Colombian President Juan Manual Santos has announced that he will launch this fall into peace talks with the FARC, Colombia’s major insurgent group, which has been battling the government since the 1960s. To see why these talks make sense and may succeed (even if there will be no ceasefire yet), it helps to look at why the previous round of peace talks, from 1998 to 2002, failed. It’s simple, really: A decade ago FARC was far from beaten. It was, in fact, on the verge of taking power. President Andres Pastrana had to offer them sovereignty over an area the size of Switzerland to even lure them to the peace table and predictably those talks failed. The only outcome was to encourage right-wing death squad violence as a counter to the FARC because ordinary Colombians had little faith in the ability of the government’s security forces to protect them.
President Alvaro Uribe, who took office in 2002, adopted a different approach—one that had more in common with the counterinsurgency strategies US troops have followed in Iraq and Afghanistan than with Pastrana’s defeated approach. By pushing security forces to provide security 24/7, and by pushing them to uphold the rule of law, Uribe (along with his then-defense minister, Santos) squeezed out the right-wing paramilitaries and dealt FARC crushing setbacks which have included the freeing of their high-profile hostages and the death or capture of many of their senior leaders.
FARC continues to receive life support from Venezuela but it is at least possible now to imagine that the group may actually decide to give up the armed struggle as the FMLN did in El Salvador in 1992, as the IRA did in Northern Ireland in 1998, and as other insurgent groups have done. If it were to come about, peace would be made possible for the most obvious of reasons: the FARC has been essentially defeated militarily. Having no chance of shooting its way into power, it must now negotiate instead.
Those conditions, one might add, do not yet apply in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and Haqqanis have been battered but are far from defeated—hence there is little prospect of peace negotiations going anywhere in that country in the near term, notwithstanding all the loose chatter one hears in Washington on that subject.