Thursday, August 11, 2011


The remains of a police station struck by the FARC in Colombia.
I know we've been quiet for a few days here at the Mob, but sometimes we find that there's nothing much new to say about anything; either there's no real new news, or everyone else has already said what we would want to say.  It can happen to anyone.  And sometimes what you need when that happens is to just dig a little.

So in the process of that digging, I turned up this.  It seems like the FARC in Colombia is starting to be a big problem again.  And that opens things up for some discussion of why insurgent/terrorist/militia groups are able to remain in existence for so long in some places, and how nations often fail to combat them well.

Let's catch up on FARC first: in recent months they have killed a highly-ranked police official, and the first link details a more recent killing of soldiers in a couple different firefights.  Of course, they've been operating for decades, and this sort of behavior from them is nothing new.  It's sort of their thing. 

But what is much, much more interesting is FARC's transition from their more traditional setup.  Now, it seems, they are attempting to hide out amongst the civilian population and do most of their damage through stealthier, more modern insurgency and guerilla tactics.  FARC being the Cold War dinosaur that it is makes this shift feel like watching your dog learn how to drive a car, somehow.  This, in turn, requires Colombia to perform an appropriate shift in counterinsurgency tactics.

This seems to be working better for FARC than Colombia so far, which is unfortunate for everyone.  Attacks are up, and appear to be more successful than in years past.  Furthermore, Colombia's traditional strategy of targeting FARC leadership seems to be having little positive effect, instead causing them to work more closely with Columbian gangs (who are not exactly nice people either). 

Counterinsurgency is a tricky thing in general, and it's especially so when dealing with such an old and entrenched group as FARC.  The old school of insurgent and terrorist thought - such as with the Basque ETA back in the day - works under the idea that in order for a terrorist group to succeed at their stated aims, the best method is to make things worse enough, and drag the opposed government down far enough, that things can't get better.  When that happens, the population might just turn to the terrorists instead of the authorities.

This means that there is a limit to what a government can do.  Using excessive and frequent force can further entrench terrorists and increase their popular support; Colombia has had this issue in the past.  The unfortunate part for Colombia is that intelligence/law enforcement methods have not been effective for them either.  Colombia's justice system has fairly notable corruption issues, and slim resources to work with.  What's more is that President Santos seems to be promising little in the way of support.

That leaves only the third method for Colombia, which is development.  If the goal of terrorists is to make things worse, then the government has to be able to make things better.  Santos - and Uribe before him - have attempted to create "consolidation zones" in areas with significant FARC influence in order to help provide basic services.  Apparently this is not going well either, though, as they've failed to provide those services consistently.

If Colombia is ever going to overcome FARC - and that's a very important thing for them to be able to do -  some things need to happen.  They need to avoid "incidents" involving their military as much as possible.  They need to engineer some serious reforms for their justice system, so they can start successfully prosecuting large numbers of FARC members and those that support their activities.  And they need to start raising the standard of living. 

Assuming they can do that, FARC will over time lose relevance.  Of course, there's no guaranteed way to break the back of a terrorist or insurgent network overnight.  But over time, these groups quickly fade once their purpose and relevance has passed.  They may not go away for good - groups like the IRA and ETA prove that - but those groups are a shell of their former selves, and not even remotely the threat they once were.  If Colombia can to do the same to FARC, the world will be a better place.

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