Colombia’s civil war with the FARC interests me for several reasons. At the Institute for the Study of War, I worked as a research analyst on the Afghanistan team. In 2015, I monitored Taliban gains, as they recaptured many of their former strongholds, and even encroached upon new territories. It became clear to me that the US and allies, even after 14 years of war with the Taliban, were not able to ensure enduring peace or success. I took special interest in Colombia after reading about ex-President Uribe’s relative success in degrading the FARC insurgency and augmenting security in the Colombia, and President Santo’s diplomatic successes. I wondered if it was possible to extract lessons from the Colombian conflict that the US could employ in the future.
The Colombian and Afghan conflicts have many things in common. The FARC and the Taliban both emerged as political movements, but have since morphed into quasi-narcotrafficking groups as a means to fund their insurgency against the governments. Both insurgent groups use their country’s vast lootable resources, mountainous terrain, and ubiquitous distrust of the central government among the populous to fuel their wars. This led me to speculate that both conflicts necessitate unique and nuanced strategies, to include aspects of counterinsurgency (COIN), counter-narcotics, and diplomacy. I hoped to study Colombia’s conflict, the government’s successes (if they were really as successful as portrayed), and what lessons I can extract and apply in the future.
The most meaningful experience for me was when I went, as a guest of the Colombian government, to one of the FARC rehabilitation zones that are being built around the country. After an hour hike up a mountain in a small town outside the city of Melgar, I came to the entrance of the camp, marked by a simple plastic sign and barbed wire. As I approached the camp I saw the FARC banners, celebrating 53 years of struggle. One banner read “Movimiento Bolivariano,” or “Bolivar’s Movement.” It alludes to the popular slogan of Chavez’s communist campaign in Venezuela. FARC fighters who had chosen to turn in their weapons and themselves were dispersed among tents. The greeted me happily, offered to share their insights into the conflict, and their hopes for their futures. One told me he was studying social studies; another introduced me to his algebra teacher. Each was optimistic that the government would fulfill its end of the deal, and provide them will the opportunities for survival for which that had been fighting for 53 years. I was surprised by how benign the ex-guerillas seemed—laughing and joking, offering me coffee and food, sharing visits with their children. Growing up in the US, I had learned that these were monsters, terrorists—unworthy of even basic tenets of just war ethics. I began to the appreciate better the complexity of these conflicts, the duality, and the grey areas. My visit humanized both the conflict and the enemy for me.
I remained acutely aware of the egregious violence so many of them had committed, about their principle role in the cocaine trade in Colombia, and about the precarious nature of the newfound “peace” in Colombia. Nevertheless, it made me reconsider the role that negotiations, diplomacy, and forgiveness must play in effectual peace processes. These aspects are not just ethical, but perhaps also strategic. While Colombia’s future is far from certain, it is certainly looking much brighter than that of Afghanistan. I look forward to continuing my research on the subject, with the hope that I can glean lessons on how to more ethically and effectively conduct COIN.