Pubdate: Mon, 22 Jan 2001
Source: Army Times (US)
Copyright: 2001 Army Times Publishing Company
Contact:  6883 Commercial Dr., Springfield, VA 22159
Fax: (703) 750-8612
Author: Tom Marks


Media commentary on Colombia has grown, even as the Army's 7th Special
Forces Group trains a Colombian Army brigade for counterdrug missions.

But that commentary is generally so inaccurate on the basic patterns
and conduct of that country's conflict, I fear our special forces
trainers may be teaching the Colombians the wrong lessons.

The main insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia,
known as FARC, is committed to seizing political power and instituting
a Marxist-Leninist state. It dominates the southern drug production
areas where the American-trained counterdrug brigade will operate.

To implement its strategic plan, FARC utilizes clandestine
infrastructure and front organizations to support military action, all
funded by kidnapping, extortion and taxing the drug trade. It has not
had to maintain extensive popular support. Its expansion relies upon
terror and military power.

It is this military component that should be of immediate concern to
our trainers. In mid-1996 FARC moved to mobile warfare, Mao's second
stage, whereby guerrilla and terror actions are used in conjunction
with conventional action. The FARC version uses task-organized columns
to hit primary targets even as numerous guerrilla attacks seek to
conceal the true objective.

Typically, a primary objective will have a tactical and operational
component, but both are intended to further FARC's strategic plan.
Thus - to use a recent illustration - Dabeiba, a small town that was
attacked in October 2000, is located along a strategic corridor
leading to the heartland of Colombia's most economically important
department, Antioquia.

The tactical attack on Dabeiba was designed to drive out government
presence, particularly the police.

But the intent was to use a kill zone technique that has been seen
time and again, particularly in the Colombian army's 4th Division
area, which surrounds the so-called demilitarized zone on three sides.
The town was only the bait - and the 4th Brigade relief force went for
it. Units of the 4th Division successfully smashed similar ambushes,
east of the DMZ, in July and November 1999; they succeeded again, to
the west, in July 2000 in the Colombia/Vegalarga operation (the
circular kill zone had a radius of 10 kilometers, or 6.2 miles).

In the October 2000 operation, however, 4th Brigade did not utilize
proven techniques and so paid the price. In particular, the troops
were not landed in darkness. Hence they ended up losing a Blackhawk
and the 22 men aboard before forcing entry.

The lesson here is not tactics but the shift from guerrilla to mobile
war by an insurgent group that has 17,000 regulars, and another 50
percent to 70 percent above that in local forces.

The Colombian army has adjusted well. The Colombia/Vegalarga
operation, for instance, ultimately involved two groups of four
counterguerrilla battalions each, operating across a 40-kilometer
front (about 25 miles), locked in battle with half a dozen coordinated
guerrilla columns that numbered some 3,000 men.

It is just such actions the counterdrug brigade can

But American media regularly claim that Colombia is losing the war and
our training is designed to bring the Colombian military up to speed,
that it is this same training that is going to "reverse" a tide of

In reality, the force is fairly good at counterinsurgency. Like all
militaries that have just seen a curve ball, it is adjusting - and has
done so in solid fashion since the days when it suffered several local
reverses occasioned by the FARC switch to mobile warfare.

In contrast, American soldiers have lost the experience we gained
directly in Vietnam and El Salvador. Indeed, we appear to know
lamentably little, not just about the situation in Colombia, but
counterinsurgency in general. Even the techniques described above,
borrowed from the Vietnamese, are not new but have certainly
disappeared from our service schools.

That lack of strategic and operational knowledge results in the
Americans pushing an approach that is but a war of tactics - an effort
to get the Colombians to focus upon the counterdrug mission, which is
an outgrowth of our domestic political imperatives, not their
realities on the ground.

What must be made plain is that we are not walking into a counterdrug
fight. There is a war going on, and we are now a part of it. h

Professor Tom Marks is a West Point graduate and a member of the
faculty at American Military University, an on-line school in
Manassas, Va. He instructs at U.S. service schools and is in Colombia
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MAP posted-by: Derek