Today, Colombian politics are consumed above all by one issue: the peace process now underway between the government of president Juan Manuel Santos and the radical Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Since its initiation last fall, the controversial initiative has polarized national politics to an unprecedented degree. It has also become a personal bone of contention between President Santos and his predecessor and one-time mentor, Alvaro Uribe—a very-public disagreement that is now being played out in the national media.
Underlying this acrimonious debate is a fundamental disagreement over the prospects for a durable peace, the motivations of the FARC, and the strategic impact that integration of the group will have on Colombia's larger political trajectory. Simply put, some believe that the FARC—diminished after nearly five decades of insurgency—is now eager to come in from the cold. Others, however, are convinced that the organization has not given up its ideological struggle, and is now simply pursuing it by other means.
That a peace process is possible at all is a testament to the policies implemented by the Uribe government during its time in office. When Uribe ascended to the Colombian presidency in 2002, he inherited a country in turmoil. His predecessor, Andres Pastrana (1998-2002), had been the latest head of state to attempt to negotiate a peace settlement with the FARC. But, like countless times before, talks had broken down as a result of continuing violence on the part of the FARC.
Uribe took a different tack. His government forged a qualitatively new strategy that focused on personal security, national integration and counterinsurgency. The plan, encapsulated in the Democratic Security and Defense Policy issued in June 2003, involved the restoration of state presence in heretofore lawless areas, a strengthening of local and national institutions, greater protection of the Colombian population, and territorial consolidation. The aim of these objectives was to cumulatively deny the FARC territory and dampen support for the organization among the country's disenfranchised poor.
The approach turned out to be singularly successful. By the end of Uribe's term in office, the FARC was significantly diminished in both quantitative and qualitative terms. A number of top commanders in the group had been killed, thousands of foot soldiers had defected, and the overall fighting strength of the FARC was estimated to have been whittled down by half, to just 10,000 men under arms.
This, in turn, laid the groundwork for a sea change in policy on the part of the Colombian government, now headed by Uribe's successor (and one-time defense minister), Juan Manuel Santos. Beginning in the fall of 2012, a new negotiating track between the Colombian government and the FARC, proposed by Venezuela, got underway in Havana. Its purported goal? To end the nearly-half-century-old civil conflict in Colombia by rehabilitating and integrating the FARC.
The benign view is that, after some five decades of violent opposition to the state, the FARC now wants at long last to lay down its arms and come in from the cold. Observers note that the group would benefit concretely by doing so, receiving legitimacy for its political ideas and becoming a highly visible part of the Colombian polity.
That certainly appears to be the reading of President Santos, who has staked both his reputation and his credibility on making peace with the FARC. Santos' enthusiasm is understandable; the potential upside for the Colombian government is huge, measured in greater domestic stability and prosperity, a surge in foreign direct investment, and perhaps even a Nobel Peace Prize for Santos himself. It is also crucial to the political future of the Colombian president, who is up for reelection in 2014. Quite simply, in the words of one regional observer, "the FARC now holds Santos' political future in its hands."
However, a more skeptical reading of political events predominates in many corners of Colombia's body politic. Among the country's military elite, there is deep suspicion regarding the true motivations undergirding the peace process. The conflict with the FARC may be some five decades old, military officers point out, but the group "isn't tired." Nor is it on the ropes; the FARC has significant economic interests and political connections throughout the region (including a significant stake in the flourishing business of illegal mining). As a result, at least some believe that the current peace process represents a poison pill of sorts engineered by Venezuela in order to expand pro-"Bolivarian" sentiment in the region, as well as to alter the contours of the political process within Colombia itself.
Private sector experts, too, are incredulous. The FARC is not diminished, one specialist maintains, at least not in the way the Santos government claims. Rather, although the group's military capabilities are now more modest (whittled down to some 8,500 men under arms today), the FARC as a movement is substantially broader, and its ranks include civilian militias and other groupings. The total strength of the movement is estimated at in excess of 100,000 persons. As a result, the FARC's entry into the peace process doesn't reflect genuine moderation, but rather an attempt to coopt and transform Colombian politics—the same "Bolivarian" strategy that was championed by Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez in his day.
Moreover, even if the peace process does succeed, it would not necessarily spell the end of Colombia's struggle with the FARC. The Colombian government's Uribe-era Disarmament, Demobilization, and Rehabilitation (DDR) program—designed to integrate and rehabilitate members of the movement who have given up their arms—remains chronically underfunded. It does not afford a "way out" for former FARC guerillas, who often turn to criminality as a way of supplementing their income and eking out a living. As a result, observers say, a mass "demobilization" of the FARC as a result of the peace process would actually increase Colombia's chronic problem with crime by swelling the ranks of the country's bacrims (criminal bands). The peace process, in other words, could very well turn what is currently an external problem (in the form of the FARC) into an internal one (i.e., skyrocketing crime).
It could also dramatically reconfigure Colombia's political status quo. For decades, the country's solidly conservative, pro-democracy course has made it one of America's staunchest allies in the Western Hemisphere. Yet a Colombian polity that incorporates the FARC and its leftist supporters is likely to be significantly different—and decidedly less friendly to the United States and its interests.
Indeed, the FARC itself has already made clear that it envisions nothing less than a wholesale transformation of Colombian politics. As part of the negotiating process, the movement has demanded, inter alia: impunity for its negotiators and senior officials; protection of its cadres from extradition on kidnapping and drug charges (to the U.S., for example), and; a disarmament of both sides overseen by other regional states (rather than America).
Rock And A Hard Place
For its part, the Obama administration has both embraced and thrown its weight behind Colombia's unfolding peace efforts. In 2013 alone, Vice President Joe Biden himself twice visited Bogota in public demonstrations of U.S. support for the Santos government and its negotiations with the FARC. Yet, as the forgoing discussion demonstrates, there is ample reason for concern that Colombia's peace process could end up being a perilous one.
The Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously said that warfare represents the "continuation of politics by other means." It holds, then that the inverse can also be true—that politics can serve to attain strategic objectives when open warfare cannot. That could well be the case in Colombia today, with the security of the country, and perhaps its very geopolitical direction, hanging in the balance.
 Thomas A. Marks, "A Model Counterinsurgency: Uribe's Colombia (2002-2006)," Military Review, March-April 2007, http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/call/docs/11-15/ch_6.asp.
 See, for example, "Ending Colombia's FARC Conflict: Dealing the Right Card," International Crisis Group Latin America Report no. 30, March 26, 2009, http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/latin-america-caribbean/andes/colombia/030-ending-colombias-farc-conflict-dealing-the-right-card.aspx.
 Author's interviews, Bogota, Colombia, May 2013.
 See, for example, Omar Bula Escobar, El Plan Maestro: Iran – El Alba – Las FARC y el Terror Nuclear (CreateSpace: August 2013).
 Author's interviews, Bogota, Colombia, May 2013.
 Anne Phillips, "Show of FARCe," The Journal of International Security Affairs no. 25, Fall-Winter 2013, 107-108.
 Carl von Clausewitz, On War vol. I (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & C., 1918).