April 14, 2009

Special Abu Muqawama Interview: Anastasia Moloney

I was really impressed with Anastasia Moloney's piece in the World Politics Review on Colombia's endgame with the FARC. The readership was as well and came up with some good questions. I asked those and a few more to Anastasia, and she joins us today to talk about the FARC, the Colombian military, and her experience living in South America.

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.