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By James Robertson, UK Defence Forum Researcher
The killing of Alfonso Cano by the Colombian military in November of last year was heralded as the beginning of the end for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Despite this setback, FARC has continued its attacks against the security forces and civilians with no apparent disruption.
To the surprise of many, the group appointed Timoleón Jiménez, or "Timochenko", as the new leader. Timochenko's reputation was that of a hardliner – a military leader likely to oppose any prospect of peace talks. Despite this reputation, FARC sprung a further surprise by proposing negotiations with the Colombian government of 9th January this year, only for President Santos to dismiss the proposal over Twitter. FARC responded to this snub with a grenade attack on the site of the failed 1999-2002 peace talks, injuring two people.
A decisive military victory for either side seems unlikely. Timochenko finds himself in charge of a weakened FARC, but not one on the point of collapse as the Colombian government has claimed. With both sides unwilling or unable to enter peace talks, the likely result is that this already protracted conflict will continue to claim lives.
The Colombian government is currently grossly over-optimistic regarding the prospect of success in its military operations against FARC. President Santos recently unveiled Operation Sword of Honour, a cross-agency military plan which he claims will defeat FARC within the next two years. This is a far from realistic goal. The government has greatly exaggerated the supposed crisis FARC currently finds itself in. President Santos deliberately overstated the impact of Cano's death, describing it as the greatest blow FARC has suffered.
In truth, although it was the first time a FARC commander has been killed, the group had lost other high ranking members before without an impact on their ability to carry out attacks. Cano had been unable to assume much more than a figurehead role in FARC since he took command in 2008, as he was relentlessly hunted by the Colombian military. Instead much of the day to day running was handled by other high-ranking commanders who remain at large. More recently, Santos attempted to use the fact that FARC has been selling its cattle to demonstrate its financial desperation. However commentators were quick to point out that this has been a common method to launder money raised through the cultivation and trafficking of narcotics for several years.
FARC has certainly been severely weakened over the last decade. Since its peak in 2000, when there appeared to be a genuine prospect of victory for the group, the United States-backed Plan Colombia has turned the tide on the guerrilla forces. They have lost key leaders and morale has suffered, resulting in a stream of desertions. The estimated number of fighters has now more than halved since its peak. Although FARC has increased the number of attacks it has carried out over the last two years, this must be viewed as a reflection of the government's military efforts. A large proportion of the group's attacks been directed against the police and army forces sent to combat it. Raising the intensity of anti-FARC operations and pushing further into the territories under the group's control inevitably results in more attacks against the forces carrying out these operations.
The improvements in relations between Colombia and Venezuela since Santos took office have deprived FARC of a vital safe haven, and the two countries are co-operating to hunt down Timichenko, who is believed to be in hiding in the north-eastern border region. The recent spate of attacks in the north of Colombia has widely been regarded as a sign that FARC is trying to draw Colombian forces away from their anti-FARC operations on the Venezuelan border. High ranking military officials have openly stated that they expect Timochenko to be captured within the next twelve months. FARC finds itself severely weakened, but not on the point of collapse. Despite these setbacks, FARC has survived and continued its attacks, and the flow of desertions has seemingly been stemmed, with the group's numbers stabilising at around 9,000.
A decisive military victory for either side is not achievable, but neither FARC nor the Colombian government is in a position to make the necessary compromises to begin peace talks. Santos has demanded that FARC must demobilise as a precondition to any negotiations. This is a demand that Santos is unable to withdraw, and one which FARC's leadership is unwilling, and probably unable, to fulfil. The president's demand stems from FARC's history of using previous ceasefires to rearm and reorganise.
Timochenko's hardline reputation can only have added to suspicions that the proposed peace talks were little more than an attempt to buy time. The vehement anti-FARC sentiment among the Colombian public also leaves him little room for manoeuvre. The 2008 anti-FARC march drew huge support, more recent government sponsored marches have failed to attract the same numbers, but still demonstrate strong feelings against the group. Santos' predecessor and rival Alvaro Uribe, who took a hard line against FARC, is ready to take advantage of any compromise.
It is also far from clear that Timochenko has the authority to execute what would be a dramatic change in course for FARC and order demobilisation. The group is extremely diffuse, and he has only been in command for a few months. Many of FARC's members stand to lose a great deal through any genuine peace talks and would be reluctant to follow orders to lay down their weapons. If a peace agreement were to be reached between the Colombian government and FARC's leadership in these circumstances, a large proportion of the group's membership would splinter into smaller groups, keen to continue profiting from the drugs trade and the other criminal activities which fund their activities.
Rather than the imminent total defeat of FARC Santos is seeking, it seems more likely that he will have to settle for the establishment of an "acceptable level of violence". History teaches that such revolutionary movement are rarely completely defeated militarily or disarmed through peace talks. Despite major military operations against them, the Naxalites continue to carry out attacks in rural India, and in Northern Ireland, off-shoots of the Irish Republican Army still continue low-level attacks a decade after the peace agreement.
The Colombian government's hopes to defeat FARC within two years are unlikely to be fulfilled. FARC has been weakened, but not to the point of total collapse. It no longer poses a threat to the state, but is more than capable of continuing a low-level insurgency for the foreseeable future. The government may inflict further military setbacks and reduce the level and intensity of attacks, but it will not eliminate them. Progressive peace talks seem equally unlikely. Timochenko does not yet have the authority to lead the group to demobilisation, and seems unlikely to be given the chance to acquire this authority. Many members of FARC have far too much invested in conflict with the government and the group's criminal activities to be easily led to peace.
There remains no end in sight for this long conflict.