Editor’s Note: While conflict and turbulence are seemingly now norms across large parts of the world, Colombia is a good news story according to Michael O’Hanlon and David Petraeus. Despite many successes — like FARC now showing some interest in peace talks — Colombia remains a violent place in need of assistance and attention, they write.
It’s easy for a casual newspaper reader to think the world is coming undone.
Syria’s civil war rages on despite the recent furor over the regime’s use of chemical weapons. Iraq is regressing. South Asia is still turbulent despite the first democratic handover of power in Pakistan’s history. From Egypt to Yemen, Somalia to Mali, vast slices of the planet seem to be in chaos, with no end in sight.
To be sure, there are serious problems in all of these places, among others. But there is also good news – a rare commodity at a time when many in the United States are questioning America’s ability to do big things in the world. With smart strategies and the right resources, the United States can still make a huge difference, especially when it has effective and willing partners.
Colombia is a great example. Its main insurgent group, the FARC, is now apparently showing at least some interest in peace talks largely on government terms. The on-again off-again negotiations in Havana may or may not work out, but because the Colombian government has the upper hand, they still reflect good news: Colombia has come a long way in its half-century fight against drug trafficking, insurgency, kidnapping, and murder. At a time of acute doubt over the future of the Middle East in particular, Colombia provides a model for hope as well as a reminder of what is required to make such progress possible.
But if there is much to celebrate, it is also too soon for America to declare victory and forget about Colombia, as we can be prone to do about neighbors to the south. The nation still has a considerable way to go to consolidate its successes. It also has a great deal to offer states in the region, perhaps most of all in crime-ridden Central America, in ways that can serve common Colombian and American national security interests.
First a capsule history on how far Colombia has come. For a decade shortly after World War II, class warfare exacerbated by political rivalry produced what Colombians call “laviolencia.” Hundreds of thousands died. Then Colombia enjoyed a partial hiatus from the worst of its troubles, in the 1960s and into the early 1970s. Yet even in those relatively good times, problems were brewing. The country then entered into a long period of intense crime and mayhem, characterized by the world’s worst drug lords controlling large swaths of the state, by kidnapping and assassination on a scale rivaled by few countries anywhere else on the planet, and by the blossoming of insurgencies, most notably the FARC movement, which also took control of significant areas of the country and ultimately fused with much of the narco-trafficking community in drug-related violence while also pursuing its original vision of political revolution.
These problems mutated in various ways, but persisted for three decades. Even though drug kingpin Pablo Escobar had been killed a decade before, and other progress was made over the years, Colombia was still struggling badly at the turn of the 21st century. Annual killings from conflict-related violence exceeded 30,000, rivaling what Iraq experienced during the early post-Saddam years (albeit in a population 50 percent larger than Iraq’s) and dwarfed the reported deaths in Afghanistan in recent years. They also far exceeded, in per capita terms, what Mexico has suffered over the last half dozen years.
But since then, the situation has dramatically improved. The main turning point in Colombia was the election of President Alvaro Uribe in 2002, combined with more generous American aid packages in the form of “Plan Colombia” that began under President Bill Clinton and were sustained and built upon by President George W. Bush. There were also major reforms in how the Colombian military pursued the enemy. Uribe brought a level of focus to the conflict that had never been previously seen, using his personality and energy to infuse a more intense and committed effort into the security forces as well. American aid included signals intelligence assistance, precision-guided bombs for targeting insurgent leaders and drug lords, and helicopters for mobility so that the armed forces could get around the battlefield as needed. Uribe also expanded the size of the armed forces and tightened their links with local communities, another way of building up intelligence about the enemy to make attacks more precise and effective. By the end of his tenure in 2010, war-related civilian death rates were down by half. Colombia was beginning to enjoy an economic renaissance made possible by greater foreign investment and the return of many businessmen and other economic leaders who had fled the country.
Uribe’s defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, became the new president in 2010. He continued many of his predecessor’s policies. But at a political level he sought to change the narrative. He began to emphasize possible peace talks with the FARC and a post-conflict vision for the country in general. This apparent softening of the political leadership’s approach to the war brought criticism from Uribe, but did not lead to a diminution of the military effort by the Colombian Armed Forces under the leadership of defense minister Juan Carlos Pinzon, who continued to take the fight to the enemy. Precise, intelligence-based attacks against high-value targets, implemented largely by skilled commandos, have continued to be the hallmarks of the recent approach and have often evoked the best efforts of U.S. special forces and intelligence operatives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the job is not yet done. Colombia is still very violent. There is no peace deal just yet, with either the FARC or a different insurgent movement, the ELN. The country is still among the largest producers of cocaine in the world. And as important as anything else, Colombia’s ability to share its expertise with other regional states, to include Mexico but especially the highly unstable countries of Central America, has only partially been tapped. Large parts of these states remain vipers’ nests of criminality and drug trafficking. And as Mexico puts the squeeze on its own drug lords under President Enrique Pena Nieto, the Central American states may feel even more pressure from various forms of illicit activity. Colombia can probably help these Central American countries much more efficiently and economically than we can. And the country’s historical willingness to help with overseas military operations, ranging from the Korean War to Afghanistan, suggest substantial potential on this front.
As such, the United States has every reason to stay engaged with one of its strongest allies in not only the hemisphere but the world. The U.S.-Colombia alliance is of great mutual benefit to both parties. The Free Trade Accord approved in 2011 by Congress helps, as does the ongoing Plan Colombia military assistance effort, but we need to look beyond to the following measures:
• Sustain the levels of aid associated with Plan Colombia for another half decade or so. If Colombia continues to grow at 4 to 6 percent a year, we may not need to continue this kind of assistance past 2020, but there is still considerable need for foreign help.
• Encourage Colombia to use much of that funding to strengthen its presently underdeveloped judicial sector to shore up further the rule of law in a country where crime has been rampant and security forces (as well as their allies) have sometimes been implicated in misdeeds.
• Promote Colombian efforts to bring policing, justice systems, and economic development to regions of the country where guerrillas have been strong, in a tightly focused and timely way consistent with the core tenets of a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. These instruments of national policy have been lacking at times, particularly in the country’s remote areas.
Michael E. O’Hanlon
Director of Research - Foreign Policy
Director - Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
Co-Director - Africa Security Initiative
Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy
General David Petraeus (Ret.)
Partner, KKR and Chairman, KKR Global Institute
• Link U.S. aid efforts to Central America with greater Colombian involvement in training and mentoring the security forces of countries like Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala so that these highly troubled states can make the kind of headway we have seen in Colombia over the past dozen years — creating the possibility for a zone of greater stability on America’s southern flank.
• Colombia can also be a future key partner on global security activities for the United States, though for the most part such more ambitious measures can await greater progress close to home.
We are on the right track with Colombia. We need to keep at it to consolidate one of the best stories on the national security front of the 21st century to date. And it can then help us make progress throughout the region in general, working to stabilize a group of countries that is key to our security. At a time of such great tumult and potential distraction in the broader Middle East, it is important not to lose sight of the very real challenges—and the encouraging news—closer to home.