Last weekend, Colombia, headlines announce the worst in a series of military setbacks for the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos in its fight against the FARC.
In a rural area of the department or Arauca, 10 soldiers and a corporal were killed when their unit was ambushed by the FARC. Arauca has remained a tough zone for the government to control: even during the heyday of former President Alvaro Uribe’s military offensive, the FARC maintained a considerable military power in Arauca. The ELN, a very weak group, has its only stronghold in that region.
Both groups have benefited from the fact that Arauca has a long border with Venezuela: a few years ago, when Venezuela had a policy of supporting Colombia’s guerilla groups, the FARC and the ELN established a sort of strategic rearguard beyond the border. Now that such policy is uncertain, they nonetheless take advantage of the border to escape the Army’s persecution, and to establish camps in Venezuelan territory.
How will this incident affect Santos’ policies?
“If you want peace, prepare for war” is a strategic maxim first written by Vegetius, a relatively unknown Roman author, who wrote treatises on military strategy and veterinary medicine. Such maxim can be interpreted in two ways. First, if you want your potential adversaries not to attack you, increase your military power so you will deter them. Second, if you are already involved in war, and you want to reach negotiated peace, you must build strength so that your enemy will conclude that talks are the best option to end the conflict; and you will have leverage at the negotiations.
At this point, even without an official announcement, Santos’ intention of starting peace talks is all too evident. If he begins talks, he’ll find that the situation on the battleground leaves him in a position of weakness and low leverage. While the FARC are much weaker than they were 10 years ago, in the past two years they have been able to show renewed strength. Actually, during the Santos administration, by some measures, the balance favors the FARC.
Add to this the nuances of irregular warfare, where the playing field is anything but level. For the government to have leverage at the negotiating table, it would have to prove, at the battleground, that its forces can annihilate the irregulars. They, on the other hand, only need to show that the government can’t do that. If the FARC proves that they can survive and endure even the worst offensive by the government, they then establish that the only way to end the conflict is through negotiations. This would give them the upper hand during any talks.
If the Santos administration remains unable to counter the FARC’s recent offensive, the message will be that the Colombian government was unable to defeat the FARC: that not even the greatest of all offensives (the one unleashed by Uribe and could rarely be repeated) could produce their total defeat. They would confirm their own wager: that an offensive by the government would be a temporary setback and that they only need to endure, adapt and survive so that, after the momentum of the offensive had passed, they could rise again.
The news from Arauca is rather disappointing. Even the government has acknowledged inadequate readiness and insufficient adherence to safety protocols by the Army unit that was attacked.
To this, I would add a hypothesis: the unit belonged to one of the so-called “energy and infrastructure” battalions, whose mission is to safeguard oil, gas and mining facilities. While it’s true that energy and mining are important economic sectors (they make up more than 80 percent of foreign investment in Colombia), freezing army units that could be used in operations drastically reduces the capabilities of the Army, and is tantamount to a partial privatization of the armed forces.
According to a study by Arco iris, a think tank, in Arauca (where the combat took place) more that 70 percent of Army personnel is devoted to providing security to oil facilities. Would they not be better employed in operations? This is, from any point of view, a case of resource misallocation, where the resource, in addition, is turned into an easy target for the guerillas.
Andrés Mejía Vergnaud is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a political consultant based in Bogotá and is the author of El destino trágico de Venezuela.