Published April 24, 2012
BOGOTA, Colombia – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta got a glimpse into how America's military's experience in Afghanistan is contributing to the U.S. counterinsurgency training in Colombia.
While the two conflicts are no perfect match, U.S. military and defense officials said they can learn from the Colombian's long and bloody campaign against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. Likewise, Colombia can learn from U.S. experiences battling the Taliban's roadside bomb threat, which has been the No. 1 killer in Afghanistan.
Under a blistering sun, Panetta and his staff flew Monday to the Talemaida Army Base in the mountains outside Bogota, where U.S. trainers help instruct members of the Colombian special forces.
Panetta also announced during his visit to the base that the U.S. would facilitate the sale of 10 helicopters to Bogota — five Army Black Hawks and five commercial aircraft — to help Colombian forces in their fight against the FARC.
Out at the training grounds, a U.S. military officer participating in the program said U.S. special operators are sharing their 10 years of battlefield counterinsurgency experience. The Colombians, he said, can use many of the same techniques, particularly how to share intelligence, sustain and support troops on a long-term basis, and identify and counter improvised explosive devises.
The officer, who has served three tours in Afghanistan but spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the guerilla, hit-and-run tactics of the FARC, who number about 8,000, are very similar to what the Taliban is doing now.
The FARC took up arms in 1964, and is the biggest of many outlaw groups that abduct people for financial, political and other ends.
As Panetta watched, six commandos descended from the sky, their blue and yellow parachutes billowing above them. The special operations forces demonstrated a raid on a building at mid-field, acting out the rescue of a hostage. Teams also slid down braided ropes from helicopters, gathered up someone acting as an injured person and pulled the stretcher back up. The helicopter flew away with the commandos dangling from the ropes.
Talemaida is the largest Colombian military base, and there is currently a brigade of special operations forces — or about 1,500 commandos — being trained there. The U.S. has about 180 U.S. military in the country, including trainers.
U.S. aid to Colombia's police and military has dropped over the past several years, from about $440 million in 2009 to $270 million in 2012, according to Adam Isacson, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, which compiles such figures.
The country's difficult battle with the FARC has dragged on for nearly five decades, but officials now tout it as a success story.
And they suggest one parallel the U.S. can draw between this fight and the war in Afghanistan may be the value of patience in a counterinsurgency battle.
At a very broad level, said defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon, the Colombia fight shows that "not everything is a clean win and clean defeat."
Americans have become increasingly impatient with the deadly Afghan conflict that has dragged on for more than a decade. And there has been a growing drumbeat from both the public and Congress for the U.S. to get out of the war sooner than the administration's strategy, which calls for the exit of combat troops by the end of 2014.
The key to success is the ability of the U.S. and NATO to train the Afghan forces so that they can take over security of their own country.
O'Hanlon, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, said Iraq's relatively rapid turnaround in 2007, after the surge of U.S. forces helped beat back the insurgency, "may have created some unfortunate impressions that are unrealistic to extend to other cases. Just because we're not attaining our preferred goals doesn't mean that we're wasting our time or that we're being defeated," he said.
As is the hope in Afghanistan, the U.S. helped train the Colombian forces over the years so that they could be capable of taking on the fight on their own.
Meanwhile, said O'Hanlon, the U.S. may be able to learn some of the Colombian's well-honed jungle warfare skills.
Despite battling the FARC and Taliban for many years, officials say they continue to learn new tactics that can be shared.
Still, there are differences between the two experiences — a key one being that the Colombians are fighting in their own country, and are not the unwelcome foreign forces that the U.S. military can sometimes be in Afghanistan. The Colombian forces are largely viewed as legitimate in the country.
"It's just a useful reminder of how it can take time and how sometimes the solutions you get are imperfect," O'Hanlon said. "We've got to be patient and sometimes lower standards a little bit for success."
Panetta's visit to Colombia came on the heels of the U.S. Secret Service sex scandal that erupted earlier this month during President Barack Obama's visit to Cartagena.
Lolita C. Baldor can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lbaldor