“The Minister is on his way here. He will make it. Don’t leave.”
Of course dinner in the Colombian naval officer’s mess was fantastic. At the table with me were the Vice Minister of Defense and all the top generals in the Colombian military. On my left was the outstanding Major General Alberto José Mejía Ferrero, then commander of the Air Assault Division and a gentleman, scholar, and warrior of the finest sort. My ability to speak Spanish was a big advantage and General Mejía seemed to enjoy regaling me with stories of his horse ranch in Tolemaida, his love of fine cigars, and his affinity for taking un buen cafecito after meals. Other than the cigars I recognized him as a kindred spirit that enjoys life and laughs a lot. After an intense day and a half of armored cars, military flights, and briefings, I was really enjoying the relaxed evening and decided that I intensely admired General Mejía and all the other Colombians around the table.
These men had been fighting a war against a narco-state within a state their entire lives. Under threat daily, they had sacrificed far more than time away from home for a vision of their country that was sometimes a hard sell among their poor, racially-stratified, and often isolated population. The enemies they fought had three very important advantages that allowed them to maintain one of the oldest ongoing insurgencies in the world: a communist ideology that is intractable amongst poor workers everywhere; a remote sanctuary; and an endless supply of money from the sale of cocaine. But the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) was not their only adversary. The fractious impact of decades of war amongst the people has lowered the threshold on the use of violence in Colombian society. Organized crime groups that have nothing to do with FARC’s communism wage their own wars with the police, Army and each other. They fight over drugs, illegal mining, trafficking routes, and taxable territory. Powerful paramilitary groups once encouraged to organize against FARC had outrun state power in some places and still need to be dismantled. Colombia is surrounded by outwardly hostile states, particularly Venezuela, that have a natural affinity for ideological grievances claimed by FARC and an interest in maintaining a simmering conflict there. Meanwhile, Colombia’s best Special Forces soldiers are being actively recruited by a certain Persian Gulf state to support its ambitious foreign policy. All these factors poison Colombia’s physical environment and erode the power of its government and economy. It is a daunting problem and the men in front of me were the ones charged with solving it.
My visit to Colombia was the result of a long term plan hatched years earlier in Bogotá. In the early part of this decade the Santos Administration calculated it could benefit from encouraging greater integration with European security institutions and that the best way to do this was by engaging NATO. This was not a frivolous ambition on President Santos’ part. Europe is a destination for a great deal of the cocaine that funds FARC’s war. European guns are the weapons of choice of nearly every criminal and terrorist organization that threatens Colombian cities. For these reasons, Colombian security depends on Europe to take an active interest in its affairs, not just as a direct counter to FARC and others, but as a hedge against a potential loss of interest in Colombia by the US Congress. In pursuit of this effort, the Colombian Air Force adopted NATO standards for air-to-air refueling and had successfully certified its refueling fleet for support to NATO missions. It was the first step in what they hoped would be a robust military relationship with the Alliance. The second step was to build training exchanges with NATO Special Operations Forces.
I had met Vice Minister Jorge Enrique Bedoya just three months earlier when he visited the NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) to establish our relationship. On behalf of Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón Bueno, the Vice Minister invited our commander, Lieutenant General Frank Kisner, to visit Colombia. Though the date was still to be determined, Vice Minister Bedoya very diplomatically expressed an urgency that was lost on us until we visited the Colombian embassy in Brussels for a preparatory meeting the following month. At that meeting in March 2013, Ambassador Rodrigo Rivera Salazar informed us that Colombia was seeking to codify its relationship with NATO in a bilateral agreement. For this, Ambassador Rivera wisely set his sights, and those of his government, on securing an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Plan (IPCP) that would allow for military training and even operational exchanges with NATO. The IPCP was a relatively new cooperative instrument and not all Allied nations were in favor of signing such a powerful agreement with a nation that is nowhere near the North Atlantic. As with all things in the Alliance, without consensus there is no agreement and the Colombians hoped to have General Kisner’s advocacy for their objective before September when IPCPs would be discussed in NATO’s highest decision making body, the North Atlantic Council. What they did not know was that General Kisner was planning to retire in July. To their credit they did not rescind their invitation and planning continued with the additional challenge that General Kisner would be unable to make the trip after the 1st of May. In ministerial terms, this was a dazzlingly short timeline with which to organize such an extraordinary visit but they were determined and so was General Kisner.
An Unexpected Complication
As the commander’s principal aide, I had the unenviable task of coordinating the visit. Aside from the short timeline, there were risk reduction measures to consider, national political and budgetary concerns regarding some members of our delegation, and troublingly, meddling by US Special Operations Command (SOCOM). SOCOM’s interests in our visit were my biggest concern precisely because General Kisner had chosen to ignore them. Though SOCOM has no real say in our NATO business I had a sense that certain staff officers at SOCOM headquarters in Tampa and at US Southern Command in Miami would object strongly if they knew what we were doing. They would not see this as NATO business and would anchor on the fact that an American General Officer was in Colombia on what was in their view an uncoordinated special operations mission. They had a point. It was their commanders that would have to answer to the Departments of State and Defense if something went wrong with our visit and there are some very real reasons SOCOM’s wishes in particular could not simply be ignored.
SOCOM is the source for roughly 75 percent of the NSHQ’s budget. Though this money is codified in the National Defense Authorization Act and therefore protected, the NSHQ’s budget is a line item in SOCOM’s annual legislative proposal. I had seen first hand how the final version of that proposal is the end product of intense negotiation at multiple levels in the Pentagon. Without the advocacy of everyone involved, the NSHQ could suffer terribly in “the building” and in Congress. In addition, the NSHQ commander is appointed on the recommendation of the SOCOM commander. In that regard, General Kisner’s quality of life — and all of ours — depended partly on keeping the Admiral in Tampa happy.
For these reasons I argued strongly against bypassing the United States’ approval process for visiting Colombia but I was overruled. We would proceed to Bogotá on our own authority. I was unhappy about being on the wrong side of the decision but General Kisner also had a point. As a NATO commander, he could not be perceived as pursuing national objectives. This is true of all Allied officers but it is particularly so for Americans. The overwhelming influence of the United States in NATO can very quickly cause a resentful backlash or worse if we are seen in any way to be exerting our independence or abusing our power. I give General Kisner credit for making a difficult decision to do what was right for the Alliance knowing it might complicate some things for him later.
We did not have to wait long for complications. Our Colombian hosts met us on arrival accompanied by a facilitation team from the US Embassy. That team included the Special Operations Liaison Officer (SOLO), a very talented Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel named Mellars. There to safeguard our arrival, they were in reality uninvited guests. By exerting its questionable authority to enforce an American bureaucratic requirement, SOCOM was in clear violation of diplomatic protocol, a fact I hoped was lost on our Colombian hosts. Nevertheless, as with a surprising many things at that level, we were forced to accept the reality of the situation and go with the flow. With some grumbling we piled into an ostentatious armored motorcade complete with police escorts — an extravagance General Kisner despised though it may have been necessary here — for the short trip to a hotel we had not selected and which exceeded the carefully coordinated budgets of the Spanish and Italian members of our delegation; a €600 faux pas they each paid out of their own pockets. Though General Kisner absorbed all this with the quiet frustration I had learned to dread, I was somewhat relieved Colonel Mellars was now fully in control of our care and feeding. Despite our discomfort with his presence it became clear he had truly established himself as an effective and trusted ally of the Colombian commanders and staffs. He was a tremendous asset to the United States and in my opinion an outstanding Green Beret officer.
Success and Power
The next day and a half were a blur of briefings, visits, and demonstrations that gave us a comprehensive understanding of Colombian Special Operations Forces, their activities, and how authority flowed from the political level to the shooters on the ground. There was no disputing its sophistication and effectiveness. In the last two years, the Colombian Special Forces and counterterrorism police had hunted down and killed nearly all FARC leadership at the national and regional level, some while hiding in neighboring countries. They had stripped FARC of its most valuable hostages with the spectacular rescue of dual Colombian-French politician Ingrid Betancourt. They had disrupted FARC on such a fundamental level that the Santos Administration was actively preparing for FARC’s unconditional surrender and a peace agreement. Plan Colombia, the US $6 billion aid package from the United States, was working.
The Colombians’ confidence was pervasive. There was an observable synergy between President Santos and Minister of Defense Pinzón. The Generals in turn exhibited an unspoken confidence in the Minister. It was very clear they respected and trusted him and felt empowered to make decisions on his behalf. I found myself believing in their success as well. Theirs was not a vision of punishment of FARC. Despite the duration and bitterness of the conflict and the incompatibility of their democratic Colombia with FARC’s communist ideology, the Santos Administration was preparing to absorb FARC into the country’s elected government. In purely democratic terms this was extremely risky because it could legitimize FARC’s communist ideals and even threaten the government with electoral defeat. But Santos, and all the very serious men around the table with us, were quietly assured of their success. Now, on this last event of our tour, we awaited the arrival of Minister Pinzón, and he was delayed.
The easy camaraderie of the last night’s dinner was gone, replaced with the nervous tension of a delegation which was in danger of missing its plane. We had not yet met our host, Minister Pinzón, and our window of opportunity to do so was rapidly closing. General Kisner glanced repeatedly at his watch as Vice Minister Bedoya urged us with increasing urgency to stay just a little longer.
“The Minister is on his way here. He will make it. Don’t leave.”
As if we really had a choice. I shuddered at the horrifying thought of General Kisner, making the call to leave and then bumping into the Minister on our way out the door. I briefly wondered if they had the power to delay our flight if they really wanted to…I forced myself out of my thoughts and back into the tension of the room. General Mejía and the Vice Minister tried and failed to make small talk — if there is such a thing amongst such men — and as the minutes ticked by we received reports that Minister Pinzón was actually running through the corridors of the ministry to meet us. He was going to make it after all. The Generals stiffened and the room grew silent. I noted in that moment it was possible to know which Generals had good relationships with the Minister and which did not. Mejía, Bedoya, and a couple others seemed just a bit more relaxed as the door opened and Minister Pinzón entered.
In walked a youngish man of average height and above average presence. We all stood as Vice Minister Bedoya introduced his boss. Minister Pinzón walked straight to General Kisner, shook his hand and bade us all to please sit. He confidently covered some unrehearsed pleasantries and led an unstructured discussion about our visit. He was careful to communicate Colombia’s goals and his expectations of our relationship going forward. His confidence left no need for contrived pomp or prepared talking points and there was no doubt whatsoever who was in charge. He was brilliant. I was absolutely astounded at the personal power of this gentleman in that room full of accomplishment, more so because Minister Pinzón is only three years older than me, almost to the day. This man that could have been my college roommate taught me a profound lesson about leadership through presence that I try to apply every day.
A Poison Pill
President Santos believes a victory through strength followed by a positive peace is the only way to ensure a lasting accommodation. I believe he is right. Sadly, victory over FARC will not end Colombia’s troubles entirely. To fail to address the underlying grievances that gave birth to FARC would virtually ensure its resurgence. The level of magnanimity required for long term success will be expensive both politically and in terms of pesos and it’s not clear the Colombian people are prepared to support such an effort after so much pain. Furthermore, apart from the obvious electoral risks of bringing the communists back into the government, there is recognition that such an accommodation will only affect a small segment of FARC’s ideological leadership. Over the years, FARC’s communism has given way to an addiction to money and the cocaine trade that supplies it. FARC in its immensity will fracture into “cartelitos”, miniature versions of FARC’s trafficking arm that will be harder to combat and may be more violent than their larger parent organization ever was.
There is also a latent threat from Venezuela. With a radical and increasingly dysfunctional economic policy, Venezuela strains under the multifaceted stresses of extreme crime, poverty, and a broken economic system. The insecure Maduro Administration is keenly aware it is a transitional government and resorts to escalating control measures to keep itself in power. Nationalism and war is historically a tool of such regimes and if Caracas loses its FARC ally (proxy?), it may be tempted to turn up the temperature on long-standing territorial disputes with Colombia or to create new conflicts like the concocted and self-defeating row over subsidized gas that resulted in the deployment of thousands of Venezuelan troops and the sealing of parts of its long border with Colombia in 2015. General Mejía shared his sobering assessment that the future challenge for the Colombian Army is to shift from a counterinsurgency force to one prepared to combat armored columns. Given his recent promotion to Chief of the Army, there is some indication that the Santos Administration shares his concern.
Eclipsing the threat from traffickers and Venezuela is the threat of apathy in the US Congress following the expected demise of FARC. At US $6 billion between 2000 and 2008, Plan Colombia is a significant investment by the United States in stability in South America and there will be tremendous pressure in Washington to declare victory and go home. This will magnify the challenges described above and intensify the political costs of remaining close to the United States. With former FARC narco-traffickers in the government in Bogotá, it is not hard to imagine a future Colombian administration making the same strategic decision Bolivia made when it decided cocaine cultivation was better for the health of their nation than US amity and support. Such an event would obliterate the sacrifices of so many, upset the political order on the continent, and force a reinvigoration of the War on Drugs but under far less favorable circumstances. In this way, victory over FARC may be its own worst enemy, ultimately threatening Colombia and the entire region.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC