In 2016, after more than 50 years of fighting, the government of Colombia signed a historic peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a leftist guerrilla group more commonly known as FARC. Unfortunately, a signed peace agreement does not guarantee peace will endure. Critical to ensuring a lasting peace is an effective demobilization, disarmament and reintegration process. What role the military should play in that process is an important question that could determine any peace agreement’s sustainability.
Each summer, we organize Contemporary Battlefield Assessments in which we lead a team of faculty and cadets from West Point’s Modern War Institute to a recent conflict zone to conduct research. Past assessments have taken us to Sri Lanka, Georgia, Ukraine and other “warm” conflict zones.
This past summer, we traveled to Colombia to study how the demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) process unfolded there. With the war in Afghanistan in its 18th year, and while the Afghan government and U.S.-led coalition have implemented small-scale DDR programs, there has yet to emerge a DDR process at the organizational or national level. Colombia provides some valuable lessons that will be insightful when considering DDR for Afghanistan—especially for how the military, which will almost inevitably play a role in the process, can best contribute to building sustainable peace.
In terms of geography, Colombia is about 75 percent larger than Afghanistan. But both have porous borders and rough, mountainous terrain resulting in significant portions of each where the government lacks control. Colombia’s decades-long civil war with FARC left approximately 250,000 killed or wounded, 60,000 missing and millions displaced; more than 150,000 have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. Both wars are ideologically based with drug trafficking providing a major source of revenue. These similarities suggest a certain logic in seeking lessons from one conflict that might be applied to the other.
The Challenge in Civil Wars
Economist Paul Collier has described civil wars as “development in reverse.” The transition from wartime to peacetime in any society is rarely linear or without setbacks. That goes in spades for longer wars, where entire generations of rebels, many of them uneducated, rural and poor, have been socialized, trained and brainwashed to do little else but fight. This goes for ethnic conflicts (Bosnia, Sri Lanka) as well as ideological ones (Colombia, Peru). Both leave in their wake grievances unaddressed, massive numbers of people displaced and dispossessed men and women ready to take up arms and fight another day.
The key to any sustainable transition to peace is the ability to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate former combatants into society. This work falls primarily on civilian institutions and international organizations like the U.N. Yet, increasingly, militaries are being called upon to provide assistance and security at the tactical and operational level.
By the late 1990s, FARC had achieved such strength that some analysts believed it was capable of achieving victory within five years. Yet by 2010, the government, thanks to an influx of cash, equipment and training from the U.S. under Plan Colombia, had largely neutralized the rebellion, driving the remaining FARC fighters from their safe havens into the country’s peripheries and across its borders. A series of commando strikes targeting the group’s top leadership helped pave the way for peace. Increased military pressure, under President Alvaro Uribe, ultimately drove FARC to the bargaining table.
At about the same time, a long civil war in Sri Lanka was coming to an end. Similar to Colombia, a peaceful outcome was obtained by striking or co-opting senior insurgent leaders and pairing this with aggressive military action. While Sri Lanka’s government was able to achieve an outright military victory over the Tamil Tigers, Colombia recognized that given its porous borders and jungle terrain, it could never inflict a purely military defeat on FARC. But it could use military power to pressure the group to begin negotiating and ultimately sign a peace agreement.
Likewise, in Afghanistan, after nearly two decades of fighting, an outright military victory over the Taliban appears unlikely. Therefore, the goal should be to use military action to drive the most favorable bargain.
Learning From Colombia
As of the summer of 2018, some 50,000 former FARC rebels had joined the DDR process, with roughly 20,000 having completed it. To assist the process of peace, the government created a transitional justice system, which involves the creation of a series of “concentration zones” for former fighters to be disarmed and rehabilitated. The case of Colombia provides a few cautionary tales for the U.S. military, which will inevitably find itself assisting in any DDR process in Afghanistan.
The initial disarmament phase requires that combatants be forcibly separated from their weapons. Documenting and disposing of these arms requires control, access, intelligence and trust among local populations. After the civil war in Liberia, for example, despite over 100,000 rebels being disarmed in 2003–04, fewer than 28,000 guns were collected. This demonstrated the inability of the U.N. mission there to secure zones formerly controlled by rebels.
But it is important to note that total disarmament may not be required and could be unwise. In societies with “gun cultures,” taking away all weapons could offer demobilizing fighters no means to defend themselves from attack, especially in remote areas common in Afghanistan and Colombia where the government can’t provide security. What must be removed are heavy weapons such as mortars, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
The second phase, demobilization, requires dismantling these groups’ command-and-control structures. In Colombia, this phase is facilitated by the concentration zones. Reintegration, the final phase, is often considered the trickiest to execute. In Colombia, the most difficult fighters to reintegrate have been middle-rank combatants, with large numbers fearing reprisal and refusing to participate.
Three Principal Challenges
Militaries face three principal challenges for successful DDR. First, for any conflict such as Colombia’s that involves the intersection of drugs, violence and organized crime, a military will be challenged by the requirement to act in a particular capacity, in some cases essentially as policeman. Militaries, after all, are not trained to collect evidence. The greater presence of local militaries on the street also generally leads to an uptick in human rights abuses. The challenge for U.S. forces assisting DDR campaigns in these types of environments will require some level of detective work farmed out to local police.
Second, militaries tend to primarily view the problem of postwar security through a narrow national lens, when the issue that drives violence (e.g., drugs, etc.) often stems from transnational problems. Colombia is hewed in by states that are either weak (Venezuela) or highly corrupt (Panama), exacerbating the challenge of curbing drug flows. Most of the drug trade is maritime, through small boats, skiffs, submarines or commercial cargo ships, which requires greater coordination between one’s land and naval forces but also cross-national cooperation and intelligence-sharing. Any DDR process in Afghanistan must similarly confront the challenges of regional drug networks and cross-border flows of logistical support.
Third, demobilization is often not a binary variable but a continuous one. In Colombia, there are an estimated 2,000 FARC fighters still at large and in control of vast criminal networks. The drug trade is as robust as at anytime during the decades-long war. Even if a robust plan for DDR emerges in Afghanistan, it will not mark an end of the conflict, but a new phase with a new set of challenges.
‘Trust but Verify’
The key to any DDR process echoes what then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan said about denuclearization: “Trust but verify.” Trust between the opposition and incumbent regime is key, because thousands of rebels are surrendering their arms. Yet verification is necessary, as many of them will inevitably not disclose large caches of weapons, leaving open the possibility of returning to the fight if peace talks break down.
Yet trust and verification are not the only components of successful DDR. Agrarian development, curbing the flow of illicit drugs, secure land rights and victims’ compensation are all important—components most military forces are not particularly well equipped to manage. But because DDR happens as part of the transition from wartime—where the military’s role is central—to peacetime, there is an inevitable role for the military. But it is important that host-nation militaries are given an ownership role in the DDR process. Part of the relative success of Plan Colombia was due to the back-seat role played by the U.S. military.
However imperfect, Colombia provides a model for Afghanistan. Lessons learned there should inform the way the U.S. military can—in Afghanistan and other war zones—work closely through its local partners, expedite the postwar disarmament and reconciliation process and end civil wars.