Colombia’s miraculous hostage rescue comes at an interesting moment for U.S. foreign policy. The United States is in the midst of an election-year debate about the use of military force and the role our country should be playing in the world. “Counter-insurgency” is the buzzword of the moment in Washington, as policymakers – faced with debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan – cast about for a model that shows some hope of actually working.
In this context, last week’s news revealing the FARC’s steep decline is leading some U.S. commentators to hold up Plan Colombia, especially the $4.8 billion in military and police aid granted since 2000, as a model of how the United States can undo a “terrorist” threat without having to commit large numbers of troops. (Examples – among many others – 1 2 3 4)
Are they right? Does Plan Colombia offer a handy off-the-shelf template for U.S. policymakers facing a perceived non-state threat in Country X?
Certainly not, if by “Plan Colombia” you mean a package of 80 percent military aid, the vast majority of it dedicated to a failed crusade to reduce cocaine supplies. But the Plan Colombia experience, both its successes and its failures, does offer some guidelines for future U.S. aid to countries facing internal security crises.
- Ensure that facing the threat merits the risk and expense. When “Plan Colombia” began eight years ago, almost nobody in Washington questioned the necessity of U.S. aid to Colombia. The country was in the midst of a severe humanitarian and governance crisis. There was strong disagreement about the aid’s heavily military emphasis, but there was consensus about the need to help.
Future aid endeavors should ensure that such a consensus exists. Does the mission in Country X respond to a real threat to U.S. security or a very compelling humanitarian imperative? Or is it merely an imperial adventure aimed at projecting “hard” power overseas?
- Ensure that the insurgency being targeted has little or no social support. One reason the FARC have declined so much faster than the Taliban or the Iraqi insurgents is that they are so unpopular at all levels of Colombian society. Years of predatory behavior like threats and extortion, attacks on defenseless people, and (above all) kidnapping have fed widespread rejection of the FARC. By contrast, a violent group that is supported by a larger sector of a country’s population will prove far more resilient, and the “Plan Colombia” model may not be appropriate.
- Ensure that the state has at least some legitimacy among the population. Having freely and fairly elected leaders is a good start. So are indicators that an increased state presence would actually be welcomed by the population in “ungoverned” areas under insurgent influence. Despite severe problems with corruption and infiltration by narcotraffickers and paramilitaries, Colombia meets these conditions. Even at the same time they complain about government abuse and neglect, Colombians in conflict zones usually demand a greater state presence and turn out to vote whenever they are able.
- Minimize the strategy’s impact on the poorest and weakest. Plan Colombia has often failed to meet this standard. The aerial herbicide fumigation strategy, for instance, has targeted tens of thousands of rural families so wretchedly poor that they see coca-growing as a rational choice for generating income. Insufficient pressure on – or even encouragement of – paramilitary abusers also took its toll, measured in hundreds of thousands of victims. It has taken a while for the United States to learn this lesson in Iraq, as it has gradually moved away from tactics like kicking in doors in the middle of the night. Colombia’s military and police have also begun to develop a lighter touch, but there is much room for improvement.
- Put a priority on protecting citizens, not treating them as suspects. This is a basic, but repeatedly ignored, tenet of counter-insurgency theory. Medals and promotions are given out for dead and captured insurgents, not for numbers of people made to feel safer. But few strategies work better than making the population believe that you are there to help them worry less about their security, insted of being just another factor of insecurity.
The Colombian security forces have had much success with citizen security during the past five years. However, the protection of Colombians has been the focus of only a small portion of U.S. aid to Colombia. Efforts like building police stations, setting up carabinero units, and improving mobility to respond to threats have been vastly overshadowed by big-ticket items like fumigation and shock-and-awe military offensives like “Plan Patriota.”
- Similarly, aim intelligence efforts at the insurgent leadership, not citizens working “within the system.” The cold-war “national-security doctrine,” which instructed security forces to root out communist “subversion” within the population, did nothing to weaken the FARC, though it did make life very frightening for labor leaders, leftist politicians, and human rights defenders. (And many on the right still insist, completely mistakenly, that these sectors are the FARC’s main support.)
This doctrine should not be revived anywhere. Instead, intelligence efforts aimed at the top FARC leadership have been a recent addition to U.S. support for Plan Colombia, a relatively cheap strategy that has yielded strong results by disrupting guerrilla communications and sowing distrust and fear of “infiltrators” among the FARC leadership.
- Encourage desertion, not body counts, among the insurgent rank and file. It seems like common sense given the inexhaustible supply of poor, unemployed recruitable youth. But Colombia only began encouraging desertion in earnest a few years ago, rewarding ex-guerrillas with job training and paying them for information, instead of locking them up on “rebellion” charges. This was never a significant focus of U.S. support for Plan Colombia – to the contrary, aiding people who until recently were “terrorists” appeared to risk running afoul of the Patriot Act.
- Recall that governance is far more than military occupation. Territories cannot truly be considered “liberated” until the entire state is able to function in the previously abandoned zone. This includes the judicial system and ministries charged with issues like land tenure, education, health, transportation and infrastructure.
Colombia’s government appears to be moving toward increasing non-military state presence under the so-called “Integrated Action” doctrine, though efforts so far are incipient, have heavy military participation, and face uncertain future funding. In particular, U.S. support for non-military governance should be far more generous than it has been – something that the current Congress recognized when they increased non-military aid by $100 million this year.
- Don’t allow impunity to undermine the whole enterprise. Merely increasing the state’s presence in a zone could do more harm than good if the state’s representatives – military or civilian – routinely get away with corruption and abuse of the population. Fighting impunity is the critical flip side of governance, and it requires an independent judiciary with the political and economic backing to do its job. If a recipient government is not making real strides to reduce impunity for human-rights abuse and corruption, then U.S. aid should be conditioned and, if necessary, curtailed. This money will otherwise be wasted. Where Colombia is concerned, progress against impunity has been slow, halting and fragile.
- Be open to talks with insurgent leaders. Insisting on never “negotiating with terrorists” can condemn a country to an unending war of attrition. Offers to negotiate should be taken seriously and, if determined to be more than just a delaying tactic, responded to positively. Even if the insurgent group is widely discredited, peace talks can also provide a moment for national discussions on topics like land reform or accountability for past abuses.
- If the unpopular insurgency is vanquished, don’t claim “Mission Accomplished.” If the FARC disappeared tomorrow, for instance, Colombia would still be one of the most economically unequal countries on earth. It would still have an almost completely ungoverned countryside, lopsided land tenure, and a proliferation of “new” paramilitary groups. It would still have a weak judicial system, and few checks and balances over an executive branch whose president may be seeking to prolong himself in power. And it would still be the world’s number-one cocaine producer.
The need for U.S. (and international) assistance in a post-FARC Colombia would be just as great. But it will be important to learn from Plan Colombia – including the large number of mistakes committed and opportunities missed – rather than view it as a cookie-cutter “template” to be replicated elsewhere.