Still swatting flies in Colombia
Posted by Adam Isacson
Iraq has made plain that the United States is really, really bad at dealing with insurgencies. Helping elected governments assert control over territories dominated by people who murder civilians sounds like a noble goal. But our fundamental misunderstanding of "counterinsurgency" - viewing it as a mainly military effort, neglecting poverty and civilian governance, treating the locals with suspicion or even abusing them - keeps making the situation worse.
In what is currently the nation's number-two best-selling non-fiction book, Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks takes the U.S. defense establishment to task for "unprofessional ignorance of the basic tenets of counterinsurgency warfare." Warned expert Andrew Krepinevich in a year-old Foreign Affairs article, "Having left the business of waging counterinsurgency warfare over 30 years ago, the U.S. military is running the risk of failing to do what is needed most (win Iraqis' hearts and minds) in favor of what it has traditionally done best (seek out the enemy and destroy him)."
This is a big, fundamental problem, because the "war on terror," as currently fought, keeps leading us into difficult counterinsurgency missions. Right now, the Bush administration is facing insurgents directly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it's not going well. Israel, the United States' closest ally in the Middle East, just confronted a locally popular irregular army (Hezbollah doesn't really fit the definition of an insurgency) with a strategy based on aerial bombing, with hugely frustrating results. Meanwhile, Washington is supporting other governments' counterinsurgency campaigns in Colombia, the Philippines and Nepal.
I work a lot on Colombia, which is by far the biggest U.S. military aid recipient outside the Middle East - $3.8 billion in military and police aid since 2000, making up 80 percent of our entire aid package to Colombia during that period. This aid, under a framework called "Plan Colombia," started out as an effort to reduce the flow of illegal drugs from Colombia. In the wake of September 11, though, the Bush administration got permission from Congress to allow the aid to be used to fight Colombia's insurgency, principally two Marxist guerrilla groups founded in the mid-1960s.