Is Colombia’s New Military Strategy a Herald of Peace?

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The Colombian military’s new strategy of targeting leftist guerrillas’ most strategic units, instead of taking out their top leaders, could be a sign that the government is contemplating peace talks with the rebels in the near future.

On March 26, the Colombian military bombed a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) training camp in the central department of Meta. The air strike killed 36 rebels, and the security forces captured six more in a ground raid. It is the second major assault on the guerrillas in less than a week, after a similar air strike/ground raid in the eastern department of Arauca killed 33 rebels on March 21.

According to President Juan Manuel Santos (pictured), the strikes are a historic blow to the guerrillas. “We’ve never taken out so many members of the FARC in individual operations,” he said after a meeting of top security officials in Meta.

Military officials say the operations form part of a counterinsurgency strategy launched in January, known as “Operation Sword of Honor.” The new approach aims to weaken the guerrillas by aggressively pursuing their most well-armed and wealthiest fronts, as opposed to the previous approach of eliminating the top levels of FARC command. The latter tactic has been exceedingly successful, on its own terms, with the military tracking down and killing two of the group’s top commanders in the last two years.

This shift in strategy comes at a time when the prospect of a negotiated settlement between the FARC and the government seems less and less distant. The rebel group has repeatedly called for peace talks, and recently renounced the decades-long practice of kidnapping, promising to release 10 longtime security forces hostages. After being rescheduled twice, the release is now slated to begin April 2.

In light of these developments, it makes sense that the government would back off from attacks on the FARC’s command structure. While the assassination of high-level commanders delivers the government an important military and propaganda victory, each time the military kills a member of the FARC old guard they kill another leader with the indisputable authority to speak on behalf of the entire organization at the negotiating table.

If too many of the FARC’s military and political leaders are killed off, then the organization may fragment, pushing the rebels further away from their ideology and even deeper into criminal activities like kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking. This could result in the emergence of entirely new security threats, as took place with neo-paramilitary gangs like the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC), which formed out of the ashes of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

The shift also takes into account the changed reality of the FARC, which has lost the capability to hold large swaths of territory and now resorts to defending a few key strategic corridors. According to military intelligence sources consulted by El Espectador, the group maintains 67 fronts throughout the country, yet only 15 of them have direct communications with the group’s seven-man commanding body, the Secretariat. These fronts are considered to be the most strategically important to the FARC’s military aims, and are located mainly in the eastern and southern portions of the country. However, “Sword of Honor” will also go after smaller FARC fronts which are key to the rebel group’s arms acquisitions and drug trafficking activities, operating along the Venezuelan and Ecuadorean borders.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, attacks on strategic FARC units could also be related to the prospect of peace talks. The last time that the government entered into negotiations with the FARC, the guerrillas were able to use it as an opportunity to regroup militarily and increase their capacity for armed attacks. Before entering any future talks, the government will likely want to make sure that it has an uncontested upper hand.

But while pursuing strategic FARC units in the field is a valuable component of its counterinsurgency campaign, the military also needs to focus on other changes in the FARC’s operations. As InSight Crime has noted, the FARC is becoming increasingly reliant on networks of militia fighters, who largely operate in civilian clothing and are mostly based in urban areas. These militias are harder to detect than uniformed jungle fighters, and have easier access to potential targets like police stations or military barracks. With the FARC stepping up its use of hit-and-run tactics like bombings and sniper attacks, the military will need to focus on these militias if they hope to reduce the rebels’ military capacity.

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