The Seeds of Success
We may never know the full details of Wednesday's successful mission in Colombia that freed 15 hostages, including three American military contractors and former presidential candidate Ingrid Bentacourt.
And that's just as well. With Colombia's FARC terrorists now on the run, there's no point in divulging operational details that might jeopardize future missions. Suffice it to say that yesterday's rescue effort was a turning point in the 40-year war between the FARC and the Colombian government. Less than a decade ago, the marxist-inflenced guerillas seemed to be on the verge of winning; now, after a series of stunning setbacks, the FARC appears headed for defeat.
Colombia's remarkable transition is the result of two, interrelated events. The first is Plan Colombia, the U.S. assistance package aimed at reforming Colombia's military and curbing the narco and terrorist violence that once gripped that country. Despite objections from some Congressional Democrats, the plan was implemented in 2000, with the promise of billions in U.S. military aid that began flowing to Bogata.
The second critical event was the 2002 election of Alvaro Uribe as Colombia's president. Uribe's predecessor tried to make a deal with the FARC--granting the terrorists large swaths of territory. It was a fool's errand; the emboldened terrorists simply stepped up their attacks, overruning several Colombian military bases in or near FARC strongholds.
In fact, the situation was so grim that on Uribe's inaguration day six years ago, the terrorists were surrounding Bogata and Colombia's army had been largely reduced to a garrison force, incapable of sustained operations in FARC territory. Making good on Uribe's promise to take the fight to the enemy would require a massive overhaul of the nation's military.
Under the tutlege of American trainers--mostly Army Green Berets--the Colombians began weeding out corrupt or incompetent officers, while elevating and training a new generation of military leaders. A Green Beret Major, who was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, describe the creation of elite, 28-man commando teams, organized and equipped to carry out long, intelligence-gathering missions in terrorist regions, or lighting strikes against insurgent targets. One of those units carried out during Wednesday's daring rescue mission.
It has been a remarkable transformation. Not too many years ago, a U.S. diplomat in Bogota referred to the Colombian military as the "Apple Dumpling Gang," in reference to a
Disney movie about a gang of bumbling criminals. Compare that to the highly-trained Colombian commando unit that organized and executed the rescue mission.
Much of the credit belongs to President Uribe and his military, who accepted (and institutionalized) U.S. advice and support. As that Army Major told the LAT, it took the Colombians a while to "buy in" on the idea of using highly-trained, small units to take on the FARC, instead of the large, heavily-armed formations of years past.
Toward that goal, the Colombian Army now has significant numbers of elite troops, with skills roughly equal to U.S. soliders who've completed the first phase of Ranger training. That doesn't put them on a par with U.S. Special Forces or the British SAS, but by rest-of-the-world standards, the Colombians are high speed--and getting better by the day.
The rapid improvement of Colombia's military is also a testament to the American training teams that have worked diligently over the past eight years. Readers will recall that Plan Colombia has long been controversial, and a frequent target for criticism by Congressional Democrats. But to their credit, politicians of both parties stuck with the plan, and it paid off in the Colombian jungle on Wednesday.
ADDENDUM: Various U.S. officials indicate that our role in the operation was limited to planning and intelligence support. But don't underestimate the importance of that assistance. In fact, there's a parallel from the early 1980s, which also resulted in the successful release of an American hostage. Brigadier General James Dozier was taken captive by Italy's Red Brigades terrorist organization, which staged a number of high-profile kidnappings and executions, including that of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro.
After Dozier's capture, Italian authorities had difficulty in locating the kidnappers and welcomed U.S. assistance. A team from the National Security Agency penetrated Red Brigade communications; that information, along with HUMINT developed by the Italians, led to a daring raid that secure General Dozier's release.
The rescue essentially broke the back of the terrorist group, and the Italians quickly rolled up the remaining cells. Within a decade, the Red Brigades had all-but-disappeared. One of the group's final attacks occured at Aviano AB in 1993. A gunman claiming allegiance to the group tried to spray a U.S. military dormitory with automatic weapons fire; he was quickly captured by Italian police when his getaway driver sped away--before the mission was complete.