The FARC indictments Notes from last week in Colombia
Apr 022006

Greetings from Bogotá, where I’m on a quick trip to take part in a meeting of social organizations from several conflictive regions of Colombia (Meta, Caquetá, Nariño, Arauca, Putumayo, Cauca, Guaviare and others), plus Peru and Ecuador. [Update as of Saturday morning: I’m now in the Bogotá airport with no Internet access. I’ll post this as soon as I can and apologize for the lack of posts this week.] I’ve learned a lot and am still digesting what I’ve heard, so I’m not going to write about that yet.

Instead, I want to draw attention to this op-ed in Tuesday’s Boston Globe about a “global counterinsurgency” to guide U.S. foreign policy. This sounds horrible on the surface: “let’s do what we did in El Salvador all over the world!” And the authors – one from the U.S. Institute of Peace and one from the Joint Special Operations University – make their case by using language that a group like CIP would never use. (Example: “In Iraq and around the world, we will never peacefully dissuade those dedicated to violence against us. They must be captured or killed.”)

But reading further, the authors make several points that (a) make a lot of sense and (b) are perfectly applicable to Colombia.

  • “We 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 insurgents’ arms. Not only are we fighting the war wrong, we are fighting the wrong war.”

  • “Overwhelming firepower is often counterproductive.”
  • “Comprehensive reconstruction and information efforts win hearts and minds.”
  • “Those 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.”
  • “We 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.”

That’s good stuff. But these seem like such basic pieces of advice: Economic development is important. Winning populations’ trust is important. Treating civilians well and respecting their human rights is important. Sweeps, raids, large-scale bombing and other military “shock and awe” tactics drive the local population into the insurgency’s arms. “Non-military tools of foreign policy,” like economic aid, are neglected at one’s peril. You mean we don’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 Caquetá 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 “nation-building,” “inequality,” “governability,” or “human security” do not appear (though “human rights” does sneak in). Instead, there’s lots of muscular talk of “severing insurgents’ connections to populations,” “isolat[ing] and smother[ing]” the “enemy,” “effective police operations,” and, of course, “counterinsurgency.”

I’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 don’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 – not all the time, but sometimes – have to use language like that seen in Tuesday’s Globe.

7 Responses to “Demilitarizing foreign policy – but calling it “counterinsurgency””

  1. javier Moreno Says:

    Interesting. I guess those points would also apply as a critisism to the way colombian government has dealed with the conflict with FARC for the last four years and even inside of Colombia the use of such language in order to advocate for non strictly military approaches could be neccessary to reach a big population of center winged people who’re not aware how wrongly fought this war is and how ineffectivly we’re expending national (and foreign) resources.

  2. rainer cale Says:

    Posts like this are what keep me coming back to CIP. There is a Buddhist sutra about a monk who looks at a heap of garbage and sees a tiny rag of cloth worth salvaging. This is the only sort of attitude that will lead to any kind of productive result when engaging those who aren’t quite as humane as us.

    Look forward to hearing about your weekend in Bogotá.

  3. jcg Says:

    I agree that a much greater degree of demilitarization, so to speak, is definitely necessary as far as U.S. foreign policy towards Colombia is concerned. It is also necessary in Colombian government policy towards the rural population of Caquetá and Putumayo (for example).

    And I also think that perhaps a better communications strategy is needed in order to more effectively connect with certain sectors of both society and government in the U.S. and in Colombia itself.

    As much as I support the above (and I especially agree with the critical assessment of Plan Colombia that it implies), I must stress the point that some degree of militarization will apparently have to continue, even if only as the lesser portion of a revised strategic proposal.

  4. rainer cale Says:

    Jcg, in order to engage the people who created Plan Colombia and who hold the reins at this point, I think the focus of the question needs to be shifted from where resources go (military vs. non-military) to the objectives and how best to reach those objectives. This, I sense, is the spirit behind Adam’s post, and behind his general rapprochement with opposition standpoints (visits to Southcom, WHINSEC, etc.).

    By approaching politics in this way, one of two things happens: a) we either find out that we have a lot more in common with our opposition than we thought, that there are areas of potential collaboration, room to work with, and so on, or b) the selfish motives, vested interests, and so forth that might really be behind the issue are unequivocally exposed and can no longer be said to be a matter of speculation, ideological bias, partisan malice, and whatnot.

    In the case of this post, if we could just re-frame the question in terms of final objectives and how best to reach them, instead of who gets the resources and who loses out, there would then be grounds for military planners, for example, to see the value of investing in solutions to the problems that are at the root of the war rather than in, say, another Blackhawk.

    People tend to view this sort of approach as just a bunch of touchy-feely bs; and it does run the risk of becoming that. But when it’s done well, it can overthrow empires (Gandhi). What is qualitatively/morally superior is also superior in rational/quantitative terms. An intelligent military planner (there are a few) who is focused on objectives and not budgets cannot fail to see the quantitative strategic value per dollar of, for example, making the demobilization process work OVER the quantitative strategic value per dollar of buying another helicopter or another two years of Operation Omega. It’s mathematical, and it’s in everyone’s interest (unless it turns out that some interests are selfish, in which case they are exposed). If military planners see things in this way, they’ll feel that the Reinsertion Program’s gain is their gain.

  5. rainer cale Says:

    Aside: Although I can’t find any confirmation in the press, I’ve heard rumors that Bush has ordered a handful of warships into the Caribbean. The preocupation is that these are headed for Venezuela.

    Probably a case of over-zealousness among radical email groups, but anyone else hear about this?

  6. jcg Says:

    Well, again, I would agree that the theory of it all certainly makes sense. We’ll have to see if the practical applications are as straightforward though.

    As for the deployment in question, it’s been reported in the press already. See this article:

    http://www.news.navy.mil/search/display.asp?story_id=22899

    -I don’t think Venezuela is being targetted for an invasion per se, though the U.S. might well want to use this as yet another opportunity to try and intimidate Chavez and Castro. And in turn, they’ll use this as yet another chance to take a shot at U.S. imperialism and so on. Doesn’t seem that unusual yet.

  7. Durandal Says:

    At least it’s quite clear that if Chávez wants to use his newly-acquired MiG fighters and his million-man army against Colombia it’s the U.S. Navy he’ll be facing up against. Maybe you left-wing types are getting ansy about that, but I’m happy about the joint exercises. You (Adam) yourself have pointed out that Venezuela has gone head over heels to upset the military balance in the region, so I don’t see how a little muscle-flexing by the U.S. and its regional ally could do any harm.

    And geez, stop jumping nervously everytime a Navy ship sails out of harbour! 9 times out of 10 I guarantee that they’re not gonna fire Tomahawks at anybody. Easy!

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