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The FARC and the Taliban: Drawing Lessons across Colombia and Pakistan

Few Pakistanis get to visit Colombia, a country quite physically and culturally distant from their land of abode. Yet as I discovered from my visit to Colombia’s capital Bogota this week, there is much which Pakistanis can learn from this land of coffee, cocaine and coal. So what are the similarities between these two ostensibly...

Converging patterns: Tiles from a church in Bogota are based on moorish Islamic designs also found in Pakistan . Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

Few Pakistanis get to visit Colombia, a country quite physically and culturally distant from their land of abode. Yet as I discovered from my visit to Colombia’s capital Bogota this week, there is much which Pakistanis can learn from this land of coffee, cocaine and coal. So what are the similarities between these two ostensibly disparate lands, separated by geography, ethnicity and religion? A troubling common thread between Colombia and Pakistan pertains to the issue of terrorism and guerrilla insurgency. For the past few decades, both countries have been fighting locally grown, ideologically driven, terrorist militias, which receive some degree of foreign support but also thrive on drug money and various forms of extortion and kidnapping. Both countries are also currently involved in controversial peace processes with the insurgents that remain far from achieving their aim but are likely to continue.

Colombia’s experience with fractured politics and terrorism predates Pakistan’s predicament. The country achieved independence from colonial Spain in 1819 — long before Pakistan was even dreamed of. Yet soon thereafter, the unified territory of “Gran Colombia’ fell apart, and Venezuela and Ecuador seceded from the land as independent states in 1830 – the same year that the great revolutionary and colonial liberator Simon Bolivar died in the northern Colombian city of Santa Marta. Like Colombia, Pakistan also has experience with secession – Bangladesh’s independence in 1973, only 26 years after independence from Britain.

For much of the twentieth century Colombia endured political unrest and interference from the United States. Indeed, US intervention to build an ambitious canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific, led to the creation of Panama in 1903, from what was originally part of Colombia. However, in this case, the US recognized a level of culpability in this secession and in 1919 Colombia was paid $25 million in compensation for the American role in Panama’s secession. The Cold War brought intervention by both the US and the Soviet Union in Colombia. Among the various communist revolutionary groups that formed during this period, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) has been the most persistent. Since its formation in 1961, as a reaction to land appropriation for industrialized agriculture, the group has grown to be a potent militia that has claimed half a million lives in its 50 year–long insurgency.

Both Colombia and Pakistan are now at a crossroads. Peace talks are underway between the FARC and the Colombian government as well as between Pakistan and the Taliban. Unlike the FARC, the Taliban have a religious agenda which can lead to more trenchant absolutism. However, “hardcore” communist elements within the FARC can also be as intransigent as any theological fanatics. Both countries have political divides about whether to pursue compromise with an untrustworthy foe or to fight it out with the fanatics. Colombia’s nearby neighbour Peru fought its insurgency against the Sendero Luminoso till the ultimate capture of its intellectual leader Professor Abimael Guzman. The incarceration of Guzman in 1992 has essentially led to the dismemberment of the organization, although some vestiges linger in remote areas of the country. Some political leaders in Pakistan look to their neighbour Sri Lanka which also ended a bloody insurgency through armed defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 after peace talks mediated by the Norwegian government failed to achieve resolution.

Yet the current Colombian and Pakistani governments believe that the insurgencies in their respective lands are too entrenched and covering vast swathes of rugged terrain. The cost of armed conflict would likely be too great in such a case and hence some measure of reconciliation is worth a try. The Colombians have more experience with such insurgencies than the Pakistanis and have managed to recover from grave terrorist threats and incidents. In 1985, the M19 rebel movement managed to lay siege to the Supreme Court building in Bogota and the ensuing confrontation led to over a 100 deaths and the entire ‘palace of justice’ building in fiery ruins. Nevertheless, soon thereafter, a process of engagement under threat of greater military onslaught, led to a demobilization of this group and their mainstreaming into Colombian Politics. The current Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos is inclined to follow a similar path with the FARC.

What should be the parameters of a peace plan and what might Pakistan learn from Colombia’s longer experience of dealing with ideologically driven insurgencies?  Remarkably, despite the torrent of terror and conflict, Colombia has managed to still maintain a semblance of functionality in terms of foreign investment and develop its economy to the extent that in October 2013, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED) formally launched its accession process. This has all been possible because of highly effective military and police intelligence deployment at the federal and provincial levels, leading to a containment of the FARC threat away from the major industrial infrastructure. Although occasional kidnappings and low intensity attacks of continued, the government made it a priority to make investors feel safe. Pakistan has failed to accomplish this because of ambivalence on the part of its military to deal with the Taliban threat and the relative ineffectiveness of police intelligence services at the provincial level.

Pakistan has to also learn from the Colombian experience that negotiations are only workable with such groups if there is some unified negotiation hierarchy and influence across the guerrilla population who are involved in terrorist activity. Unlike the FARC, the Taliban have so many factions that negotiations over specific actions become hard to enforce. Once there is some clarity on the enforcement power of the negotiators, it is worth considering whether the terms of a peace plan might undermine the overall functionality of the Pakistani state. For example, any points of negotiations regarding marginalization of minority sects such as Shias who constitute 20% of the population would lead to ruin. The FARC are willing to join the political process within Colombia if their basic demands for land and resource management regimes are met. Would the Taliban be willing to do so if given limited degree of governance in particular parts of the country so as to prevent imposition of their worldview in some form over all of Pakistan? How might there be enforcement of their sphere of influence under a peace plan?  Expansionary tendencies will need to be monitored carefully in both peace processes.

Disparate as they may seem on the surface, Colombia and Pakistan have much to gain from exchanging notes with each other on dealing with their intractable insurgencies. In a globalized world where arms and drugs can flow freely across the miles, surely lessons on governance and peace-building should find no barriers.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.