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Sustainability of Colombian Military/Strategic Support for "Democratic Security"

Authored by Dr. Thomas A. Marks. | July 2005

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Upon taking office in August 2002, President Alvaro Uribe Velez of Colombia was faced with a difficult strategic situation that required a fresh approach. This was forthcoming in a Democratic Security and Defence Policy which radically reoriented the state posture towards its principal security challenge?an insurgency inextricably linked to the narcotics trade and other criminal activity. Previously committed to negotiation, the government opted for counterinsurgency. Though multifaceted in its dimensions, the new policy effectively assigned the cutting edge role to the Colombian armed forces (COLMIL), most prominently the dominant service, the army (COLAR). This required that the forces aggressively pursue a well-funded, entrenched adversary within a complex international environment decidedly hostile to state efforts at stability operations. This they have done in impressive fashion.

These same armed forces had already set the stage for the shift in policy by pursuing a reform movement that had allowed them to wage more aggressive operations, while the previous administration of President Andres Pastrana (1998-2002) had unsuccessfully sought a negotiated settlement with the main insurgent group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and to a lesser extent with the distant second group, Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional, or National Liberation Army (ELN). The self-defense groups of the Autodefensas Unida Colombia, or United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC), the so-called ?paramilitaries,? were a symptom as opposed to a cause and did not threaten the government through insurgent activity. Continued combat was necessary, because neither FARC nor ELN altered their military posture during negotiations. To the contrary, FARC used Bogota?s provision of what was to be demilitarized space, the Zona de Des peje, to facilitate an intensification of the conflict through the use of main force warfare, while terror and guerrilla action continued.

Thus Colombia?s counterinsurgency approach under President Uribe built upon a foundation already put in place by the armed forces, a foundation upon which a national as opposed to a virtually stand-alone armed forces campaign could be constructed. This has resulted in a level of state commitment, led by continuous military operations. The insurgents thus far have been unable to counter strategically.

Bogota?s strategy recognized the need to dominate local areas by providing a security umbrella under which the normal functions of the state could be exercised. The operational vehicle for carrying out the effort was to place a ?grid? over the target area, with specific forces carrying out specific missions, all coordinated in such manner as to stifle insurgent activity. The basis for all else was the deployment of local forces. These Soldatos de mi Pueblo (?Home Guards?) were indispensable to establishing state presence in affected areas. Local forces had all the more impact, because the police, using the same approach, systematically established presence in every municipio (county) in the country.

Military-police integration highlights the increasingly joint nature of Colombian operations. Though answering to a Commanding General (CG) Joint Command, the military services themselves had functioned together more as a matter of courtesy than command. This had not posed any insuperable problems, particularly given COLAR?s dominance, but it was not the ideal way to conduct counterinsurgency, where unity of command was crucial. Plans to implement military ?joint operational commands? in place of the exclusively COLAR divisional areas were tabled in Summer 2004? and met with fierce resistance in parochial circles?but had the support of President Uribe and began to be implemented in December 2004. It is planned that the individual services will become more ?service providers? in the U.S. sense, while CG Joint Command will exercise operational control of forces that resemble U.S. combatant commands. Such a development is entirely logical in waging counterinsurgency, but is a sea-change in the way Colombian services have functioned throughout their history.

Integration extends beyond the military. The involvement of the state has brought a new closeness to working relationships that hitherto normally depended upon interpersonal relations in areas of operation. In particular, law enforcement and judicial authorities have become an important part of operations. This provides government forces with enhanced flexibility, because the police and officials are able to engage in actions not legally devolved to the armed forces.

In the field, the strategic initiative has inevitably featured tactical setbacks. The insurgents, as with government forces, have a learning curve and have sought to exploit the very weaknesses created by the government?s success and a zero-defects political mentality. As military action has forced the insurgents to break up into small units, the security forces have done likewise. This, however, creates opportunities for medium-size insurgent concentrations to surprise isolated or tactically sloppy units with rapid concentrations which then disperse. The insurgents appear to recognize the pressure for ?no bad news? placed upon the military by the political structure and thus have moved adroitly to exploit it.

Regardless of substantial progress, the single 4-year, constitutionally mandated presidential term is not enough time to negate the tactical ability of FARC to initiate guerrilla and terror actions. The large number of mine casualties among the security forces, for instance, has little to do with anything save FARC?s extensive use of the internationally banned weapons systems. Likewise, pushing ever deeper into previously denied areas can only expose troops still further to such dangers?even as the dismantling of the counterstate so laboriously built over the past 40-some years steadily diminishes FARC?s ability to launch actions of significance by ending its apparatus for pushing through serious warmaking supplies to its units.

Faced with this profound threat to its viability as an insurgent movement, FARC must respond. As a consequence, there should be no doubt that ?violence? in Colombia will continue indefinitely. Yet the counter by the state lies in precisely what is being done: creating a situation where the response is both ?correct? and sustainable. The Uribe approach is certainly ?correct? in the manner in which it conceptualizes the problem and seeks to respond to it; it is sustainable in its present form, because it demands no unacceptable investments of resources, human or material. It will face adjustments if the U.S. contribution ends, but it is unlikely this will happen for some time. The result, then, is likely to be a Colombia more integrated than at any time in its history, economically and democratically sound, and safer than it has been in 4 decades.