March 10th, 2012
02:33 PM ET

Colombia's lessons for counterinsurgency - and Afghanistan

Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon is coauthor with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal of the new book, Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign PolicyYou can read more from him on the Global Public Square.

Michael E. O'Hanlon

By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN

How do successful counterinsurgencies tend to evolve over time? This question is paramount as the Obama administration tries to sort out next steps on Afghanistan. Most have heard by now the rule of thumb that even successful campaigns against insurgent groups typically take a decade or longer. But the recent Iraq experience, in which substantial military progress occurred in the short space of 18 to 24 months, still skews expectations among many Americans. In fact, Colombia’s ups and downs of the last two decades provide a more useful guidepost, as I was reminded on a recent trip to Bogota.

Colombia has been a major success story in the fight against drug cartels and industrial-scale insurgencies over the last two decades. A good deal of progress against the big cartels occurred in the 1990s, but since the Alvaro Uribe presidency starting in 2002, remarkable things have happened in dealing with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) insurgencies as well.

Fatality rates from violence declined by roughly half, as did the estimated size of the insurgency (now thought to be less than 10,000 in the FARC movement). The amount of territory held by insurgents declined dramatically and major cities became much safer. Right-wing paramilitaries scaled back operations even more, and the country’s economy began to experience healthy growth rates too, averaging more than 4 percent annually over the last dozen years.

Since 2010, when Uribe’s former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, became president, however, some degree of angst has crept back into the Colombian political discourse. Santos has made strides in certain areas, partially defusing testy relations with neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador where insurgents still seek refuge, and continuing Colombia’s impressive economic performance. But there are worries that violence is again on the rise, and that insurgents have adapted to recent government successes with more effective tactics.

A few statistics, based on raw data from the Colombian police and presented at a recent Bogota conference by Alfredo Rangel of the University of Sergio Arboleda, highlight the current state of play. After declining to 12-14 incidents per year in 2007 and 2008, attacks on oil infrastructure increased greatly to 47 in 2011. That figure is similar to 2004 levels. Guerrilla ambushes on Colombian security forces numbered 367 in 2011, almost identical to the 2002 tally, after having declined to about 150 annually five years ago. Kidnappings have increased modestly over the last two years as well. The homicide rate is not increasing, but it has plateaued at nearly 15,000 in a population of 45 million (by contrast, we view the increased level of 20,000 deaths a year in Mexico as a crisis, even though Mexico’s population is more than twice as great).

Although there is now some acrimony between the Santos and Uribe camps (even though they are of the same party) on the subject, the problematic trends in violence did not begin with Santos’s presidency. Uribe stepped up the intensity and scale of attacks on insurgent leaders - including an intensive campaign against high-value targets - around 2006 with impressive results. In addition, Plan Colombia, supported importantly by the Clinton and Bush administrations, provided the helicopter mobility and precision munitions needed by Colombian military units. The result was a major battlefield turnaround.

Alas, the insurgents learned. Some leaders moved to neighboring states. Most adopted much better tactics for shielding themselves from the government’s new methods of pursuit. Those trends began during Uribe’s tenure, in fact.

Santos’s impressive new minister of defense, Juan Carlos Pinzon, is now making efforts to adapt. He is combining the military’s skills that Colombian forces already possess in spades, for jungle and mountain warfare, with the kinds of organizational changes and integrated counterinsurgency operations promoted by generals like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal in recent American-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hope is to reduce insurgent strength and activity by 50 percent, in the 10 key areas of the country where they are now strongest, by the end of President Santos’s term in mid-2014.

It is too soon to say how successful Pinzon and Santos will be with the new approach. One key takeaway is that the Obama administration needs to stay attuned to ways it can help. So far, as Martin Indyk and Ken Lieberthal and I write in our new book Bending History, the administration’s policies towards Colombia in specific, and Latin America more generally, are not particularly pathbreaking or concentrated.

Colombia’s experience is a useful reminder as we contemplate next steps in Afghanistan. Alas, that country does not yet have enough Uribes, Santoses, or Pinzons in key positions of power. But it does have a number of impressive leaders in the armed forces and at lower levels of government. If we can stay patient in our exit strategy between now and 2014, in our own troop presence and our commitment to building a strong Afghan army and police, more good things may yet happen. If we rush out, we will be forgetting a key lesson of history - that even the best missions to defeat endemic insurgencies take substantial time, effort, and patience.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Michael O'Hanlon.

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Topics: Latin America • Strategy

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soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. George Patton

    Hopefully, the so-called "counter-insurgency" strategy won't work in Afghanistan as that country strives to regain it's independence from the West. It didn't for the Russians some 20 years ago. At least the Russians were motivated by their Communist ideology whereas the NATO forces are motived by Afghanista's hidden mineral resources underground and their desire to exploit them!

    March 10, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  2. Sanity

    Had these same counter-insurgency tactics worked for the British during the Revolutionary War as they seem to have worked for the brutal Colombian government, we'd all still be under British rule today! Thank goodness they didn't work in China nor in Vietnam!

    March 10, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
  3. Phil R

    Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia? Really? Columbia?

    March 10, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Columbia doesn't have the geography and histroy of Afghanistan. The Afghan tribes have always been known for their hermitc existence and chased foreigners away, who wanted to occupy their land. The Greeks under Alexander the Great, the Persians, the Indians and other extinct ethnies had all been there. Today Greece is the only nation that doesn't want to re-establish its influence there. The Pashtuns combat Indian and Iran proxies in Afghanistan. Karzai's goernment is so corrupt that it takes money from India, Iran while claiming itself to be an ally of the U.S. Britain's David Milliband, erstwhile foreign minister under the Labour cabinet once asked his Afghan peers in Kabul, how long the government forces would hold out after the Western troops withdrawn. They didn't seem to worry and laughed, saying: "maybe 24 hours".

    March 11, 2012 at 6:12 am |
  5. Garry Leech

    Mr. O'Hanlon falls into the trap of many other analysts when analyzing the drug war "successes" and security achievements in Colombia. He looks at Colombia in isolation. He fails to point out that the dramatic rise in violence in Mexico and the corresponding power of the Mexican drug cartels is directly related to the drug war "successes" in Colombia. The dismantling of the Medellin and Cali cartels splintered the drug production and trafficking trade and the Mexican cartels became the dominant trafficking cartels. In essence, all the US war on drugs did was shft the violence from Colombia to Mexico. Consequently, Colombia only appears as a success story if it is analyzed in isolation. If the region is analyzed as a whole then the war on drugs has not been a success as cocaine production and drug-related violence remains rampant. It has become common practice for analysts to hold Colombia up as an example without pointing out the tragic consequences of this "success" story for Mexico.

    March 12, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  6. Clear evidence of fraud in Colombian police homicide data

    "The homicide rate is not increasing, but it has plateaued at nearly 15,000 in a population of 45 million (by contrast, we view the increased level of 20,000 deaths a year in Mexico as a crisis, even though Mexico’s population is more than twice as great)"

    Michael, it's too early for 2011 statistics but murders have "increased" to 17,000-18,000 in 2009/2010 from 15,000 in 2008. They have not "plateaued" at less than 15,000. The police are "manipulating" the homicide statistics Michael, you can see there's something wrong, with the puzzling police trend in 2009 when they recorded a 2% decrease and the health dept showed a 16% "increase". Almost all other years they have near identical trends as the health statistics – including the years directly before and after (go figure).

    I hope you print this comment CNN. I realise it's a bit late but it's paramount that people know what the Colombian police are up to.

    Many thanks.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  7. Nata Perinq

    What a funny blog! I in fact enjoyed watching this humorous video with my relatives as well as together with my mates.

    July 15, 2012 at 7:55 am |

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