On War #266: Viva Colombia!

By William S. Lind
July 14, 2008

The war between the Colombian state and the Marxist FARC is not a Fourth Generation conflict, because it is fought within the framework of the state. The Colombian government seeks to maintain control of the state, while the FARC want to replace it. It’s all about who runs the state, not offering alternatives to the state.

Nonetheless, some lessons for Fourth Generation wars may be drawn, because the way in which the war is fought — a guerilla-style insurgency — similar to many (not all) Fourth Generation conflicts. The recent successful rescue of hostages long held by the FARC is a case in point. It was a brilliant victory for the Colombian government and armed forces, on all levels, including the moral level. What might the U.S. Armed Forces learn from it that they could apply in Iraq, Afghanistan, and (we fear) elsewhere?

First, it illustrated the advantage mental cleverness has over brute firepower. The Colombians’ previous foray, the aerial bombing of a FARC camp in Ecuador, blew up in their face. In contrast, the hostage rescue made the Colombians look both brave and smart and the FARC appear to be the Three Stooges. The FARC was not bombed or blown up, it was outsmarted. It has no martyrs to off the public or its supporters, just its clownish face covered in pie. The FARC was made a laughingstock, which is the worst blow that can be inflicted upon any political organization.

Second, the combination of outsmarting the FARC with the fact that no one on either side was hurt, much less killed, allows this action to count as an unmixed victory, a rarity in this kind of war. Usually, a victory at the physical level generates blowback on the mental and moral level. Not here. It was a real triple-play. The fact that the testimony of the rescued hostages made the FARC, not the government forces, into the bully adds to the score.

Third, the operation was a strategic success because it was a Colombian, not an American, operation. Had American forces gone in and done exactly the same thing, the action would have made the Colombian government look weak, not strong. It would have undermined rather than strengthened its legitimacy. Most Latin Americans would have seen the rescue as one more humiliation of fellow Hispanics by the North Americans, and they would have identified with the FARC rather than laughing at it.

The reason the FARC now seems to be on the ropes and, one hopes, going down for the count is that it is fighting a Colombian enemy, not an American enemy. As several observers have noted, while almost no foreign occupiers have defeated insurgencies, the local state has sometimes won.

I am sure the United States played some role in the Colombian hostage rescue, but for once we seem to have been smart enough to keep our mouth shut about it. Whoever is running the show there for us — I think it is an admiral — seems to understand the value of a small footprint. We had another admiral who knew his business running the show for a while in the Persian Gulf, Admiral Fallon. The Bush White House fired him for the mortal sin of committing truth, a sin his successor is not likely to repeat.

All of these points relate directly to the Fourth Generation wars we are enmeshed in, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Outsmarting and embarrassing our opponents, holding them up to ridicule by the locals, is far more effective than killing them. But only locals can do the outsmarting and humiliating, with some discreet help from us behind the scenes. If we do it openly, we’re still Goliath and our local opponents remain David, which means they win morally. The local government can only gain legitimacy from its own successes, not from victories won on its behalf by foreign invaders and occupiers. Such “victories” diminish rather than enhance its legitimacy, the currency in which gain or loss in 4GW is measured.

I think it is safe to say that if several American divisions were today fighting the FARC in Colombia, the FARC would be gaining strength, not withering away. (It will soon be time, if it is not time already, for the Colombian government to offer the FARC a very generous peace, the all-necessary “golden bridge.”) It follows that so long as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are American wars, we will continue to lose them. Dare we hope the next American president realizes that “victory” in both places requires not mindless “staying the course” but American withdrawal?

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314
Direct line: 703 837-0483

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