By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
March 5, 2009 - Colombia is a country that has returned from the brink of anarchy, and its ongoing struggle against narcoterrorists holds lessons for nations around the world, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen publicly congratulated Colombian leaders "for the great successes you have achieved" against narcoterrorists.
"We in the United States, as we have done a long time, continue to strongly support your approach, your execution, and obviously your results," Mullen said.
Mullen met with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and Gen. Freddy Padilla, commander of the Colombian military forces, during his visit. Mullen, Santos and Padilla held a news conference at the Ministry of National Defense.
Santos said the leaders discussed the defense cooperation agreement being negotiated. He expects that agreement -- which will formalize the military-to-military relationship between the United States and Colombia -- to be finished next month. Santos said that was among the issues he discussed with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates during a visit to Washington last week.
Mullen said the military-to-military relationship between the United States and Colombia "has never been stronger," and he praised the Colombians for assuming regional responsibilities.
"I believe our relationship on the military side is an enduring relationship, it is a strong relationship, it's a critical relationship," the admiral said.
The conversations he had today will help further the military-to-military relationship. "I believe no one can do it alone; we can only do it with great partners, and you are great partners," Mullen said.
The leaders also discussed what will happen after "Plan Colombia" ends later this year. Plan Colombia, unveiled in 1999, acknowledges that drug traffickers and rebel groups are intermingled. The plan requires the government to go after narcoterrorism, hold the territory, and provide the necessities of life that people need.
The plan calls for the government to respect human rights, promote the rule of law, strengthen good governance at all levels, fight corruption and strengthen democratic institutions. Plan Colombia has been modified since it was first introduced, but the basic premise, philosophy and strategy remain intact.
And, it could be a model for other areas in the world, such as Afghanistan. Like Colombia, Afghanistan is facing a severe challenge from insurgents fueled by drug money.
"I think many of us from all over the world can learn from what has happened with respect to the very successful developments of Plan Colombia," Mullen said. "As in all plans, there are parts of it that would be very applicable in other parts of the world and specifically to Afghanistan, and there would be other parts that would not apply at all."
The mainstays of the counterinsurgency approach that is working in Colombia could be adapted to Afghanistan.
"I'm actually encouraged based on the briefings that I've received here ... about the plans for the future," the chairman said. "So it's important from my perspective never to rest because, clearly, the threat is still there. While there have been great achievements, there is still much to do."
Colombia wants to capitalize on the progress it has made, and the government has a pilot program in place in Macarena province. Santos said the leaders discussed the pilot program.
"If it is successful, we hope to expand it all over the country," Santos said through a translator. "It will gain the hearts and support of the people."
The effort in Macarena builds on what the government has learned in its struggle against narcoterrorists. Colombia is involved in a counterinsurgency war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the Spanish acronym of FARC.
"We have a 'whole of government' approach," a Colombian military leader said following the news conference.
First, the Colombian military and police bring security to an area and stay in place so it remains secure. Meanwhile, other government agencies – such as health, education, labor and agriculture -- are put in place. They work with local people to ensure children go to school, safe drinking water is available and men and women are able to get legal jobs without ties to the drug trade. Then courts open, and the judiciary system ensures the rule of law prevails.
This is what Colombia aims to do throughout the country.
That Colombia has made progress is unmistakable. The FARC once controlled an area the size of Switzerland. Now, according to U.S. State Department figures, the terror group's attacks against small towns have decreased by 91 percent from 2002 to 2005.
Between 2002 and 2007, Colombia saw a 40 percent decrease in murders, an 82 percent reduction in kidnappings and a drop of 76 percent in terrorist attacks. Additionally, attacks on the country's infrastructure dropped by 60 percent.
On July 2, 2008, the Colombian military rescued 15 hostages the FARC was holding, including three Americans. Last year, more than 15,000 FARC insurgents gave up the fight and turned to the government.