It was startling to hear President Bush prominently use the phrase â€œClear, Hold and Buildâ€ several weeks ago, when he was presenting his National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. He was referring to their security objective of â€œclearingâ€ a zone of insurgents through military force, â€œholdingâ€ onto the newly conquered zone, then bringing in the government to â€œbuildâ€ a state presence.
I was startled because â€œclear and holdâ€ is a bit of jargon Iâ€™ve heard repeatedly in discussions over the past few years with U.S. advisors and officials working in Colombia. They like to use the term to describe how theyâ€™re trying to help the Colombian government take back territory from guerrilla groups. In particular, it is the stated objective of â€œPlan Patriota,â€ an large-scale, two-year-old Colombian military offensive taking place, with heavy U.S. support, in the countryâ€™s southern jungles and elsewhere.
The reappearance of â€œclear and holdâ€ in the Iraqi context is no coincidence. In recent interviews, the president and those close to him have let slip that they have been thinking about Colombia when thinking about Iraq. They may even be considering Colombia to be a model for the way forward in Iraq.
Sounds crazy? Here are two examples:
PRESIDENT BUSH (on the PBS NewsHour, December 16, 2005): We achieved a, by kicking Saddam Hussein out, you know, a milestone. But there’s still work to help this country develop its own democracy and there’s no question there’s difficulties because of the past history and the fact that he starved an infrastructure and the reconstruction efforts have been uneven. â€¦ I’ll give you an interesting example. I think it is. That would be the FARC in Colombia. You’ll remember there was a period of time when there was a real battle about the heart and soul of Colombia. Slowly but surely FARC has become–
JIM LEHRER: That’s the left-wing rebel group.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Right.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
PRESIDENT BUSH: That used profits from drug sales and arms to enforce its, enforce its way. That at one point in time, if I’m not mistaken, looked like the, the, the–democracy was in the balance. And slowly but surely they’re becoming marginalized and becoming–now they’re still dangerous, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not nearly as dangerous as they were a– you know–a decade ago, for example.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, interview with NBC Editorial Board, September 15, 2005: â€œ[I]t took the Iraqis â€“ theyâ€™re making some progress on the reconstruction front. Theyâ€™re making quite a lot of progress in the building of their security forces. And theyâ€™re making real progress on the political front. And thatâ€™s how I would assess it. â€¦ There are other governments that have survived that and come out on top, among them the Colombian Government, as an example, which at one point, Colombia had 30 percent of its territory in FARC hands. One of the first things Uribe did was he said, Iâ€™m going to reestablish control over those areas that I donâ€™t have control. And you remember, many of you who are foreign affairs reporters, you will remember that, what, Andrea, ten years ago, bombs went off in BogotÃ¡ every week.â€
Statements like these always make my jaw drop. The disconnect with what is actually going on in Colombia is absolutely stunning. Not only do the guerrillas continue to roam freely over well over 30 percent of Colombia’s territory, the FARC did not get weaker in 2005. In fact, the scale and frequency of its attacks increased as the year progressed.
â€œThe guerrillas ended what had been a â€˜tactical retreatâ€™ over the past few years, and as of months ago they have begun a gradual counter-offensive that will probably increase over the next few months,â€ observes Alfredo Rangel of the widely cited Security and Democracy Foundation. The last two-and-a-half weeks have been particularly rough, as guerrillas killed dozens of soldiers and police in massive attacks in Chocó and Meta, then blew up eight oil wells and other energy infrastructure in Putumayo. Meanwhile, 2005 saw a sharp spike in the number of attacks on civilians by right-wing, pro-government paramilitaries.
We should be very worried about Colombia, not touting it as a model for, of all places, Iraq.
However, Colombia does carry several lessons for any U.S. effort to â€œclear, hold and buildâ€ in – then get out of – Iraq. But these lessons are quite different from those that the Bush administration seems to be learning.
All of the following quotes come from articles published since early December.
In both countries, repeated military offensives in the same zones fail to â€œsecureâ€ the zones.
- â€œSamarra, Fallouja, Mosul, Tal Afar, Qaim, Buhruzâ€”how many times had I attended press briefings and heard Sunni rebel strongholds declared ’secured,’ only to be contested again?â€ â€“ Patrick J. McDonnell, reflecting on over two years of covering Iraq for the Los Angeles Times
- â€œIn our last conversation, Augie complained that the cost in lives to clear insurgents was ‘less and less worth it,’ because Marines have to keep coming back to clear the same places. Marine commanders in the field say the same thing.â€ – Paul E. Schroeder, father of a Marine corporal killed in Iraq, in The Washington Post
- â€œ[The FARC] take advantage of offensives launched against them, leaving small forces in the zones where they are attacked, while extending themselves into new zones. With particular skill, they wait until their enemyâ€™s lines are stretched to the point where it is forced to station small or mid-size contingents, which they can then attack or overwhelm. They also benefit from the governmentâ€™s failure to pay attention to the social and political aspects of its military campaigns.â€ â€“ LeÃ³n Valencia, a columnist and former ELN guerrilla, writing in MedellÃnâ€™s El Colombiano newspaper
- â€œZones re-conquered by the security forces, like [the central province of] Cundinamarca, instead of seeing government control consolidated have seen some parts taken over by paramilitaries.â€ â€“ Marta Ruiz, security editor of Semana magazine
In both countries, human rights abuses with impunity hurt the U.S. forcesâ€™, and U.S.-aided forcesâ€™, credibility.
- â€œIn Jordan and Pakistan, Osama bin Laden is more popular than Bush. The graphic images and detailed stories of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib have done enormous damage to the credibility and soft power that we need to win this struggle. It does little good for Karen Hughes, the new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, to tour the Muslim world with messages of goodwill if her administration threatens to veto a measure to prevent torture.â€ â€“ Joseph Nye of Harvard University in The Chicago Tribune
- â€œPeople [in the new U.S.-trained Iraqi government forces] are doing the same as [in] Saddam’s time and worse. It is an appropriate comparison. People are remembering the days of Saddam. These were the precise reasons that we fought Saddam and now we are seeing the same things.â€ â€“ Ayad Allawi, former Iraqi prime minister in The Observer (UK)
- â€œ[T]here was an increase in government killings of civilians in the first half of 2005. This trend, although from a very low level, is worrisome, and the government needs to study in detail where these are occurring and why.â€ – Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC), a BogotÃ¡-based think-tank
- â€œRepression committed by the armed forces against the population increases the number of sympathizers to the guerrilla cause. The armed forces have done much to help the guerrillas fulfill this objective.â€ â€“ Instituto de Pensamiento Liberal (the think-tank of Colombiaâ€™s Liberal Party)
In both countries, an insecure population remains highly distrustful of the U.S.-aided government.
- â€œFerocious search-and-destroy sallies by the US Marines do not project power, only death and resentment.â€ â€“ Simon Jenkins, The Times (UK)
- â€œTo save their own skins, some Iraqis have even taken to selling the addresses of members of the new Iraqi security forces to terrorist death squads for a few dinars.â€ â€“ a December Der Spiegel article reprinted on Salon.com
- â€œOn multiple occasions [the communities of ChocÃ³â€™s lower Atrato region] have stated that they are not inherently opposed to the presence of the armed forces. Nevertheless, they believe that in the current conditions of conflict, the presence of armed forces in their communities is counterproductive, among other reasons because of the lack of transparency shown by the Police, Army and Navy in Atrato, all of which have links to paramilitary groups, and because the very intervention by government forces often puts the majority of the local population in harms way.â€ – Ascoba – CINEP’s Lower Atrato Team, in Plataforma Colombiana, Beyond the Spell
In both countries, the military campaign far outpaces any effort to improve the populationâ€™s economic well-being.
- â€œThe United States will spend $437 million on border fortresses and guards, about $100 million more than the amount dedicated to roads, bridges and public buildings, including schools. Education programs have been allocated $99 million; the United States is spending $107 million to build a secure communications network for security forces.â€ â€“ The Washington Post
- â€œPresident Ãlvaro Uribe told the country he would take on the problems of security and extreme poverty. His high approval ratings owe his efforts against the first of those problems. But his debt on the social front remains unpaid: his socio-economic performance has been poor, one might even say insignificant.â€ â€“ Editorial in El Tiempo
- â€œIt was supposed that a first phase of â€˜Plan Patriotaâ€™ would involve the security forcesâ€™ arrival in all of the national territory. Afterward would come the consolidation phase, with the arrival of other state institutions, social investment and a promise of progress for the regions suffering the war. â€¦ But in many areas, the soldiers have been left all by themselves.â€ â€“ Marta Ruiz, security editor, Semana
â€œClear and holdâ€ isnâ€™t working, either in Colombia or in Iraq. U.S. and U.S.-aided forces have become quite skilled at clearing territory. But that’s relatively easy because guerrilla groups, by their very nature, rarely confront a determined offensive directly â€“ they melt away into the hinterland.
But in neither Colombia nor Iraq have we figured out the â€œholdâ€ part of the strategy. Invariably, U.S. or U.S.-aided forces find themselves forced to carry out repeated offensives or sweeps into territory that they thought they had â€œcleared.â€ Insurgents, relying on a population that is afraid of them and distrustful of the government, have had no trouble re-establishing themselves in territories believed to be secured. U.S. and U.S.-aided forces find themselves on a treadmill, with territorial gains unraveled, populations less secure and ever less confident in the government, and casualties mounting.
What should a â€œholdâ€ strategy look like, then, whether for Colombia, Iraq, or somewhere else? Here are a few suggestions, many of which I hope to develop further in future postings.
- Donâ€™t consider your mission to be to defeat an insurgency. The mission is to protect citizens, and to expand the number of citizens who are credibly protected by their government.
- Protecting citizens means respecting their human rights. Respecting human rights means punishing abuses, when they happen, visibly and swiftly. It also means not treating the population, in day-to-day interactions, as potential adversaries.
- The government must have the monopoly of the use of pro-government force. Do not tolerate the formation of independent citizen militias or paramilitaries, no matter how pro-government they claim to be.
- If citizens believe you will protect them, they will trust you. If they trust you, they will give you intelligence willingly, without you having to bribe them with reward money.
- Body counts donâ€™t matter, especially when so many of the dead are scared, uneducated young people (the FARC, for instance, are believed to be about one-third minors and 40 percent female). Winning public support matters much more than killing enemies or putting your flag in new territory.
- Protecting citizens requires more than just guns. It also means giving them the conditions necessary to stay healthy and make a living. Nothing wins loyalty like safe water, electricity, disease prevention and care for the sick, emergency food and shelter, civilian police that respond to calls for help, and a functioning judiciary to punish crimes and settle disputes.
- The military is only a small part of this strategy. Its role should be seen as opening the door for the civilian part of the government. Civilian government institutions have to be equipped to walk through that door. And that will cost several times more than the military part.
- Yes, this is â€œnation building.â€ Thatâ€™s not a dirty word, itâ€™s a necessity. Get used to it. Embrace it.
By now, youâ€™d think the Bush administration and Colombiaâ€™s Uribe government would be vigorously searching for â€œholdâ€ strategies that actually work. Youâ€™d think theyâ€™d be reorienting resources, making new investments, putting human rights at the center of things, and shaking up the bureaucracy in order to stop making the same mistakes over and over again.
Well, youâ€™d be wrong.
As the Washington Post reported on Monday, the Bush administration does not plan to ask Congress for any more reconstruction aid for Iraq – from now on, it’s all military. In Colombia, meanwhile, less than 20 percent of U.S. aid is non-military, and that is not likely to change in the 2007 aid request. The U.S. human-rights record in Iraq has been battered by everything from Abu Ghraib to the CIA torture debate, while the State Department has outraged human-rights groups by certifying that the Colombian military is respecting rights.
In both countries, then, we may be on the treadmill for some time to come.