April 01, 2009

How an Insurgency Ends

My friend Judah Grunstein at World Politics Review really put together a good feature on the "Age of Counterinsurgency." Anastasia Maloney has a particularly good dispatch from Colombia on the demise of the FARC.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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?

"What is victory?" reflected Navas. "When every day 20 to 40 narco-terrorists knock on our door wanting to lay down their arms."