Colombia and the 'Small footprint' intervention illusion

By Jorge E Delgado: 

Photo: Juan Camilo Gomez (creative commons)
Photo: Juan Camilo Gomez (creative commons)

The challenge posed by ISIS has intensified debates in the West over the possibility of dispatching “boots on the ground” and has, yet again, brought to the forefront the search for alternative modes of military intervention following the recent disillusionment with “Big footprint” counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Recently practitioners have been advocating for “Small footprint” intervention – the dispatch of advisors and cash to bolster the efforts of indigenous forces. This is seen as a promising alternative in that it remedies two major shortcomings of “Big footprint” expeditions: the lack of cultural knowledge on the part of the invader, and opposition expressed in domestic public opinion with a small appetite for large expenditures and significant casualties in remote battle spaces. It is due to these weaknesses that Colombia is frequently invoked as a success story and model for “Small footprint” intervention. Take for instance the response offered by retired US Army Colonel Peter Mansoor, who served as General David Petraeus’ executive officer during the Iraq War, to the question of what victory in Afghanistan would look like:

“At this point the best the United States can hope for is to support an Afghan government that can keep the country together after 2014 and convince the Taliban that it cannot win the war in any conceivable time frame. […] For a view of what winning might look like, look at Colombia. A decade ago the country seemed on the verge of disaster with the FARC on the ascendancy,[…]. Good Colombian presidential leadership and U.S. support were the keys to victory.”[1]

While Mansoor rightfully points out the importance of good local political leadership and the assistance of allies in war in accounting for the alleged success of US intervention in Colombia, it is crucial to underline that how these two elements combined were peculiar to the country’s political context. In other words, key contingent factors make Colombia a poor case model of “Small footprint” intervention to inform Western policy options elsewhere. This article will argue for the unsuitability of making Colombia a case model.

According to supporters of the ‘Small footprint’ advising model, Plan Colombia – a US$6 billion program of US assistance to swell and restructure the Colombian military and police launched in 1999 – translated into an inter-agency effort that imposed exacting human rights standards, re-invigorated Bogotá’s relationship with its citizens, and received mutual endorsement from both the Colombian military and the government.[2] But beyond the quality and utility of the material support provided to enhance Colombian capabilities, the key to the Colombian military’s success against the rebel group FARC in the last decade has been legitimate and strong political leadership.

Alvaro Uribe was elected to the Presidency of an established functioning democracy – unlike most Middle Eastern and African countries – after a landslide victory in May 2002, and had sufficient legitimacy and political will to pursue an aggressive policy towards the insurgency. As a US Military Group officer recalled in 2010: ‘Uribe was the only president who realized that the FARC isn’t that competent. He kicked the military in the ass. It’s as if he said: “You’ve got popular backing, political support, and equipment – what are you waiting for?”’[3] Effectively, by imposing determined political control over his military, which had been historically absent in the country, President Uribe was able to strategically focus the operational and tactical enhancements enabled by the military support from the Bush administration, which had started to showcase Colombia as its ‘war on terror’ frontline in the Western Hemisphere.

The “Small footprint” approach is likely to be successful only when occurring along the host country’s “Big footprint”. Whereas the US army entered into a wide-ranging engagement with the Afghan national army, the US did not have to build up a new indigenous force in Colombia. The objective of US assistance in Colombia over the past 15 years was focused on improving clear-cut operational deficiencies of an established and strong military force capable of bearing the brunt of the responsibility. According to the US Southern Command, the assistance simply aimed for the Colombians to better shape ‘their operating environment to conduct decisive joint operations by virtue of improved training and modernization’.[4]

Moreover, in trying to understand the reasons why the Colombian military has been so receptive to US assistance more generally, it is necessary to take into account that the association between the countries goes far beyond Plan Colombia. In fact, the US Military Group has had an established presence in the country since 1942, when it actively assisted in the professionalization of the Colombian military to aid in the protection of the Panama Canal against a feared Axis – and later Soviet – attack. In addition, after having prepared the Colombian Army for its participation in the Korean War the US has been continuously promoting counterinsurgency practices up to the present day. This historical relationship has effectively influenced Colombia’s strategic outlook and its responsiveness to the latest package of assistance.

Two other final factors illustrate the unsuitability of the ‘Small footprint’ approach in Colombia to inform what is happening in the Middle East. First, there is a clear absence of ethnic or religious divisions in Colombia. As in most of Latin America, Colombia is in essence a Catholic/Christian state where the majority of the population subscribes to Western values, and thus the Colombian people were not patently resistant to Washington’s political goals when it extended Plan Colombia from a counternarcotics program to one of counterterrorism: ‘the overall goal of helping Colombia become a prosperous democracy that respects human rights and the rule of law, free from narcotrafficking and terrorism’.[5] Having said this, a final point to keep in mind is that the objectives of the US in Colombia have always been limited. Even at the height of the ‘drug war’ in the mid 1990s or in the wake of 9/11, the FARC has not been recognized by Washington as an existential national security threat.

Different US administrations through the decades have made it clear that Colombians are the ones who have to assume primary responsibility for the financing and maintenance of their own security. This was the basic assumption behind the formulation of Plan Colombia in 1999. So given the political context and the unique circumstances of the conflict, the only policy option for Washington in terms of Colombia has been ‘Small footprint’ advising. It is an illusion to consider it a model that can be used elsewhere.

Jorge is a PhD researcher at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is currently in the ‘writing-up phase’ of his dissertation on the evolution of counterinsurgency thinking in Colombia.

[1]Quoted in: Paul Szoldra, ‘The Most-Fascinating Insights From The Man Closest To General Petraeus During The Iraq ‘Surge,’ Business Insider, 3 January 2014, <>
[2] Examples include: Stephen Watts,, The Uses and Limits of Small Scale Intervention, RAND Co: Santa Monica,2012; Linda Robinson, The Future of US Special Operation Forces, Council on Foreign Relations, Special Report No.66, April 2013, Dana Priest,“Covert Action in Colombia. U.S. Intelligence, GPS bomb Kits Help Latin American Nation Cripple Rebel Forces,”The Washington Post 21 December 2013 < >
[3] Quoted in: Douglas Porch and Jorge Delgado, “Masters of Today: military intelligence and counterinsurgency in Colombia, 1990-2010”, Small Wars and Insurgencies, 21:2, June 2010, 277-302
[4] ‘USSOUTHCOM Operations Order for Plan Colombia’, Secret Cable, Excised Copy, 5 December 2000, Accessed via Digital National Security Archive. <>
[5] Department of State, ‘Developing a Colombian National Security Strategy’, Unclassified Cable, 4 July 2002. Accessed via Digital National Security Archive.

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