"Without a free press, you can’t have a democracy," notes CHDS Professor Carlos Ospina, who spent four years interacting with Colombian and international media as head of that country's armed forces. "The press should play a vigilant role—it shouldn’t be fawning over the State, the government, or the armed forces. On the contrary, the press needs to point out the errors, defects and omissions that have been committed."
CHDS Professor Carlos Ospina Ovalle, the former commander of the Colombian military and the first person to occupy the new Center academic chair for chiefs of the armed forces, was one of the architects of the transformation of his country’s armed services. Those changes have allowed Colombia to successfully confront the country’s principal security challenges within a framework of healthy civil-military relations and the promotion of respect for human rights.
Considered by many to be the “brains” of the transformation and of the joint planning and operation of Colombia’s defense and security forces, those with long memories remember the now retired general’s skills as a communicator and his talent for leading by example, being one of the most combat-decorated officers in that country.
Recently Ospina sat down in his office overlooking the Potomac and Anacostia rivers with Martin Edwin Andersen, CHDS chief of strategic communications, to talk about his vision about what analysts have begun to call a model counterinsurgency policy, where military efficacy has gone hand in hand with inter-agency cooperation. What follows are some of the themes they talked about—including military ethics, human rights, and the role of the media in situations of conflict:
Andersen: What are the most important lessons that you take from your time as commander of Colombia’s armed forces?
Ospina: There are several things. The most important is that the Colombian armed forces, and in general those of Latin America, are important instruments of the State which allow it to carry out its own objectives—progress, peace and development. I believe that for the first time in a long time, these are beginning to be realized, so the most important lesson is the understanding of how a military force operates within a democratic context.
Andersen: If you were to give advice to a future Colombian defense minister, what lessons would you want to share?
Ospina: Basically, an understanding of how politics and strategy are made. The first, how by means of a democratic security policy formulated by the president, is clear—that it is not a strategy of direct action alone, but includes combined, integral efforts by all elements of the State, together with the armed forces, in search of the well-being and protection of the civilian population. That suggests that the results obtained are not short term—that would be ideal. So the concrete recommendation I would make is that the minister look at how the strategy produces positive results over time that neutralize those armed actions outside of the law, but simultaneously permit the economic resurgence of the Colombian people, especially the poorest sectors.
Andersen: But isn’t there a conflict due to the fact that a strategic plan is necessarily long term, while every three or four years the national elected authorities have to stand for election again? How can you avoid the conundrum of competing demands of a political timeframe and a strategic one so that armed forces operating in a democracy can succeed?
Ospina: That is one of the most important questions. The key is the transformation of these policies into State policies, which can be undertaken in one way or another by the current government, within the framework of a State policy that transcends the vision of a particular government and seeks State ends, not those just of a government.
Andersen: You have said that it was necessary to move away from the famous National Security Doctrine and use something else. Why do you think the National Security Doctrine proved not to work, and how did the Colombian armed forces change its own doctrine?
Ospina: The National Security Doctrine, created in Europe after the Second World War, legitimized an authoritarian State. The truth is, the National Security Doctrine was never used; it was more than a faction on the political Left made the accusation that the doctrine was being applied, but as a doctrine it wasn’t—it is possible certain aspects of it were used, more due to personal ambition or in order to get rapid results. But that doctrine was not a guide—one can say that in the Southern Cone it was used—but more so due to the desire to resolve a situation than to implement it as a doctrine.
Our democratic security policy is more oriented towards the civilian population, that is, it changes the center of gravity, from the enemy that one is attacking to the protection of the civilian population. And that means a series of changes in operations. The democratic security policy is based on democratic principles, so that democratic governance continues to exist, which is different from the National Security Doctrine, which goes against democracy.
Andersen: One feels that in the United Status the debate about Colombia sometimes does not reflect very well what is happening there in the field. If you had a chance to talk to the American people, to help them understand the situation better, what would you say?
Ospina: It is evident that there are things in Colombia that were done badly. For example, there are relationships with what is called para-politics—politicians who are linked to groups who call themselves paramilitary, but in reality are not paramilitary, they are groups of delinquents. That is something the American public knows, and politicians are right in saying this is something sinister.
Now we have another scandal because some multinational companies are also accused of having contact with and paying (the paramilitaries)—this is also very bad. In the case of Colombian politicians and members of the armed forces who have been accused, if that is true, they have committed a crime and should be punished. They operated outside the law and have to be punished. That this can happen is thanks to the way the democratic security policy has been put into effect, which has resulted in the demobilization of the badly-named paramilitary, who decided to give up because of the military action used against them, and now they are talking about who in the government with whom they had relations. And those people have to be punished. The American people can rest assured, because things are being done correctly; who should be punished is being debated, and this certainly will improve the situation.
Andersen: As commander you had a very fluid relationship with the press. What role do you believe that the press plays in a military strategy meant to make democracy prevail?
Ospina: The free press is the very expression of democracy. Without a free press, you can’t have a democracy. A few days ago President Uribe talked about that at a meeting of the Inter-American Press Association in Cartagena. The press should play a vigilant role—it shouldn’t be fawning over the State, the government, or the armed forces. On the contrary, the press needs to point out the errors, defects and omissions that have been committed. During the time I was commander, the press did just that—point out errors about which the public need to know, because in the last analysis, the money that is being spent is the people’s money. If it is not being invested wisely, the people have to know that.
There are two important aspects to this question. State secrets are those that the press should not reveal. But aside from State secrets, there is other information that is kept secret because things were done badly. And those are the things that the press ought to reveal—that is its vocation. And the role of the commander is to give explanations, not to just be happy with distributing press releases because a release without an explanation is nothing. It is the commander’s obligation to explain things to the people; that is why he has the job he has—to explain what happened. It was that role that I tried to use during the four years I was commander, because the people require explanations, and if you don’t talk with them with sincerity, the truth can be used to your detriment.
Andersen: You were also known for putting a certain emphasis on respect for human rights, in a moment when it seemed the entire world was criticizing the government’s conduct, not just that of the military. What specific actions did you take and what results did that have?
Ospina: When one is in a war, especially a decentralized war, where there are small patrols that in a given moment cannot be controlled due to circumstances of time or distance, it is important to formulate clear policies. And I did that with respect to human rights and international humanitarian law—first of all, by means of human rights education in the schools, at the different levels, with lower-ranking personnel and with their superiors. And supervision of the patrols.
There were problems. Despite the efforts that were made--and those problems have been dealt with and the justice system is investigating a case or two where soldiers have been accused. If they acted outside the law, they have to account for their actions. However, at all times we tried to make them see that, within the logic of this decentralized war, the most important thing was how soldiers behaved with the civilian population, making them understand that the civilian population is the reason for their fight—and it shouldn’t be attacked, but rather protected
Andersen: This also requires an important interface with civilian authorities, so that when there is a firefight, there is a commission that investigates the facts, no?
Ospina: Look, even though there is a war, the regular laws in Colombia have not changed. If, during a firefight a guerrilla dies he can’t just be buried and the fight continues. Rather the body, or bodies, have to be examined by civilian authorities, in this case the prosecutors’ office, to determine if they died in combat and that the person wasn’t assassinated. The problems that there are is because perhaps at one time, these procedures were not followed, or they were done very quickly. So it is very important that, when there are dead in combat, the prosecutors’ office comes and conducts a formal investigation of the bodies.
Some times it is difficult, because there are five, eight or 10 dead—once there were 70 dead, and four days went by after the fighting with the authorities examining the cadavers and certifying that they died in combat. And there wasn’t any problem. So the participation of the prosecutors’ office is important because sometimes a patrol is there three days and cannot remain more time because they are at risk. But the order is that they say there with the bodies despite the danger and wait until the civil authority certifies that what happened really happened in combat, and that they were not assassinated. It is a little strange, it is a little difficult, and it is a little uncomfortable, but I believe it is best for democracy.
Andersen: What role do ethics play in a conflict situation. What is the importance of military ethics and how did you try to instill it in your troops?
Ospina: Ethics are decisive because they are the reflection of institutional values. If a few soldiers act without ethics it is possible that they will commit errors that affect the population. For that reason, it is extremely important that a soldier’s training inculcates them with ethics, so that they always act in accordance with their conscience.
One way that I tried to do that is by means of example, showing how important it was to mix with the civilian population and to be always vigilante for their security, and to be friendly and to comport oneself in a way that brings you closer to the people and in that way make strategy work
Andersen: Is the biggest problem confronting President Uribe a political one, or a military one?
Ospina: I think that, at bottom, the problem that caused the war is more a social problem, that had a political aspect to it that in term generated the armed conflict. I believe that the social question is being dealt with, the economy is growing, and that has helped to improve the situation. However, there are a few unemployment indices that are still high. I think this is something that needs to be addressed, in order to give the poorest people a better quality of life.
Andersen: It is said that one of Uribe’s most important accomplishments has been to make the wealthy—for example, those people in Bogota who have enough money to send their poodles to psychiatrists but who did not want to pay for what poor recruits were doing in the jungle—to make them pay their taxes.
Ospina: Yes. That is what is being sought—the need for greater revenues means greater participation. A permanent complaint has been that the war most affects the poorest people. But with the participation of the wealthiest people, protection for the poor is strengthened.
Andersen: How do you evaluate what is happening, not as a military man, but rather from a civilian point of view?
Ospina: As a citizen, I think that at one time the government lost its legitimacy because social problems got worse and the people became poorer and more distant, which was used by groups we have there to generate a prolonged war. What is trying to be accomplished now is to generate security so that economic conditions can improve. I think that, in time, this will succeed, but a few more years are needed because the social problems are both of a structural and infrastructural nature, and these cannot be fixed from one day to the next.