US Military Doctrine and Colombia’s War of Terror


Under the new presidency of Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe Velez paramilitarism is once again legal. His new network of a million paid informants essentially makes overt what has long been a joint covert US-Colombian strategy of brutal counter-insurgent paramilitary warfare. Counter-insurgency has long formed the primary means through which the US has exerted its power via its proxies throughout Latin America. To fully grasp the relationship between US military training and aid, paramilitarism, and human rights abuses in Colombia today it is necessary to examine the evolution of US counter-insurgency doctrine.

Counter-insurgency was firmly wedded to US foreign security policy goals with former US president Kennedy’s authorisation of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. This act sent US aid to developing nations to increase bilateral ties and encourage capitalist orientated economic development. It also encompassed a wide ranging security dimension which aimed at:

improving the ability of friendly countries and international organizations to deter or, if necessary, defeat Communist or Communist-supported aggression, facilitating arrangements for individual and collective security, assisting friendly countries to maintain internal security and stability in the developing friendly countries essential to their more rapid social, economic, and political progress.

Latin America was to become the primary area of US Cold War interventionism throughout the Cold War. It was viewed as both the US’s primary sphere of influence and as fundamentally related to US security through its territorially close proximity to US borders. The primary means for US assistance in maintaining “internal security and stability” in “developing friendly countries” became US led counter-insurgency assistance. Recipient militaries were organised to police their own populations and prevent internal social forces from challenging a status-quo geared towards what were perceived to be core US interests: the prevention of independence and the preservation of countries open to US capital penetration.

In the last decade of the Cold War, then US President Ronald Reagan continued to argue that “the security of our own borders depends upon which type of society prevails [in Central America], the imperfect democracy seeking to improve, or the Communist dictatorship seeking to expand.” In preventing expansive “communist dictatorships” US policy frequently led to the mass violation of human rights and large-scale civilian death. The US was linked to these practices not only through the installation and support of abusive governments, but also through the very doctrines and practises passed on through US training.

Counter-insurgency campaigns often relied upon mass civilian displacement to deny guerrilla forces a civilian base within which to work and the terrorisation of civil society. A 1962 US Army Psychological Operations manual outlined that:

Civilians in the operational area may be supporting their own government or collaborating with an enemy occupation force. An isolation program designed to instil doubt and fear may be carried out, and a positive political action program designed to elicit active support of the guerrillas also may be effected. If these programs fail, it may become necessary to take more aggressive action in the form of harsh treatment or even abductions. The abduction and harsh treatment of key enemy civilians can weaken the collaborators’ belief in the strength and power of their military forces.

Counter-insurgency also frequently relied upon clandestine paramilitary forces to carry out political assassinations, disappearances and the terrorisation of those considered inimical to state interests. This form of warfare was typically characterised as a reactive form of counter-terror within US counter-insurgency doctrine, and considered necessary to both create a plausible deniability for state terror, and to install fear into target populations. A 1962 special warfare manual outlined the training program for the US’s allied security forces. Training included “guerrilla warfare, propaganda, subversion, intelligence and counter-intelligence, terrorist activities, civic action, and conventional combat operations”.

Colombia was one of the largest recipients of US counter-insurgency aid during the Cold War. General William Yarborough headed the original US Special Forces team sent to Colombia in 1962 to organise the Colombian military for counter-insurgency. He argued that a “concerted country team effort should now be made to select civilian and military personnel for clandestine training in resistance operations in case they are needed”. These paramilitary teams were to be used to perform “counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents” and were to be “backed by the United States”.

Torture was also routinely practiced by US-backed counter-insurgency states and was taught by US counter-insurgency experts. The School of the Americas, the US’s pre-eminent Latin American military academy, used training materials which the US’s Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) argued “used instructional materials to train Latin American officers, [between] 1982-1991, that appeared to condone practices such as executions of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion, and false imprisonment”. During the US backed Contra insurgency in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the CIA distributed an updated version of its 1963 KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual. The manual was renamed the Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual and included extensive guidelines on the most effective means of torture including the use of drugs, sleep deprivation, physical violence, and solitary confinement. The manual was also used to train a number of other Latin American militaries.

The targeting of civil society also formed a cornerstone of US counter-insurgency training and doctrine. Civil society required extensive policing to prevent any form of unrest or subversion against the prevailing order. A 1985 Tactical Intelligence manual from US Southern Command (the US’ s Unified Command for Latin America) explained that “‘battlefield preparation’ means collecting information on civil society: who stands for what, which groups or individuals can be mobilized for counterinsurgency and which must be neutralized”. Counter-insurgents must watch for any “refusal of peasants to pay rent, taxes, or loan payments or unusual difficulty in their collection,” an increase “in the number of entertainers with a political message,” or the intensification of “religious unrest”. In a similar manual produced by the School of the Americas, intelligence required identifying “the nature of the labour organizations” the potential establishment of “legal political organizations that serve as fronts” for insurgents. Counter-insurgents must monitor the “system of public education,” and the influence of “politics on teachers, texts, and students” and “the relations between religious leaders (domestic or missionaries), the established government and the insurgents.”

In sum, the use of paramilitaries, mass civilian displacement, counter-terror, physical coercion and the targeting of civil society are all considered a necessary component of US sponsored counter-insurgency. Civil society organisations, especially those that seek to challenge prevailing socio-economic conditions are viewed as subversive to the social and political order, and in the context of counter-insurgency, become legitimate targets. This security orientation has had devastating consequences for Latin America with hundreds of thousands of civilians murdered by US backed counter-insurgency states. With the ending of the Cold War a rhetorical shift has occurred in US policy from anti-communism to a war on drugs and now a war on terror. Whilst this rhetorical shift continues to provide a PR framework for US policy, US objectives have essentially remained the same; the prevention of a workable hemispheric alternative that may challenge US hegemony, and the continued suppression of civil society so as to raise the associated physical and spiritual costs associated with open dissent.

The primary means for repression has been the use of paramilitaries. In the last fifteen years in Colombia an entire democratic leftist political party was eliminated by right-wing paramilitaries; 4000 activists were murdered in the 1980s; 151 journalists have been shot; 300,000 Colombian civilians have been killed; three out of four trade union activists murdered worldwide are killed by the Colombian paramilitaries. According to the UN, university lecturers and teachers are “among the workers most often affected by killings, threats and violence-related displacement.” Paramilitary groups also regularly target human rights activists, indigenous leaders, and community activists. This repression serves to criminalize any form of civil society resistance to US-led neo-liberal restructuring of Colombia’s economy and stifle political and economic challenges to the Colombian status quo. Uribe’s new legal death-squads both legitimises the paramilitary option within his counter-insurgency war, and will serve to further increase the repression in Colombia.

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