Shadow Government

Colombia at the tipping point?

By Tom Mahnken

At a time when Afghanistan's difficulties and Iraq's fragility grab the headlines, it is worth highlighting the remarkable progress that Colombia has made in combating its long-running narco-terrorist insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Colombia's success was brought home to me and to a group of leading counterinsurgency experts from across the globe this week at a conference held under the sponsorship of the Colombian Ministry of Defense and U.S. Southern Command in Bogota.

It was not long ago that the FARC controlled large swathes of Colombian territory. Within these safe havens, the narco-terrorists established parallel political and economic institutions and forced the local population to grow coca that the FARC used to fund its activities. From these safe havens, the FARC launched waves of kidnapping, murder, and terror, which grew to threaten Bogota itself.

In recent years, through the competent application of counterinsurgency best practices, the Colombian government -- indeed, the Colombian people -- have been able to turn the tide against the FARC. The Colombian experience deserves treatment at greater length than I can offer here, but its main features include:

  • The development and implementation of a comprehensive strategy, the Policy for the Consolidation of Democratic Security, for defeating the FARC and other terrorist groups.
  • The personal leadership and involvement of President Alvaro Uribe, as well as the formation of an interagency integration group run out of his office to implement the strategy.
  • The professionalization of the Colombian armed forces and the development of specialized counterinsurgency units, such as Joint Task Force Omega and its Rapid Deployment Force.
  • The mobilization of popular support against the FARC, demonstrated most concretely on February 4, 2008, when around five million Colombians took to the streets in a public rally (organized using Facebook) against the FARC.

The results of this approach have been striking. Through a series of precisely targeted operations, the Colombian military has killed or captured a large portion of the FARC's leadership. It has also brought to justice large numbers of drug traffickers and members of the right-wing paramilitaries that grew up, often with a wink and a nod from the government, to combat the FARC. On July 2, 2008, the Colombian military launched Operation Jaque, a sophisticated effort that rescued hostages, including three Americans, that the FARC had been holding for between five and ten years.

More impressive than operations to kill or capture FARC leaders have been efforts to get insurgents to demobilize and rejoin Colombian society. The fact that progressively more, and more experienced, insurgents are laying down their arms is perhaps the most compelling measure of the success of this approach.

It is trite but true to observe that military efforts form but a small part of a successful counterinsurgency strategy. Colombia's approach is notable for its commitment to following up military operations to clear FARC-held territory with dedicated social and economic development measures. Visitors to the La Macarena region in the southeast part of Colombia can now see efforts to reintegrate -- actually, to integrate for the first time -- whole swaths of Colombia into the life of the nation.

President Uribe speaks passionately and articulately of the need for the Colombian state to build just, democratic institutions throughout its territory and to recover the monopoly of force and justice within its borders. Along those lines, it is notable that his government has waged counterinsurgency without seeking or receiving extraordinary legal powers.

Colombia deserves the credit for its success against the FARC, but U.S. assistance played an important, though supporting, role. U.S. efforts to assist Colombia (and the Philippines) thus deserve scrutiny as examples of the indirect approach to counterinsurgency. In some instances, the U.S. military may have to intervene directly to eliminate terrorists. More often, however, it will support local partners as they seek to defeat insurgents on their own territory. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in the 2008 National Defense Strategy, "arguably the most important military component of the struggle against violent extremists is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we help prepare our partners to defend and govern themselves". 

One hears among the Colombian military much talk of "victory" and "irreversibility", but these remain goals rather than reality. Military success is not the same thing as final victory. Successful counterinsurgency requires patient, dedicated effort over years and decades. And as Carl von Clausewitz wrote two centuries ago, "in war, the results are seldom final." 

The FARC has demonstrated throughout its life that it is an adaptive foe.  Moreover, democracies have all too often demonstrated the tendency to take their eye off the ball when things appear to be going well. The United States could choose to be a fickle partner, reducing its assistance in a short-sighted move to economize rather than reinforcing success. 

If Colombia has yet to achieve final victory over the FARC, one suspects that it has reached the tipping point. But just as importantly, in an integrated, whole-of-government approach to counterinsurgency, it appears to have developed the formula that will bring eventual victory.

Shadow Government

The soft power scorecard: Europe 1, America 0

By Peter Feaver

It has been interesting to see how quickly the Obama administration has retreated from some of the more extravagant soft power claims that greeted it during the honeymoon period. A few short weeks ago, you could find newspapers touting how "U.S. Offers Goodwill, and Expects Something in Return." Nowadays, one is more apt to find "Obama May Find Europe Reticent on Some U.S. Goals."

In fact, as Der Spiegel put it, "Europe's Obama Euphoria Wanes." President Obama remains a wildly popular public figure and everyone, heads of state included, would like to get their picture taken with him. But when it comes to the tough issues of the day -- the ramp up of commitments in Afghanistan or coordinating global stimulus packages -- the Obama team and its fans in Europe are not quite the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers team that we had been promised. Or rather they are more this than this.

Some Obama critics might blame the apparent inefficacy of soft power on the Obama team's rookie mistakes, whether it is needless insults, botched gifts, or the vacancies in key posts. I think such a view is unfair to the administration, and wrongly implies that if only it could hit its own "reset" button, it could reclaim the honeymoon. But the truth is, the issues that bedevil Obama are the very same ones that bedeviled President Bush, and having a more popular leader at the top may not do much to change the underlying conflicts of interest.

On many issues, our European partners are more like "in-laws" than "allies." In-laws are people who share a common identity, even a shared long-term and enduring covenant, and this common identity is strong enough (usually) to outlast many frequent (and sometimes stormy) conflicts of interest. Allies submerge their conflicts of interests in order to accomplish an overriding goal, typically victory against a common enemy. In-laws will continue to meet at family reunions (what is the G-20 if not a family reunion?; perhaps a dysfunctional family reunion?), but they may only agree on where to stand for the family photo. We should all be grateful for in-laws (I am deeply grateful for mine, in case they are reading), but we should not be surprised by conflicts. And we should attribute failures of cooperation to those underlying conflicts of interest rather than to boorish diplomacy.

Many people thought the election of Obama would yield a soft power bonanza, but it hasn't worked out that way. Soft power is the ability to get other states to want what you want, and it is distinguished from hard power, which is the ability to get other states to do what you want (even if they don't want to). Obama at the start undoubtedly has more soft power at his disposal than Bush did at the finish, but so far this has not produced much greater European cooperation on American goals. The atmospherics and optics are more positive, but the actual results are not.

Does this mean soft power is overrated? Perhaps some are naïve about what it can do, but I would characterize the naiveté more as a misunderstanding -- specifically, a failure to understand that soft power operates in both directions. We are seeking to exert soft power on others, and others are seeking to exert soft power on us. Viewed this way, in recent months we have witnessed a fairly impressive display of transatlantic soft power, but it has traveled mostly east to west, rather than west to east.

Not too long ago, America wanted Europe to:

  • adopt more American approaches to addressing the global financial crisis;
  • shoulder more of the military and economic load in Afghanistan; and
  • accept more responsibility for holding the detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay.

And Europe wanted the opposite -- for America to:

  • adopt more European approaches to addressing the global financial crisis;
  • shoulder more of the military and economic load in Afghanistan; and
  • accept more responsibility for holding the detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay.

These conflicts of interest have been worked out not with hard power tools of threats and intimidation but with soft power tools of shaming and suasion. And the results so far are:

  • America is going to adopt more European approaches to addressing the global financial crisis;
  • America is going to shoulder more of the military and economic load in Afghanistan; and
  • America is going to accept more responsibility for holding the detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay.

My purpose here is not to critique the results. So far, they are more or less what I expected, and I can imagine far more disastrous foreign policy moves than the ones Obama has made thus far. But we should not miss the opportunity to learn a bit of realism that should be obvious to anyone who served in a position of responsibility in American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Soft power is a useful component of foreign policy, but it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. And if you make "being liked" a centerpiece of your foreign policy, you will find your soft power eroding and the soft power of others growing.

I am pretty sure the Obama team -- the one running foreign policy now, not the one running for office last fall -- already understands this. And I am pretty sure they are going to return from Europe understanding it even better.