It is a staple of much of
postmodern political theory to posit the state as an “assemblage.” That is, the
state itself is not static, it is an equilibrium between contending factions,
bureaucracies, and stakeholding organizations. In the ideal-type scenario, they
achieve a way of dividing labor and consolidating power in such a way that the
ability to wage political violence is consolidated in responsibility and
unified in the interests it serves.
Of course, life is not always that easy. As Corey Robin provocatively pointed out, our theories of national security are Hobbesian, but our states rarely live up to the best aspects of his theories. Assemblages do not always capture a truly “national” interest and fall sway to faction, whether bureaucratic, regional, ideological or social in cleavage:
To cite just one example: it is a well known fact that African Americans have suffered as much from the American state’s unwillingness to protect them from basic threats to their lives and liberties as they have from the willingness of white Americans to threaten those lives and liberties. Throughout much of US history, as legal scholar Randall Kennedy has shown, the state has deemed the threat to the physical safety of African Americans to be an unremarkable danger and the protection of African Americans an unworthy focus of its attentions.
… At the most fateful moment of white-on-black violence in US history, in fact, the national government deemed the threat to African Americans a relatively minor item of public safety, unworthy of federal military protection; by contrast, it deemed the threat to employers from striking workers an public emergency, worthy of federal military protection.
Indeed, the ability of the U.S. to retain control over the South
always butted against a broad front of resistance that ranged from political
opposition through rapidly “redeemed” formal institutions in Virginia to the
highly paramilitarized environs of Louisiana. To the North and border states,
the most essential and broadly accepted objective of the war was preserving the
Union. Abolition was, among other things, an instrument towards that end. A
broader program of equality was unnecessary or even abhorrent to those who
merely sought to destroy the slaveholding South because it imperiled the country’s
In a previous post, I noted how Reconstruction-era tolerance of anti-black violence shared some characteristics with Libya’s relatively laissez faire approach towards militias that were desecrating Sufi shrines, Western graveyards, and harassing, attacking, and then killing diplomats. The messy process of state-building could make room, or at least time, for this, but not for trying to bring to heel well-armed and organized militias with strong ideological objections to Libya’s nominal civil authorities. Libya’s new government limped along, not much a Mogadishu on the Mediterranean, nor one, even in moments of triumph, effective in Hobbesian terms. While Libyan militias and militants intervene in political processes, they do not, for the most part, appear to seek regime change, but rather to augment their political clout within the bounds of the new system through violence and intimidation.
Similarly, in American Reconstruction, paramilitary groups neither themselves seized governments (although similar paramilitary groups did throw a coup in Wilmington, NC in 1898) nor created a real counter-state, but provided a specific political class with the means to win control of existing institutions - state and local governments - without attempting to recapitulate the goals or overall method of the original rebellion.
While many Redeemer militias
acted as the conservative wing of the Democratic party, these ought be
considered distinct from the groups which were insurgents from the start of the
war. Bushwhacker militias, such as the James-Younger Gang, went from
participants in the civil wars within the civil war in the border states and
West to criminal organizations which used attitudinal affinities to bolster
their strength. Notably, in the case of the James-Younger Gang, another
non-state entity, the Pinkertons, joined in a manhunt operation. Silas Woodson,
the Democratic Missouri governor, secured pay to contract detectives, and tried
(but failed) to fund a militia to assist in the hunt. As Robin pointed out,
government responses varied with reference to the political interests. Federal,
state, local, and private forces would continue to intervene in issues of outlawry
and labor strife, but conceded, in ugly compromise, rights for blacks and
patronage networks (the position of Postmaster General, for example) to their
If we take up Tilly’s model of state-building as organized crime, we note most criminal organizations cannot kill off every single competitor. Legitimate actors and trust networks integrate into the criminal enterprise, and even with rivals, cutting deals is often more appealing than cutting throats. In state-building, too, cooperating with illegal, extralegal, and paramilitary groups lends advantages to fruitless or premature pursuit of total primacy. For many political communities, non-state groups provide instruments of governance by other means.
As the Reconstruction example shows, paramilitarism, though obviously antithetical to democratic values, is complementary to democratic systems. In Colombia’s bloody internal conflict, paramilitaries became significant players in the Colombian democratic system, bolstering the candidacies of friendly politicians with funds and coercive influence. As Giustozzi notes in his excellent book, The Art of Coercion, irregular groups often provide highly beneficial roles, particularly when options for bureaucratization and institutionalization of a professional army are limited. Indeed, in some cases a weak bureaucratized, centralized army may be insufficient or an inferior alternative for local and regional elites who prefer decentralized security provision accountable to their interests and persistent at a local level. Of course, tolerance of and cooperation with these forces allowed counterinsurgents to engage in assassination, massacres, and enrich local elites. Yet the point remains that irregular groups, within limits, provide a force multiplier to state prerogatives. Ceding autonomy and some authority to paramilitary groups such as the AUC And Los PEPES empowers extralegal or illegal entities the state prefers to negotiate and collaborate with to destroy ones it considers more threatening.
In Brazil, too, the rolling back traditional drug trafficking organizations relied not simply on special tactics units and community policing, but tacit or explicit sanctioning of paramilitary units occupying and extracting rents from neighborhoods. Indeed, the very political pressures that encouraged the Brazilian government to crack down on drug trafficking organizations with state force created power vacuums for militia groups to expand their reach within cities such as Rio de Janeiro. In all of the aforementioned cases, paramilitary groups have exploited cleavages in the interests of political assemblages, providing a tool to advance interests of actors participating within the state without breaking the state itself – and, indeed, feeding off the cooperation of state institutions. Indeed, if, as Javier Osorio notes in his excellently titled dissertation, “Hobbes on Drugs,” weaker criminal actors have incentives to step up violence against groups targeted by security services, emergent non-state actors have strong structural incentives to muscle in on the state’s foes, providing an unscrupulous government an opportunity to cut a deal.
Particularly as the U.S. and other countries turn towards SFA and FID to offset its diminishing will and capacity to take the lead in counterinsurgency operations overseas, and as states such as Syria the dynamics of paramilitarism ought register highly in importance for policymakers and academics alike. Although paramilitary groups are of most interest in instances of state failure and civil war, to dismiss them as mere warlordism ignores how paramilitarism may grow in prevalence even during periods of democratization and state consolidation. Similarly, without recognizing when and how elites will seek to decentralize the state’s use of force, attempts to build partner state capacity or engage in security-sector reform will likely fall flat. Finally, examining paramilitarism shines a light on the state as more than a mere set of institutions and bureaucracies, but as an assembly of actors with political interests that do not always overlap, nor see bureaucratization and institutionalization as the most natural or efficient manner of bolstering state capacity or instituting control. Not only do paramilitaries illuminate an ugly side of state behavior, but they also help reveal why successful states and elite coalitions, though they may be failed Hobbesians, remain so persistent despite their flaws.
Andrew Davies at the Australian
Strategic Policy Institute recently highlighted a fascinating work taking the long view of weapons
The argument essentially goes that, as weapon power has increased exponentially
in past millennia, so too has the density of combatants in the field appeared
to decrease substantially. The relationship here is obvious, but also obviously
not one-sided. The increased lethality of weapons raises the risk of
concentrated formations, but additionally, technological advances in logistics,
battlefield mobility and communications enable more dispersed formations as
Take, for example, this report from the Colombian think-tank CNAI (Esp.), which, among many, many other things, explains the shift in FARC tactics in response to Colombia’s use of light attack aircraft such as A-37s and Super Tucanos. FARC, for much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, was able to operate in quasi-conventional formations and challenge Colombian forces for territorial supremacy in a number of provinces, as well as to construct large encampments. In certain terrain environments, the Colombian military was long impaired in bringing indirect fires to bear against FARC concentrations.
Contrary to the caricature of irregular war and COIN that rejects a role for heavy weapons and airpower, Colombia has not only exploited airpower quite effectively in destroying FARC force concentrations, but also made significant gains in putting it towards campaigns of high-value targeting, including (across borders when necessary). FARC, consequently, was forced to re-disperse its forces and adopt a series of newer techniques, tactics, and procedures in order to mitigate its vulnerability to Colombian fires. This all came at relatively insignificant political cost (perhaps excepting the 2008 Andean crisis), as Colombian public opinion appears to largely support or at least accept Colombia’s aerial campaign, though there is much more criticism of Colombia’s use of proxy forces and ambiguous ties with paramilitaries, or the human rights conduct of Colombian ground troops and intelligence services.
The pattern of counteracting concentrated firepower with forms of dispersal, then, demonstrates a significant degree of continuity between regular and irregular wars. In Kosovo and Iraq, target governments responded to air power by dispersing and camouflaging their forces to wage a protracted defense against Western military might. The response of Serbian Integrated Air Defense System to American air power was in many ways similar to FARC’s - the dispersal of forces, the decreased reliance on fixed rather than mobile combat assets, and a focus on attrition and harassment rather than outright contestation of the battlespace.
In irregular war, the “political” aspects of the war appear more salient because, in addition to geographic dispersal of the battlefield, there is also a social dispersal by the irregular force by adopting ruses and perfidy to disrupt the enemy’s ability to present concentrated targets. This includes not simply the disguising of combatants as noncombatants, but the integration of noncombatants more directly into logistical and other supporting functions - using unarmed noncombatants to courier information, provide intelligence, transport and procure supplies, et cetera. For countries obeying modern laws of armed conflict and especially those with modern liberal norms, dealing with that kind of dispersal requires non-military means by virtue of the counterinsurgent forces’ own political standards. The Lieber Code and other customary laws of war which sanctioned summary executions and reprisal measures through a wide variety of means and a wide spectrum of persons and properties, were ultimately political measures rather than reflections of the nature of the conflict per se.
Nevertheless, regularized or conventional forces frequently blurred these arbitrary lines in the past as counteractions to hostile combat power. Sherman and Sheridan were contributors to the American traditions of total conventional war and counterinsurgency both. That the application of massive conventional force to problems of insurgency does not simply reflect arbitrary political decisions, but also the military circumstances that limit the overwhelming application of superior firepower generally. The most powerful fires are not always the easiest to bring to bear, if geography, intelligence, and the logistical tail do not permit it easy introduction to the theater or a leading role in its operations. The sort of limitations that initially prevented Colombia from making good use of fires in its counterinsurgency operations also occur in conventional battlefields, albeit under different circumstances, and the response of dispersal will continue to frustrate firepower. The dispersal of a combatant in response to superior firepower can involve a transmutation in organizational form is a reminder that, in part, the configuration of a foe is, ultimately, a strategic choice bound by capability, rather than essence.
A couple weeks ago, the United Arab Emirates made a most unusual acquisition: 842 Colombian soldiers. They're looking for at least a couple thousand more. What's going on is fairly simple: the UAE has a lot of cash, a need for hardened combat veterans, and wanted internal security expertise to boot. And presto! They got some. No Private Military and Security Company (PMSC) was involved. At Kings of War, Jack McDonald worried about whether or not the start of a market for force will deprive states like Colombia of its best men. The more relevant question, however, is what the possibility of a real market for individual soldiers with specialized talents will mean for the advanced military forces of the West as personnel cuts continue. Others may be willing to pay for skills a infantry captain's home country has decided are no longer valuable to the national interest.
The greatest mistake of the PMSC debate during the 1990s was the idea that soldiers-for-hire were part of a growing privitization of force and decline of the state. But many commercial entities, militias, and private armies tend to be closely linked with state authority and objectives. The US use of PMSCs during the Iraq and Afghan wars leveraged entities like Blackwater, Triple Canopy, and MPRI to further force protection and logistics arrangements. Today, Academi isn't likely to guard any Chinese interests in Africa because it has specialized itself around providing business to broadly Western military needs. Nor would the Chinese trust such firms due to their population of former American military and intelligence operators and involvement in realizing US geopolitical objectives. As my blogmate Dan often notes, MPRI played an instrumental role in helping construct the final Croatian ground offensive that cratered Serbian military power in the Bosnian War.
A true market for individual soldiers would further perpetuate this trend. The UAE acquisition of the Colombians does not represent a trend in the decline of the state. Rather, it is the geopolitical equivalent of a soccer trade. Of course, Machiavelli's warnings about the mercenary also applies. Only time (and individual temperment) can tell whether the UAE's new acquisitions will be reliable under fire or mesh with their fellow soldiers.
None of this is to deny that true private armies (like the Mexican drug cartels) exist. But the problem is that private armies are primarily appendages of existing elites within a given state ecosystem. Not every state completely achieves a true Weberian monopoly of force, which was always intended as an ideal type rather than a concrete signification of statehood. States, empires, and other vessels of political power have always had competing domestic elites with the power to make war if they so chose. What matters not necessarily is the existence of such capabilities, but whether or not the central government has a means of military or economic leverage and a political order that enables sub-state actors to peacefully pursue their interests.
1. First off, thanks for writing such a great piece. We at the blog mostly cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so your article on the FARC was of great interest to the readership. How long have you been based in Colombia, and why did you first go there?
I’ve been based in Colombia for the last seven years. I went to Colombia on a whim and because I was bored with life in London. I initially arrived in Bogota on a 2 year teaching contract in an international school. Haven’t looked back since.
2. One question a reader asked was about civilian casualties. How careful is the Colombian military to avoid civilian casualties? Do they place a priority on protecting the population in the same way as the U.S. military now does? Or is it just a case of the FARC being relatively more brutal than the government?
In my opinion, the Colombian military is very careful to avoid civilian casualties. This happens rarely, at least officially. The biggest problem for civilians is landmines rather than getting caught up in crossfire between the Farc and government troops. Civilians generally flee their homes to avoid fighting and this has lead to Colombia’s displacement crisis. The country has one of the world’s highest internally displaced populations in the world, over 3 million.
3. Another reader wanted to know more about Colombia's right-wing paramilitary organizations. What role have these organizations -- and primarily the AUC -- played in the fighting? What happens to them when the war is "over"? Can you describe their role and activities a little more?
Around 90% of AUC groups demobilized from 2005 onwards in a peace deal brokered with the government of Alvaro Uribe. At its height in the late 1990s, the AUC played a massive role in the conflict, fighting against the guerrillas and also collaborating with the Colombian military in secret, and meddling in local and general elections. Since then, around 30,000 men and women have laid down their arms and around 60% of those have joined government run rehabilitation programmes, where they receive money from the government on condition they go to school or get skills training. It has had mixed results. I have seen the successful reintegration of former combatants but also cases where former paramilitaries have re-armed and joined drug organizations or created their own new paramilitary groups. The re-arming and or the emergence of new paramilitary groups is a major problem for the government. The bottom line is that as long as Colombian produces cocaine, there will always be criminal / paramilitary gangs.
4. Have you studied any counter-insurgency theory, and if so, have you seen any of those theories validated or proven wrong in Colombia?
No! My university degrees were in history and anthropology. My only observation is that without a serious commitment to education and job creation, counter-insurgency campaigns are doomed to fail.
5. Is the U.S. assistance mission to the Colombian government at all controversial among Colombians?
Yes and No. For the Uribe government and the country’s armed forces, US aid is crucial. Others believe US aid and contractors undermine the sovereignty of Colombia. The country’s vice-president recently caused controversy when he went against the official line and said it was time for Plan Colombia to end so that Colombia could reclaim its sovereignty.
6. What role does Venezuela play in all this?
That’s the million dollar question. The Colombian government believes the country’s long jungle borders with Venezuela provides an easy safe haven for Farc, and that the Venezuelan government turns a blind eye to the problem.
7. And finally, if one is in Bogotá for a week, what are the top five bars one should visit?
The best bars in town change often. So I’ll give you the barrios (neighbourhoods) where to find the busiest bars all found in the posh bit of town in the north.. Zona G, Parque 93, la Zona Rosa, and Usaquen.
First, a surge of U.S. combat forces to Afghanistan may be less useful than further increasing the number of military trainers being deployed to help build a viable Afghan army. Second, the administration should focus less on stopping the heroin trade and more on establishing functioning state institutions -- from schools to health clinics. Third, efforts to seal off border sanctuaries do not work and divert military resources from the central job of protecting civilians. The fourth lesson is a stark one: It will take time. The Colombian effort has taken nearly a decade and counting.
Last year in particular was a vintage year for the Colombian armed forces. Two members of the FARC's seven-man ruling body, the Secretariat, were killed: the group's second in command, Raúl Reyes, killed by the Colombian army during a controversial cross-border raid into neighboring Ecuador; and rebel commander Ivan Rios, murdered at the hands of his own bodyguard. The FARC's legendary founder and leader -- Manuel Marulanda, alias "Sureshot" -- also died in 2008, of an alleged heart attack. But perhaps the biggest blow was the daring rescue mission -- in which OMEGA forces played a part -- that freed 15 FARC hostages last July, including three American contractors and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.Talk about population-centric! The idea that the FARC lost its power once separated from the rural population basically validates all kinds of insurgency and counterinsurgency theories going back to Mao. (Also, the part about trying to look tough in a tracksuit is pretty funny.) I spoke last year with a senior official in the Colombian ministry of defense who unashamedly pointed toward consistent support from the U.S. government as being the key to his government's defeat of the FARC.
There is little doubt that the FARC is now on the defensive. The group's top commanders, protected by a security ring of dozens of bodyguards, are increasingly cornered, and now rely on human couriers to communicate with each other. The picture painted by Colombian military chiefs is of a FARC movement on the ropes, but still holding on."Their command and control structures are now limited but not yet neutralized," said Navas. "They've been badly hit but they aren't yet destroyed. There's still a way to go but we're in the last stages of war. They're trying at all costs to avoid combat."
Navas highlighted the fact that the rebels command little influence over civilians. "They don't control the masses as they once did," he said. "They are now deep in the jungle with sporadic contact with civilians."
The rebels are also having trouble in providing their combatants with uniforms and have resorted to using tracksuits. "When they walk around in those tracksuits," said Navas, "the FARC loses its revolutionary mystique."
The centerpiece of the government's counterinsurgency offensive in the south of the country is called Plan Patriota. The campaign is led by 14,500 OMEGA special forces troops, many of them U.S.-trained, who patrol an area totaling 3,300 square miles and covering three provinces. The U.S. has played a pivotal role in Plan Patriota, largely through the U.S. Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM -- a joint, regional command of the U.S. Department of Defense in Miami.So ... an indirect approach focused on separating the insurgent from the population ... think there might be any lessons we can draw from this? Just maybe?
That comes on top of the roughly $6 billion that the U.S. has funneled into Colombia over the last decade, through the aid package called Plan Colombia. The money has gone to fight drug production in Colombia and train the Colombian army to battle rebel groups. Around 400 U.S. military personnel are based in Colombia as advisers, "supporting the Colombian armed forces with training, logistical, and limited intelligence support since we first began providing U.S. military support to Plan Colombia in 2000," according to the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. The U.S. Congress has limited the number of military advisers in Colombia to a maximum of 800 personnel, while U.S. law forbids them from entering combat zones or joining military operations that could result in clashes.
Over the years, SOUTHCOM has provided military hardware, such as Blackhawk and Huey II helicopters, and key logistical and infrastructure support to the Colombian army to "help it modernize and operate more effectively against both the coca farmers and rebels," Gen. James T. Hill, the SOUTHCOM commander, explained to the U.S. Congress in 2003. He added, "We continue to train Colombia's helicopter pilots, providing their forces a growing ability to perform air assaults that are key in the battle against dispersed enemies. We have also trained the Colombian urban counterterrorist unit and continue to upgrade their capabilities and equipment." SOUTHCOM has also trained Colombian troops to protect the country's major 478-mile oil pipeline in the Arauca province, which has been the target of frequent FARC attacks in the past.
"What is victory?" reflected Navas. "When every day 20 to 40 narco-terrorists knock on our door wanting to lay down their arms."
The founder and chief commander of Colombia's FARC rebel force, Manuel Marulanda, has died after more than 40 years fighting the state from jungle and mountain camps, the government said on Saturday. If confirmed, the death of Manuel Marulanda, who organized the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas in the 1960s, would be the heaviest blow yet to Latin America's oldest insurgency, already weakened by a military setbacks.
... like the Romans and other counterinsurgents through history, U.S. forces in Kunar, in a close and genuine partnership with local communities and the Afghan government (most especially, a highly competent and capable Provincial Governor), have engaged in a successful road-building program as a tool for projecting military force, extending governance and the rule of law, enhancing political communication and bringing economic development, health and education to the population. Roads in the frontier area that are patrolled by friendly forces and secured by local allies also have the tactical benefit of channeling and restricting insurgent movement and compartmenting terrain across which guerrillas could otherwise move freely, and their political and economic effects are even more striking. All of this seems to suggest, in effect, that “roads ain’t roads”.In all seriousness, the next time Abu Muqawama sees Kilcullen, he's going to ask him for his thoughts on whether or not Colombia's experience with road-building in FARC-controlled areas can be brought in as another case study. It might nicely complement the U.S. and NATO experience in Afghanistan.
Interpol specialists are currently analyzing the recovered data. Some of the information has been encrypted, but most of the files are easily accessible. Reyes felt safe in his camp, less than two kilometers (1.25 miles) from the Colombian border. In roughly two weeks, Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble plans to announce the results of the investigation. But one thing is already clear: the laptops contain a political bombshell. They hold detailed information on FARC's relations outside of Colombia, the group' finances, their smuggling routes and records for cocaine deliveries. There are also details of bomb attacks carried out be the group.
But the most important man exposed by the files on the laptop is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez -- the same man who threatened his Colombian counterpart Alvaro Uribe with war following the cross-border raid against Reyes. Now it’s clear why: Chavez apparently does more than just sympathize with the guerrillas in his neighboring country -- he also supports them with money and arms.
Reyes’ posthumous electronic correspondence reveals that Chavez had planned a meeting with legendary FARC leader Manual Marulanda, and he wanted to invite Nicaragua’s head of state Daniel Ortega and Bolivian President Evo Morales. Another e-mail refers to a “dossier” of over $300 million for the FARC. The government in the Venezuelan capital Caracas also apparently offered the rebels a share in the country's oil business and promised decommissioned arms from the country’s own army.
Chavez insists that he has never sent the rebels money or arms. After the saber rattling with Colombian leader Uribe, he is portraying himself as a man of peace. But former rebels and intelligence experts confirm the connection with the guerrillas.
(Civilians? Those weren't civilians -- surely those were insurgent potentialities.)
In a country where most people cannot remember a time of peace, Colombians are for the first time raising the possibility that a guerrilla group once thought invincible could be forced into peace negotiations or even defeated militarily.
Weakened by infiltrators and facing constant combat and aerial bombardment, the insurgency is losing members in record numbers. The FARC, as the group is known, lost 1,583 fighters in combat last year, its columns are plagued by command-and-control problems, and popular support is evaporating, the government of President Ýlvaro Uribe says.
Since 2000, the Uribe administration has received $5 billion in U.S. aid, mostly for military and anti-drug programs -- more than any other government outside the Middle East. The money has helped it revamp the Colombian army, paying for new helicopters and training for elite troops, although rights groups remain concerned about abuses, including the killings of civilians.