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Dunford: Colombia Is at Inflection Point

By Jim Garamone DoD News, Defense Media Activity

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BOGOTA, Colombia, March 11, 2016 — The Colombian government’s imminent peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, will help to put an end to an insurgency that stretches back to the 1960s, but it also complicates the situation in Colombia, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today.

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. told reporters traveling with him that Colombia is at an inflection point, and the challenges facing the government and the Colombian military don’t end with the pact.

The FARC started as a guerilla organization in 1964, but over the years morphed into a terrorist/criminal organization that uses narco-trafficking, illegal mining, kidnapping and other similar activities to finance itself. The FARC has been defeated militarily and has roughly 6,000 to 7,000 adherents in the country, according to U.S. embassy officials.

The group is engaged in peace talks with the Colombian government, led by President Juan Manuel Santos. Dunford said the president told him the two sides were hammering out the last details of the accord.

Peace Not Immediate

The chairman met with Santos, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas and Colombia chief of defense Army Gen. Juan Pablo Rodriguez during his visit to the capital and all told him that they see additional challenges for the government following a peace accord.

The emphasis is that the accord is a peace process, not an end to all problems. “They are not signing an accord and [then] there is peace,” Dunford said in an interview. “They are not entering immediately into a post-conflict environment. They see the challenges for the Colombian military being enduring challenges.”

At one point, the FARC controlled much of the country, and, although their territory has been reduced, once the accord is signed the Colombian government -- including the military -- will have to move into those areas and establish economic, political and security controls.

“The challenges for the Colombian government begin with the peace accord,” Dunford said. “This isn’t a victory pennant. It’s the end of a very important phase of a long-term endeavor.”

Plan Colombia

Colombia and the United States have been steadfast allies in this whole process, and it really began with the adoption of Plan Colombia in 1999.

When Plan Colombia was being debated in 1999, Dunford was a colonel serving on the Joint Staff. He said he remembers the discussion about whether the Colombians would be able to absorb, maintain and sustain the capabilities they wanted.

“They wanted Blackhawk helicopters,” he recalled, adding that there were many questions to answer. “Will they be able to maintain them? Will they be able to develop pilots? Will they be able to sustain that capability? Is the training they are going to do actually going to be able to effect a change in the Colombian army and military?

“There was a lot of debate about the resources we were going to invest in Colombia, and a lot of skepticism in some corners about whether or not it would actually make a difference,” the chairman said.

U.S. embassy officials stressed the most important aspect of Plan Colombia was having a willing partner. Colombia proposed the plan and were willing to put in the blood, sweat and tears to make it work, they said during a background interview.

The second crucial aspect was that successive Colombian and American governments kept to the plan, they said. “It was a true bipartisan effort in the United States,” an embassy official said.

Finally, Plan Colombia embraced the whole-of-government approach before it was a buzzword. Security questions dominated the discussion in 1999, but the economic aspect of the plan was equally important, as was the emphasis on human rights and the need for the Colombian government to provide services to its people.

Since 1999, the United States has spent $10 billion on Plan Colombia, embassy officials said, adding that Colombia invested far more.

Value of Investment, Persistence

Dunford maintains it was money well spent. “So what did we learn [from Plan Colombia]? No. 1 is we learned endurance, persistence and clear vision over time in building partner capacity, works,” he said.

And these investments must continue as the peace accord goes into effect. On the military side, Colombians want the type of support the United States has provided over the course of Plan Colombia to continue. This includes Colombian service members attending American military schools, a continued close relationship with U.S. Southern Command and some continued equipping.

“Their main message today was, ‘You can’t look past this. It’s not over. We’re at the point where the peace accord is about to start, but please, don’t take your eye off of Colombia,’” Dunford said. “The most important part of the campaign is winning the peace, and that starts with the accord.”

Healthy Relations

During the chairman’s visit, Colombian leaders were effusive in their praise of the United States for the support they have received, he said. “Even though the majority of resources and certainly the sacrifice that allowed them to militarily defeat the FARC and bring them to this point was clearly Colombian, I was taken aback by how much credit they gave the United States and how positive they were,” Dunford said.

And it is not just the FARC, and it is not just a one-way relationship, the chairman said.

“Colombia is an important strategic ally in the region,” he said. “They have outsized strategic influence in the region. Many nations look to them for leadership. Many nations look to them in terms of the relationship they have with the United States and a model for how to have a relationship with the United States as co-equals.”

Colombian troops are part of the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai. They participate in many United Nations peacekeeping operations. Colombia also committed to training 5,000 troops for peacekeeping activities, and Colombia continues to work with Central American nations to combat malign influences.

“Colombia is not only important regionally, but they are important as a global exporter of security as well,” he said. “For a relatively small investment over time, we have a country we call our most important partner in the region.”

(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)