Report: “Consolidating Consolidation”

Colombia’s “security and development” zones await a civilian handoff, while Washington backs away from the concept

by Adam Isacson
Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy
Washington Office on Latin America, December 2012

Introduction: (Read the full report in PDF format [8MB])

This report is the result of an attempt to answer a question that has bedeviled state-building, stabilization, and development efforts in conflict zones worldwide: “When can the civilians take over”? Focusing on recent experiences in Colombia and comparing what we learned there with the United States’ experiences in post-surge Iraq and especially Afghanistan, WOLA sought to identify the conditions that should be in place for civilians to replace military personnel as quickly as possible in previously ungoverned and conflictive areas.

This report will lay out some of these conditions. They include clear criteria for security, as would be expected — but security has, in fact, been the easier part. The rest is up to civilians in both the U.S. government and the government receiving the aid. These conditions have proven more difficult to attain. They include civilian resources, technical and management capacity, and especially political will — as well as strong political backing (or prodding) from the highest levels.

Over the course of our research, however, we have seen this civilian handoff question lose relevance, in Colombia and elsewhere. In fact, we face the larger question of whether these ambitious stabilization and state-building programs themselves are a fading idea.

As in parts of Iraq and Afghanistan where the U.S. government has sought to leave behind a functioning government presence, Colombia is also in the midst of a multibillion-dollar, U.S.-backed effort to bring the state into violent, historically ungoverned territories. Colombia’s National Territorial Consolidation Plan (Plan Nacional de Consolidación Territorial), which this report will refer to as “Consolidation,” made notable security gains in specific territories and communities. Military personnel, and a few civilian specialists and contractors, reduced illegal armed groups’ presence, and then launched small, but high profile, infrastructure and development projects. They endeavored to convince the population that the state’s presence was desirable and permanent.

In all cases, however — in Colombia as well as in the U.S. occupations — uniformed military personnel were still, by a wide margin, the government representatives with whom citizens, especially in rural areas, interacted most frequently. For several reasons discussed here, the civilian part of the Colombian (and Afghan) government remained largely absent. Critics of the model, including some in the communities themselves, worried that the model was bringing short-term military occupation instead of long-term governance.

By mid-2012, though, the still-relevant question of military-to-civilian transitions was being eclipsed by a more fundamental concern: “Does this concept have a future?” During the year between posing our initial question and the publication of this paper, the Consolidation model and its closest U.S. analogue, the “Stability Operations” component of counterinsurgency (COIN), have lost significant momentum within the Colombian and U.S. leaderships. The problem has grown so acute that key personnel are now leaving.

Frustration with both the Colombian and Afghan models may be justified, as they have been more costly than expected and — as we shall see — military-to-civilian transitions have been difficult to implement. Troublingly, though, it is not clear whether reforms are imminent, or what will be replacing them.

In Colombia, the government that took power in 2010 has placed much greater emphasis on a land restitution program and a new attempt to negotiate peace with the largest guerrilla group. These efforts are audacious and necessary. But even if a successful negotiation erases the country’s current guerrilla groups from the map, Colombia will still face yawning gaps of governance and justice in vast areas of this map. These gaps will breed further violence and make land restitution dangerous for many beneficiaries, if Colombia lacks a plan to fill them.

The Consolidation program — if it could achieve a true civilian transition — appeared to be such a plan. That is why its apparent decline is so disturbing.

(Read the full report in PDF format [8MB])

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