Commentary Magazine


Topic: FARC

The FARC is Weak; The Taliban is Strong

I recently returned from Colombia, where the armed forces continue to wage war on FARC but are now starting to look beyond this conflict to imagine what peace—or some semblance thereof—might look like. Such confidence might seem unwarranted, considering that FARC has been battling the government since the mid-1960s, making it one of the longest-running guerrilla groups in the world. Yet over the past decade FARC has suffered sharp setbacks, including the loss of senior commanders in targeted strikes, and it has agreed to come to the negotiating table.

Some see this as a cynical ploy on FARC’s part, trying to gain some breathing room to come back stronger than ever. But that’s not how senior officials in the Colombian armed forces view the situation: They think that FARC is serious about making a deal.

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I recently returned from Colombia, where the armed forces continue to wage war on FARC but are now starting to look beyond this conflict to imagine what peace—or some semblance thereof—might look like. Such confidence might seem unwarranted, considering that FARC has been battling the government since the mid-1960s, making it one of the longest-running guerrilla groups in the world. Yet over the past decade FARC has suffered sharp setbacks, including the loss of senior commanders in targeted strikes, and it has agreed to come to the negotiating table.

Some see this as a cynical ploy on FARC’s part, trying to gain some breathing room to come back stronger than ever. But that’s not how senior officials in the Colombian armed forces view the situation: They think that FARC is serious about making a deal.

The latest news from Havana, where the negotiations are being conducted, suggests they may be right: FARC and the Colombian government have just reached agreement on the first, and most contentious, issue in their talks–land reform designed to benefit poor farmers. This does not guarantee the success of the talks but it is an important breakthrough. As the Wall Street Journal notes:

There are four items left on the agenda that Mr. Santos and the FARC agreed to last year as a road map for the peace talks. The next topic under discussion will be the FARC’s participation in electoral politics. Other items include getting the FARC out of the cocaine trade; reintegrating fighters into civil society; and support for victims and the need to uncover the truth about atrocities allegedly committed by the FARC.

Various Colombian officials told me, however, that land reform was the hardest issue on the table. With that out of the way, the odds of success on the other agenda items greatly increase.

Of course, even if FARC accepts a deal, that will not be binding on every guerrilla commander. Some will no doubt continue to battle on, just as IRA factions have done since the 1998 Good Friday Accord. And, considering the close links between FARC and narco-traffickers, other fighters may simply become full-time drug runners. But it would be a very big deal if the majority of FARC were to lay down its arms. It would be good news not only for Colombia but also for its most important foreign ally–the United States–which has spent considerable resources via Plan Colombia over the past decade to bring about this very outcome.

The Obama administration would love to see a similar breakthrough in talks with the Taliban but it won’t happen anytime soon, because there is a major difference between Colombia and Afghanistan: FARC has suffered far greater blows on the battlefield than the Taliban have. It is impossible to reach accord with a determined insurgency until you can convince its leaders that they will not win at gunpoint. The Taliban, however, evidently remain convinced that they can still prevail with the use of force. And with the U.S. pledging to pull all its combat troops out by the end of 2014, they may very well be right.

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Why Colombia-FARC Talks May Succeed

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.

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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.

 

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