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By: Michael Shkolnik and Janiel Melamed
Recent developments in the negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government suggest that the guerrilla group is increasingly pursuing disengagement from the conflict. After announcing the latest round of peace talks in August 2012, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is now expressing immense confidence that formal negotiations with FARC will result in a lasting peace agreement that will bring stability to the South American country by the end of his term. Why do the current round of discussions appear to have greater potential than previous negotiations?
The answer may lie in the Colombian government’s increasingly successful counter-insurgency campaign, as FARC continues to suffer from internal fracturing while seeking to enhance its political support from local communities. Nevertheless, the economic opportunities rooted in the drug trade will remain a major motivation for continued operations among significant segments within the guerrilla organization, challenging the potential for a comprehensive peace agreement.
‘Negotiating with Terrorists’
In 1984, FARC and the Colombian government signed a monumental first peace agreement, initiating a new chapter of negotiations between both parties despite a failure to resolve the conflict. Subsequent negotiations also failed and were accompanied by periods of escalation in terrorist attacks and domestic violence. However, engaging in talks enabled FARC to establish a political party, the Patriotic Union (UP), which participated in the 1986 elections and earned 14 senatorial and congressional seats, in addition to over 250 city council members throughout the country. By the end of the 1980s, the UP evolved into a viable political force, despite the murder of some party members, including their 1990 presidential candidate Bernardo Jaramillo. Nevertheless, peace efforts continued, including the 1992 Tlaxcala discussions in Mexico and the 1998 negotiations in the demilitarized zone of Caguan. The latest round of peace talks is the fourth effort to reach a settlement in the last 30 years. New Dynamic
Some observers believe the current conditions for talks are relatively more conducive for progress. There appears to be an enhanced willingness to negotiate within senior echelons of FARC’s leadership, suggesting that alternatives to armed struggle are viewed in a more favourable light. Moreover, the international dynamic has improved considerably compared to previous peace processes. Key global actors including the United States, Venezuela, Cuba, and the European Union support the current round of negotiations. Despite varying interests and goals among third party actors, a unified international front to resolve the conflict is a positive development. In addition, recent reports from FARC and government negotiators indicate that both parties are approaching more common ground on vital issues related to rural development and illegal narcotics.
However, significant political tension persists and much of the focus concerns controversial government concessional proposals. Colombian society appears divided with respect to the type of integration programs the government may offer to former FARC combatants in the event an agreement is reached. One of the main difficulties remains the process of demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of FARC rebels into society, which failed to be fully implemented during previous negotiations since the group continued to engage in violent hostilities and criminal activities. In a recent interview, President Santos stated, “it’s not possible to pardon, to forget, those amnesties, those reprieves that were achieved in the past… [FARC] must understand that today’s world demands justice.”
Reports show that FARC members are actively garnering political support from local communities, indicating that the group views future political participation and disengagement from the conflict as a foreseeable outcome. For example, FARC reportedly transferred recruits from its camps to local villages for half of the year, in part to help with agricultural cultivation. The transfer of fighters to partake in agriculture labour may show FARC’s willingness to garner political support from the communities. However, this phenomenon also suggests that enhanced counter-insurgency strategies and discriminate government tactics have increased the costs of rebellion.
Counter-Insurgency and Targeted Killing
There is no single over-arching formula for conducting successful counterinsurgency. Much of the scholarly literature argues that each case requires a unique set of tactics and historical examples are difficult to apply to contemporary insurgencies. However, relatively successful counter-insurgency warfare relies on highly discriminatory use of violence against insurgents coupled with offering various public goods to the civilian population and some concessions assuming the insurgent group is not pursuing maximalist objectives. Strong intelligence that helps differentiate between active insurgents and civilians is crucial, allowing governments to engage in more effective targeted killing.
FARC is at its most vulnerable position in light of Colombia’s recent effort to decimate the senior leadership and front commanders, according to interviews conducted with over 30 former and current U.S. and Colombian officials. With CIA covert assistance, approximately three times as many FARC leaders have been killed under the current President Santos administration than under his predecessor. The Colombian military is now focusing on eliminating the mid-level ranks and the most experienced fighters – a third of whom have reportedly been killed or captured. The ensuing chaos and dysfunction plaguing FARC is evident, as some leaders fled to Venezuela and Ecuador. Enhanced real-time intelligence capabilities are enhancing mistrust among FARC members concerned about spies within the ranks, resulting in executions of suspected collaborators.
Senior Colombian officials assert that the disarray is destroying the vital psychological connection with troops on the ground and is hindering recruitment. FARC units now rarely sleep in the same spot two days in a row due to fear of being targeted. The group no longer travels in large numbers and is incapable of conducting large-scale attacks, depending on lighter hit-and-run tactics. All of these factors derived from Colombia’s targeted killing campaign have significantly inhibited FARC’s operational capabilities, contributing to the organization’s insistence on direct negotiations.
Historically, when terrorist groups accept government concessions, extremist factions opposed to a settlement may splinter off to continue the violent campaign. The success of these factions to spoil the peace process often depends on continued financial support and the willingness and capacity of the moderate segments to assist in government-led counterterrorism operations. The FARC case is particularly complex in light of the economic profit dimension that has emerged as a dominant motivation for the group’s existence. Therefore, significant segments of the organization may continue to prefer engaging in drug trafficking than accepting a political settlement and transitional justice laws. Nevertheless, improved domestic and international conditions, coupled with an increasingly successful counter-insurgency campaign, appear to be bringing both parties closer to some form of negotiated settlement.
Michael Shkolnik is a counter-terrorism analyst with a private Washington D.C. based agency and is pursuing a Ph.D. at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. Shkolnik’s research focuses on the Islamist terrorist-insurgency nexus and the conditions that enable terrorist groups seeking territorial control to evolve into full-fledged insurrections. He completed a master’s degree in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security Studies while working with two prestigious national security institutes in Israel, monitoring Middle East developments, extremist organizations, and state-sponsors of terrorism.
Janiel Melamed is a full time professor and researcher in the Political Science and International Relations Department at The Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla,Colombia. He holds a Law Degree from The Universidad del Norte, a Master’s Degree in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security from the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya (Israel) and is currently enrolled in Ph.D. studies in International Security at The Instituto Universitario General Gutierrez Mellado (UNED-ESPAÑA).
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