Friday, December 16, 2016

The Lessons Plan Colombia Apparently Did Not Teach Us

Plan Colombia, the U.S.’ long term plan to support the Colombian government in fighting cartels and Marxist rebels, has been a wild success. In a short period the fortunes of the government in Bogota shifted dramatically. Colombian forces in the early 1990’s were losing control of major cities and many speculated that a rapid collapse of state authority, even in major urban areas and government strongholds like Bogota itself, could soon occur. By 2010 Colombian forces, bolstered by U.S. military aid and training, were steadily grinding the once powerful FARC armed columns into oblivion. This striking victory in counterinsurgency warfare was chalked up to the innovation and perseverance of the Colombian military and extensive U.S. support. Today, Colombia has signed a peace deal with the FARC from a position of decisive strength.

This comes at a time when the U.S. remains embroiled in long, tedious counterinsurgency conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. For a time, around 2012 to 2014, much was said of the potential for lessons from Plan Colombia’s successes to be translated into success in the Middle East conflicts.

Plan Colombia succeeded for a variety of reasons – the loyalty of the general populace to the central government, effective conscription measures, effective employment of light infantry/close air support combined arms operations and a massive surge in troop presence starting in the cities. Some of these factors obviously cannot be translated to the Middle East conflicts which are also different from the perspective of root causes involving religious and tribal struggles.

However, the lessons learned from the tactical successes of the Colombian military acting against the FARC do not seem to have been well translated to the Afghanistan or Iraq scenarios. Firstly, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are overshadowed by a constant and overwhelming U.S. aerial presence. Colombia managed to succeed in part by employing its vast fleet of helicopters in lightning raids against isolated FARC encampments. Colombian gunships and light attack aircraft
also contributed greatly to a constant campaign of harassment – keeping FARC columns on the move when, in the past, they had the freedom to remain in an area unpressured for rest and refitting.

It is unclear whether the U.S. air campaign in Afghanistan or Iraq is employing the same tactics which proved to be so successful in Afghanistan. Certainly, the drone campaign and deployment of advanced U.S. warplanes meets and exceeds the standards of Colombia’s own aerial harassment campaign. However, are indigenous Afghan and Iraqi forces making good use of their helicopters and special forces? Colombia’s tried and true strategy of area denial with large conventional army units combined with rapid attacks by special forces to seize or kill FARC leaders within FARC controlled territory was clearly successful. Whether Iraqi or Afghan security forces have been able to successfully employ their forces in combination is unclear.

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