The spread of the Islamic State (ISIS) and its incendiary propaganda presents a daunting challenge for the United States and its allies. The good news is we know how to win this fight, and Colombia has shown us the way.
Colombia taught us that the key to defeating violent, illegally armed groups is a strong, accountable government that protects its citizens, upholds the rule of law, combats corruption and expands economic opportunity for all. It taught us that inclusion, tolerance and democratic values are powerful antidotes to ideology. And Colombia also taught us that the battle for the narrative is perhaps the most important fight of all.
Like ISIS and al Qaida, groups like the FARC, the guerrilla organization in Colombia, deliberately target their propaganda in the hopes of reaching sympathetic audiences. They also hope to avoid punishment for five decades’ worth of crimes against humanity, which include the regular use of landmines and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that have killed or maimed thousands of Colombian soldiers and civilians.
Through FARC-run radio stations, websites, social media and television interviews, the FARC attempts to portray itself as the victim — rather than recognizing that it, too, violated human rights and is involved in the drug trade. The group attempts to cast itself as the champion of social justice for minorities and the poor — while the reality is that FARC violence displaced innocents and destroyed livelihoods across Colombia.
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In interviews and press statements, the FARC claims the Colombian military has failed to defeat them. It also claims the Colombian military denies human rights and oppresses the Colombian people. The truth is that the Colombian military has crippled the FARC, enabling the government of Colombia to begin charting the path to peace.
The military has embraced human-rights training and is sharing its expertise with their beleaguered Central American neighbors. And it is preparing itself to take on a new role in a post-conflict Colombia — a role focused on international peacekeeping and supporting coalition operations. Of course, this is the story the FARC doesn’t want the world to know: that Colombia is fortunate to have a professional military that is committed to protecting human rights and supporting a just and equal peace. The FARC’s time of using violence to achieve political ends is over, and thanks to the courage of the government of Colombia and its military, Colombia’s time of peace and prosperity is just beginning.
One of the critical enablers for Colombia’s success — the critical enabler, in my book — has been its outstanding national will and commitment to finding “Colombian solutions to Colombian problems.” The Colombians are fully invested in this fight. Our support through Plan Colombia was but a small fraction of the more than tens of billions of dollars the Colombian government invested to bring their country back from the brink and force a committed adversary to the negotiating table.
They did it themselves, at great expense in Colombian blood and Colombian national treasure. They did it against enemies that for decades have been serial human-rights violators in ways that I am appalled did not receive greater public attention or condemnation. They did it by building strong institutions, promoting inclusive economic development, establishing solid social-justice programs to address decades of inequality and ensuring accountability and justice for the victims of human-rights violations. And by doing so, the Colombians have shown us the way to defeating groups like ISIS: by upholding and defending the very values they threaten — democracy, freedom and human rights.
Colombia deserves our admiration — and our fullest support, which is why the United States and the international community are standing by Colombia’s side throughout the peace process. For the United States, this support is based on more than just shared history; it is based on Colombia’s enduring importance to our national interests.
We are fortunate to have a special relationship with a handful of countries around the world. These relationships are with countries that contribute to regional security, countries that we consider our strongest friends and most steadfast allies, and countries that we — and indeed the world — look to for leadership and the advancement of universal values we all hold dear.
Colombia clearly plays that role in Latin America. Like their resolve in battling the FARC, our support will be unwavering, as together we work towards a Colombia that is fully and finally at peace.
U.S. Marine Gen. John F. Kelly is commander of the U.S. Southern Command.