Greetings from BogotÃ¡, where Iâ€™m on a quick trip to take part in a meeting of social organizations from several conflictive regions of Colombia (Meta, CaquetÃ¡, NariÃ±o, Arauca, Putumayo, Cauca, Guaviare and others), plus Peru and Ecuador. [Update as of Saturday morning: Iâ€™m now in the BogotÃ¡ airport with no Internet access. Iâ€™ll post this as soon as I can and apologize for the lack of posts this week.] Iâ€™ve learned a lot and am still digesting what Iâ€™ve heard, so Iâ€™m not going to write about that yet.
Instead, I want to draw attention to this op-ed in Tuesdayâ€™s Boston Globe about a â€œglobal counterinsurgencyâ€ to guide U.S. foreign policy. This sounds horrible on the surface: â€œletâ€™s do what we did in El Salvador all over the world!â€ And the authors â€“ one from the U.S. Institute of Peace and one from the Joint Special Operations University â€“ make their case by using language that a group like CIP would never use. (Example: â€œIn Iraq and around the world, we will never peacefully dissuade those dedicated to violence against us. They must be captured or killed.â€)
But reading further, the authors make several points that (a) make a lot of sense and (b) are perfectly applicable to Colombia.
- â€œWe have to convince those who passively support the insurgency that we are not their enemy. Unfortunately, our current strategy overemphasizing military force drives undecided millions into the insurgentsâ€™ arms. Not only are we fighting the war wrong, we are fighting the wrong war.â€
- â€œOverwhelming firepower is often counterproductive.â€
- â€œComprehensive reconstruction and information efforts win hearts and minds.â€
- â€œThose who prioritize national missile defense over either special-operations capabilities or non-military tools of foreign policy understand neither the nature of our greatest threat nor how to defeat it.â€
- â€œWe must promote America’s charity, while exposing the enemy’s hypocrisy. Civil affairs, ”development" in non-military terms, is aggressive economic and political development as well as cultivation of civil society institutions and human rights. Only when populations in the developing world obtain genuine economic opportunity, social dignity, and political empowerment will they no longer incubate the global insurgency.â€
Thatâ€™s good stuff. But these seem like such basic pieces of advice: Economic development is important. Winning populationsâ€™ trust is important. Treating civilians well and respecting their human rights is important. Sweeps, raids, large-scale bombing and other military â€œshock and aweâ€ tactics drive the local population into the insurgencyâ€™s arms. â€œNon-military tools of foreign policy,â€ like economic aid, are neglected at oneâ€™s peril. You mean we donâ€™t know that?
These seem like such elementary suggestions that an op-ed making them would seem unnecessary. Yet the U.S. government has failed to follow them in Iraq, and the U.S.-aided Colombian government has failed to follow them in its own conflict. The extreme distrust for the U.S. and new Iraqi forces among residents of places like Anbar province is mirrored by the extreme distrust for the Colombian state in places like CaquetÃ¡ department.
The most interesting thing about this op-ed is the language it uses. Though it advocates elements of the sort of less-military approach that is usually associated with peacenik liberals, it omits catch-phrases that would make a Republican or Pentagon audience shut down and stop listening. Terms like â€œnation-building,â€ â€œinequality,â€ â€œgovernability,â€ or â€œhuman securityâ€ do not appear (though â€œhuman rightsâ€ does sneak in). Instead, thereâ€™s lots of muscular talk of â€œsevering insurgentsâ€™ connections to populations,â€ â€œisolat[ing] and smother[ing]â€ the â€œenemy,â€ â€œeffective police operations,â€ and, of course, â€œcounterinsurgency.â€
Iâ€™m not recommending inserting tough-sounding language into everything we say and write. In particular, there is a huge gap between counterinsurgency as a doctrine and counterinsurgency as the United States and its proxies have disastrously practiced it. But some familiarity with this defense-and-security argot can ease communication with many who donâ€™t automatically see things our way.
Like the U.S. strategy in Iraq, Plan Colombia is proving to be hugely ineffective and in need of drastic revision and de-militarization. As that becomes increasingly evident to all, people and groups on our side of the debate will have much more opportunity to propose changes. When we do, we will sometimes â€“ not all the time, but sometimes â€“ have to use language like that seen in Tuesdayâ€™s Globe.