters, equipment and intelligence to be useful â€“ but that U.S. military training was of little benefit. â€œYou [the United States] donâ€™t know how to fight insurgencies. Look at Iraq.â€
He has a point, but itâ€™s not clear that they are having much more success in Colombia, where one military offensive after another fails to hold onto territory, and the FARC guerrillas have increased the frequency of their attacks, especially this year. The guerrillas have weathered the Colombian governmentâ€™s U.S.-supported military campaign of the past few years, despite their evident unpopularity throughout the country.
In both Iraq and Colombia, the failure of counter-insurgency strategies is plain to see. Iraqi insurgents have not been weakened by the U.S. approach, which combines search-and-destroy military sweeps, detentions and interrogations, and excruciatingly slow investment in economic needs and civilian governance. Similarly, the U.S.-aided â€œDemocratic Securityâ€ effort in Colombia â€“ which combines large-scale military offensives like â€œPlan Patriota,â€ fumigations, informant networks, mass arrests and insufficient social and economic aid â€“ is also getting bogged down.
As a result, military analysts of both Iraq and Colombia have been busily writing about how to fine-tune counter-insurgency strategies. U.S. trainers are trying to hand off more responsibility to new Iraqi forces, while urging the Colombians to work jointly and increase their mobility. The Rand Corporation [PDF format] and others urge a return to the â€œhearts and mindsâ€ efforts that marked counter-insurgency efforts of colonial powers half a century ago. Alfredo Rangel, the oft-quoted director of Colombiaâ€™s Security and Democracy Foundation, says that Colombiaâ€™s military should be fighting not in empty areas like the â€œPlan Patriotaâ€ zone, but to start by clearing the guerrillas from where people actually live. A similar strategy for Iraq is proposed in an article by Andrew Krepinevich in the current issue of Foreign Affairs; the author urges U.S. forces to expand the zone of security for Iraqi citizens like an â€œoil spotâ€ expands on the surface of water.
One thing these critics have in common is that they all are calling on governments to do more to win the support of the people who live in the conflict zones. â€œRather than focusing on killing insurgents, they should concentrate on providing security and opportunity to the Iraqi people, thereby denying insurgents the popular support they need,â€ writes Krepinevich. Cautions Randâ€™s Bruce Hoffman, â€œA supposedly well-known military aphorism asserts, â€˜Ignoring the civil side of counterinsurgency . . . [is like] playing chess while the enemy is playing poker.â€™â€ Adds Rangel [PDF format], â€œObviously, the Gordian knot of this conflict [in Colombia] cannot be untied exclusively with the policy of the sword, but it will also necessarily require the sword of politics.â€
Itâ€™s refreshing to hear counter-insurgency experts admit that overwhelming military force alone wonâ€™t end the violence â€“ that improving governance and building the civilian populationâ€™s trust in the government actually matter too. Itâ€™s good to hear them suggest that itâ€™s not such a good idea for a government to introduce itself to long-neglected citizens by rounding them up and arresting them. Itâ€™s good to hear more talk about protecting citizens and providing basic services. Itâ€™s good to hear more of a recognition that poverty and lack of opportunity contribute to the problem. (President Uribe, on the other hand, has said on several occasions [like this one] that â€œterrorismâ€ is the cause of Colombiaâ€™s poverty, and not the other way around.)
These critics are right when they point out that racking up body counts will never bring victory â€“ particularly against a group like the FARC, whose fighters are at least one-third minors and 40% female, many recruited because they saw no other options, and who are easily replaced. They are right when they criticize a strategy of carrying out military sweeps through regions, leaving no part of the civilian government behind, only to see the armed groups return when the soldiers leave. They are right when they point out the damage done when military personnel commit arbitrary abuses (or tolerate paramilitary abuses) with impunity, and when government representatives establish an adversarial relationship with the population through searches, seizures, mass arrests and a general attitude of disdain and disrespect.
But these critics donâ€™t go anywhere near far enough. They are military strategists, and while they write at length about the security aspects of ideas like the â€œoil spotâ€ strategy, they are often frustratingly vague about what it means to win â€œhearts and minds.â€ For the most part, itâ€™s hard to tell whether theyâ€™re calling for a big investment in civilian governance and a â€œMarshall Planâ€ for long-neglected zones, or whether they think the soldiers themselves can handle the problem by building a few wells and roads while being nicer to the local population. Counter-insurgency proponents rarely talk with any specificity about strengthening the non-military part of the government and helping to deliver services to neglected populations. That seems to be left up to the politicians.
Our side â€“ the human rights community, the peace movement, advocates of economic justice â€“ needs to take part in this debate. We have to take on the counter-insurgency people because they have got it completely wrong â€“ after all, theyâ€™ve made counter-insurgency their main purpose. In fact, their narrow focus on defeating insurgents is a big reason why they are failing.
But our side has been too quiet â€“ absent, really â€“ in this debate. There is a good reason for this: terms like â€œcounter-insurgencyâ€ or â€œexpanding government authorityâ€ raise images of soldiers abusing civilians, people disappearing, and small economic elites expanding their stranglehold over unequal societies. Why participate in a debate about how best to use military force to preserve an unjust order?
Instead, we call for respecting human rights, increasing economic aid, and renewing negotiations. (In Iraq, we call for withdrawal, often without discussing what we would leave behind.) But we havenâ€™t coherently framed it as an answer to the question: when armed groups are killing civilians, how do you propose to protect them?
We would answer that question by transcending the narrow, failed focus on counter-insurgency. We should put it as clearly as possible: in Colombia, the main goal is not to defeat the FARC. The main goal is to protect citizens, help them prosper, and give them a functioning government ruled by law. If progress can be made toward that goal, the guerrillasâ€™ eventual decline and fall will be just one of many side benefits. Achieving this goal, after all, would require a revolutionary change in the way that Colombiaâ€™s government â€“ and its small economic elite â€“ relates to its people. (Not to mention in the way that the United States relates to Latin America.)
This doesnâ€™t mean rejecting all of the precepts of counter-insurgency. It makes sense to focus on winning hearts and minds, and by recognizing that the mission is mainly political, not military. The â€œoil spotâ€ approach is promising, too; it makes sense to impose the rule of law and to protect and serve the population over an ever-expanding geographic area.
But the effort must be mostly non-military, and most resources have to go to non-military needs. (By contrast, 80 percent of U.S. aid to Colombia since 2000 has gone to the military and police. This is terribly misguided.) Soldiers â€“ when they act with full respect for human rights, and are punished when they violate them â€“ do have a key role to play. They are needed to expand the â€œoil spotâ€ initially. They must be seen as escorting the rest of the government into areas where it has not been present â€“ and Colombia has an abundance of such areas. But the zone of government control will shrink right back unless the following happens immediately.
1. Citizen security. The population must feel that the government can protect them, from armed groups as well as common crime. This means bringing in police who are trained in working with civilians (as opposed to military personnel trained to destroy an enemy). These security professionals must not only be equipped to respond to threats, but they must win the trust of local populations accustomed to living under the sway of illegal groups. This means punishing any abuses, corruption and predatory behavior in their ranks systematically, transparently and promptly. In day-to-day interactions, it means treating citizens as potential allies instead of suspected guerrilla supporters.
2. Justice. In order to punish abuses and common crime, as well as to resolve disputes before they get out of hand, and to guarantee that citizens can exercise their rights (ranging from free speech to protection of their landholdings), the justice system has to establish a quick presence. Judges and prosecutors will need to be equipped to do their jobs, and will need decent security if they are to pursue cases against powerful defendants.
3. Humanitarian assistance. The best way that the government can win the populationâ€™s support is by attending to its most urgent concerns beyond security: food, shelter, and health care. Most conflictive areas have a large population of internally displaced people, and nearly 85 percent of rural Colombians live in poverty. Emergency assistance to help meet these immediate needs will greatly increase the governmentâ€™s credibility.
4. Infrastructure and basic services. Efforts to meet urgent needs must be followed by efforts to make the regionâ€™s legal economy viable. This means getting power and clean water to areas that need them, paving well-traveled roads and extending the reach of the education and health systems. It means offering credit and technical assistance in exchange for voluntary eradication of drug crops.
This is the most expensive part of the entire effort. Itâ€™s the sort of thing that used to be derided as â€œnation-building.â€ That term has a negative connotation, however, only if itâ€™s all happening with U.S. funds. If Colombian elites are contributing the lionâ€™s share of the cost of building their own nation, the picture changes dramatically. The richest Colombians, who control most of the countryâ€™s wealth, must contribute much more. In turn, these resources are managed transparently, with swift punishment for corruption or mismanagement. It will require a significant improvement in local governmentâ€™s ability to administer them. While expensive, these investments will do the most to build long-term loyalty to the government â€“ and will deal the greatest blow to the insurgents.
Increasing the â€œoil spotâ€ of civilian governance will require a sharp reordering of the U.S. and Colombian governmentsâ€™ priorities. Resources must be channeled away from costly military offensives. But even with enough resources, it will not be easy. Even if all of the above efforts are made, the â€œoil spotâ€ will shrink right back if these interlocking efforts donâ€™t happen all at once, in a coordinated way. Thereâ€™s no sense introducing the government into a zone if abuses arenâ€™t going to be punished; that would just increase ill will and no citizen will turn to the authorities for protection. Thereâ€™s no sense in building infrastructure if thereâ€™s no â€œsheriffâ€ present to keep it from being sabotaged. But thereâ€™s no sense in deploying police if the illegal groups who kill cops are the only ones doing any hiring. And thereâ€™s absolutely no sense in antagonizing the population with mass or arbitrary arrests, fumigations or unpunished human-rights abuses.
This is, in very general terms, what our side would propose, instead of just â€œa new approach to counter-insurgency,â€ in Krepinevichâ€™s words. Expanding the governmentâ€™s non-military presence into new territories, enforcing the laws, providing badly needed services and punishing abuses when they happen, is not only the best way to govern Colombia, itâ€™s the best possible way to weaken Colombian insurgents. A population that trusts its government and wants it to stay will offer intelligence willingly, and it will shun those who join or support violent groups. By contrast, a population that sees only its governmentâ€™s soldiers and spray planes will take no risks and choose no sides, focusing merely on what it needs to do to survive.
Expanding the non-military â€œoil spotâ€ would not only make Colombia more socially just and well-governed, it would deal a stronger blow to violent groups and the drug trade than Plan Colombia could ever have contemplated. But in order to promote an alternative to the failed strategy of the present, we have to start talking about it more coherently and consistently.