Publicado: 1ero de abril de 2009
Air & Space Power Journal - Español Primer Trimestre 2009
Captain (USAF) Dylan D. Dombret,
In July 1, 2008, the Colombian military performed one of the most audacious military rescue operations seen in history. Named Operation Check, this mission was an attempt to rescue high-profile kidnapped Colombian and American citizens from the claws of the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) without a single shot fired. The tactical success of this operation has great significance within the context of contemporary warfare. For America’s Air Force, it teaches important lessons at the tactical, strategic, doctrinal and diplomatic levels of insurgency warfare. The following is an attempt to influence the U.S. Air Force’s transformation in Counter Insurgency (COIN) warfare by analyzing possible lessons learned of this operation.
After years of failed negotiations and intense military action between the Marxist guerrillas of the FARC and the Colombian government, President Uribe’s administration in 2007 pushed harder than ever to stop kidnappings and bring freedom to those held hostage. Kidnapping in Colombia peaked in 2000 with more than 3,500 people, including a presidential candidate (Ingrid Betancourt) and three American contractors for the past six years.1,2 While the entire world warned Uribe’s government on the dangers of a military rescue, the first break for action came in May of 2007. A Colombian police officer by the name of John Pinchao, who had been kidnapped 8 years earlier in an intense firefight defending a military post against the FARC, escaped by foot and gave the first clues as to the whereabouts of the remaining hostages.3 In June of 2008, three Army intelligence officers approached the Colombian Army Commander General Montoya, to give him the details of a plan that could free the “non-exchangeables”, as became to be known a select group of the high-profile hostages including three American contractors accused of participating in the conflict by the FARC. General Montoya was informed of the tactical advantage they had gained by having intercepted and interdicted literally all communications between the Guerrilla Front No.1 (the jailers of the “non-exchangeables”) and the FARC secretariat.4 Fearing the same end as other guerrilla leaders that were killed as a result of intercepted communications (i.e., aka “El Negro” Acacio and Raul Reyes earlier in he year), the members of the secretariat used human messengers to communicate with the Front No. 1 leadership. After extreme security measures and extensive planning considerations, the plan was put into motion. Army intelligence officers contacted the Front No. 1 leader, who thought was talking to messengers from the FARC’s secretariat, urging him to prepare for a transport mission that would relocate the hostages and relieve the military pressure surrounding him and the captives. On July 2, 2008, two MI-17 helicopters from the Colombian Army painted in white resembling a humanitarian mission5 sent earlier in the year from Venezuela, approached the location where intelligence had confirmed the presence of the main group of kidnapped personnel. 13 members of the Colombian Army, unarmed, played the role of crewmembers, medics, and news reporters. Upon landing, the helicopter was immediately surrounded by a multitude of guerrilla fighters. After twenty two minutes on the ground, 15 hostages boarded the airplane under the custody of their jailer who for years ran their lives with an iron fist. Once on board and airborne, the Colombian military posing as aircrew and cameramen subdued the jailer along with another insurgent.6 In the helicopter, Ingrid Betancourt, the three American contractors, and 13 other members of the Colombian military, were informed that they had been freed. Without a single shot fired, Colombian Army intelligence had rescued 15 hostages that represented the most important bargaining chip the FARC had until that point to negotiate the liberation of imprisoned insurgents and weaken the government of Uribe, changing the course of the conflict for ever.
Operation Jaque underscored the use of human intelligence (HUMINT) and small operational footprints at the tactical and strategic level. Months prior to the rescue and with the help of American surveillance technology, Colombian commandos had located the hostages. However, a military rescue operation was deemed too dangerous and was called off.7 Previous rescue attempts of kidnapped Colombians had ended in the killings of the hostages.8 The families of the Americans and Colombian hostages pleaded Uribe’s government to negotiate with the guerrillas for a prisoner exchange. However, President Uribe opted to continue the military pressure and refused to negotiate until the conditions were better to attempt a rescue without shed of blood. This policy gave birth to a window of opportunity that would achieve both, gain the support of the people, and break the structure of trust within the FARC organization. Weeks prior to the rescue, the infiltrated informant who had gained the trust of the guerrilla leadership, informed the jailers that he would bring the details of an international humanitarian mission that would transfer the hostages to another location. An Army messenger was dispatched taking several weeks to reach the jailers, making the story believable as the jailers and the secretariat were separated by weeks of treacherous terrain on foot. The successful strategy of infiltration is attributed in part to the great sums of money offered to turncoats supported by the Plan Colombia. Coupled with the intrepid resolve of the Army intelligence community to design a plan that defied Hollywood films, the guerrillas were afforded the room to maneuver and set a stage of confidence that never existed. After a tremendous regiment of training in acting lessons, the members of the team who would supplant the humanitarian mission performed flawlessly facing the guerrillas they sworn to fight to the death. Convincing roles of camera crews and medic teams bring memories of similar contemporary feats, like American Special Forces (SF) troops fighting along side the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan on horse-back while helping Karzai take over Kandahar without firing a single shot in 2001.9 From the intelligence and planning perspective, Operation Jaque’s contribution to American forces is two-fold: first, Operation Jaque showcased how significant battles against insurgency can be won not by the pilot in the air alone, but rather by anyone in the military community engaged in the conflicts our military is engaged in.10 Second, it emphasized the advantages of minimizing the footprint while replacing it with surveillance platforms. The capability of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) has been recognized and taken top priority by the USAF as key to replacing the Army’s risky ground ISR missions during occupation operations. The room to act given to the 1st Front of the FARC allowed them to maneuver freely and become more visible to surveillance airplanes, helping to locate the hostages. This false-sense of security also encouraged the use of open communications by the insurgency, allowing the Colombian military to know important details about their communication protocol. The lesson of excessive Army footprint was evident during the Israeli incursion in Palestine in 2006 as a result of low intensity provocations by Hezbollah; it made the Israeli occupation a costly affair that eventually ended in its withdrawal, and a perceived significant win for the Palestine resistance.11 The use of airborne platforms however, has increased in importance as a result of this evidence which suggests that occupying territories becomes a liability in insurgency warfare. Instead, transformative, effect-based objectives dominate the strategic discourse.
Operation Jaque demonstrated that the use of restrained force and seeking transformational effect-based objectives could turn the tide against the insurgency aggression more than a full-scale land assault. This is significant for the US Air Force as much of the doctrine of airpower is based on lethality and proportionality of force, however technologies at the disposal of planners often remove the consideration of alternate and more transformative opportunities of the combat realm. While this argument does not suggest that this is always the case, opportunities which seldom present themselves overtly to the planner, can have a far greater impact if exploited, as evidenced in Operation Jaque. Since all of our conflicts requires in some way the support of a given population to legitimize our efforts, these small opportunities of tactical planning transform the minds of the people bearing witness to combat operations more than the application of violence to all aggressors. General Montoya had at his disposal the American-backed expertise, technology, and training that could have afforded an encirclement of the insurgents and their subsequent abdication.12 However, the choices made for an operation that would not put the hostages in danger, and would not attack the insurgents even after the rescue portion of the mission was achieved despite being located where not just the right ones, but were the perfect ones. Though protected by approximately 60 guerrillas, thirty nine Black Hawk helicopters ready with commando forces,13 were ready as the violent alternative to the plan. Had the Colombian military had attacked with ground assault and successfully rescued all hostages, the overwhelming violence applied looses the effects of influence desired in a population bearing witness. The fact that force could have been used, and yet a valiant mission was carried out, represents a punch that took the wind out of the FARC’s willingness to continue to fight, and the public was convinced of the need to support the government’s efforts against the guerrillas, proving that violence is not the end in itself. This act of mercy perhaps is one of the most significant blows of the operation to the international image of the FARC, as well as an overwhelming boost of morale and trust in the institutions of the Colombian government and the application of its instruments of power.
Operation Jaque was a significant victory in the sense that it changed the perceptions of the people regarding the chances for success of the government’s democratic security policies. Once deemed violent and inhuman by some sectors of Colombia’s population, the government’s military action in this operation demonstrated the willingness to use force without disproportionably taking advantage of the higher ground. This is perhaps contradictory to military tactical and strategic rhetoric; however, the transformative effect-based approach behind Operation Jaque demonstrates that the hearts and minds of the people were at the center of concern for operation’s strategy. A similarly successful operation conducted against the FARC secretariat in fact, produced mixed feelings around the world despite its strategic importance, supporting the idea that timing in the application of violence is everything. In April of 2008, a Colombian commando attacked a guerrilla position two kilometers into Ecuadorian territory, where No. 2 FARC leader “Raul Reyes” had established a camp where insurgency operations were conducted in Colombian territory.14 While the operation was a successful blow through an aerial strike followed by the retrieval of the dead body of the guerrilla leader and valuable evidence of international guerrilla support connections, its shine was overshadowed by the use of force without the permission of Ecuador’s government, who began a diplomatic campaign in the region against Colombia.15At the onset of this operation, President Uribe’s approval rating was 65 percent, compared to 80 percent approval following Operation Jaque, despite the fact that militarily killing the No. 2 leader was far more disruptive ..16 Since Operation Jaque, the FARC have retreated deep in the jungles and its international political agendas lost all support.
A similar illustration of the importance of timing in forced military employment took place contrary to Israeli hopes in Lebanon in 2006; leading to the Jul-August war of 2006 against Israeli forces, Hezbollah had been demonized by the Lebanese community in part because Israel did not respond to much of the attacks preceding the conflict. As a result, Sunnis, Christians, and the non-Shia population in general supported the idea of a multinational force (MNF) to relieve the tensions between Hezbollah and Israel and pressured Hezbollah to stop the armed aggression. However, the strikes that followed by the Israeli Air Force in response overshadowed the public anger against Hezbollah, and turned the public opinion of the conflict and its course within hours in support of Hezbollah.17 While the Hezbollah enclaves of command and control were purposely placed among the civilian population, the Israeli attack showed ample latitude to strike, killing many civilians, and fueling their anger as a result This is often the result when the stances between good and evil are not clearly established by public opinion. While this helps explain why psychological operations pries on demonizing the enemy, the gray areas of public opinion regarding a conflict are a good indication that violence via military means can be counterproductive in certain cases of opportunity. Additionally, the strategic planning in preparation for Operation Jaque demonstrates the importance of delineating objectives and effects based not exclusively on our best, most devastating and demoralizing blow, but those that consider high values like exalting life as goals that can be shared by both sides.
Finally, Operation Jaque also imparted important doctrinal and diplomatic lessons. For the government of Colombia, it changed the course of the conflict as it positively influenced the will of the people, without a single shot fired. For the guerrilla struggle, it took away its most priced negotiation piece, and inflicted a morale blow that shook every level of its organization. The impressive aspect of Operation Jaque is an attribute that has often been replaced by more developed nations with technological superiority and conservative tactics: intrepid leadership. The courage displayed by the Army soldiers in the helicopter to face their enemies without weapons for twenty two minutes in a mission that no one knew for certain if it had been compromised or the turncoat changed his mind, simply defies belief. When the U.S. Ambassador in Colombia was informed of the plan a few days prior to the operation, his thoughts were that the operation sounded incredible, but the fact that it involved no risk to the hostages as there were no weapons on board the helicopter, made it a sound but nevertheless astonishing operation. General Montoya told his man prior to the flight that this it was important that all understood that this mission could be one with no return.18 The intrepid leadership of the entire chain of intelligence to general officers, to the ministry of defense all the way to the presidency, supported a doctrine that thrives on intrepid leadership of action as its greatest asset, and not on the superior technology provided by the Plan Colombia. This more than anything, sent a clear message to the insurgency that Colombia’s military was willing to match the guerrilla’s muscle financed by narco-trafficking, with or without the weapons that America provides through the Plan Colombia.
Doctrinally and diplomatically, the Colombian military began an offensive several years ago that equals the insurgency, and is only highlighted by operations like Jaque. Internationally, it began consolidating alliances and demonizing the FARC, while maintaining at the national level a heightened alert against human violations within its institutions.19 Because the insurgency would often supplant combatants killed in action by air strikes with peasants to influence the support of public opinion, the Colombian military began insertion operations to extract the bodies of confirmed leaders and obtain important evidence.20 While other countries would consider these operations unnecessary and altogether risky, the results have been overwhelming. Computers found in the guerrilla encampment where Reyes was killed gave important clues as to the financial support and diplomatic agendas the secretariat was carrying out around the world.21 Public opinion favored the Colombian military as it showed the world with videos the methodologies used in their campaigns, while making liars out of the insurgents who after engagements would create unsupported arguments against the military.
However, this doctrinal change has its roots from the effectiveness of the insurgency in recruiting the public opinion in prior years, despite the great damage they did to the country over forty years. While the strong believe that insurgency warfare is the preferred weapon of the weak,22 the insurgents themselves use intrepid leadership as its biggest asset. At the height of the armed conflict in Colombia, the National Liberation Army (ELN) kidnapped the congregation of an entire church in broad daylight, while earlier that year taking over a commercial airline in midair and dramatically landing it in a small road, kidnapping everyone . In another occasion, the M-19, now a demobilized guerrilla group of Colombia, dag its way under a military fort stealing hundreds of weapons, and the sword of Simon Bolivar (equivalent of America’s George Washington) from a museum.24 The effects of these operations have a multiplying force, making heroes out of bandits. Since the goal of the insurgency is to gain public opinion support, the effects of influence are multiplied when the steaks are high, and the violence is low. Public opinion in fact undergoes a similar effect to the one a person experiences when watching animal videos where the lion attacks it pray; the onlooker can hardly help to feel supportive of the weaker gazelle, despite the fact that the lion has to eat it to survive. In fact, the onlooker hopes that by some divine intervention the gazelle can get away and escape death. In insurgency warfare, the side that appears smaller has a significant advantage of influence over the people it hopes to control, as long as the violence is not directed towards the population.
How can a strong government appear small against an insurgency that is already perceived as small and at a disadvantage? The principles of intrepid leadership apply to highly-developed military forces as well because it increases the public perception that violence is not the means in itself, while at the same time sending a message to the insurgency that a protracted war can be to their advantage. Intrepid operations such as Operation Jaque are far less costly and more effect-based than massive mobilizations that hope to adversely affect the will of the enemy, who in turn sees the movement as an opportunity to inflict costs on the enemy and with time, destroy its morale. While common knowledge of insurgency labels it as an asymmetric warfare, the mistake made is in allowing the conflict to stay asymmetric, especially when good and evil has been clearly established. To defeat a strong and committed insurgency, it may entail making the objectives symmetric (winning the population through intrepid leadership), while maintaining intelligence and supporting technologies asymmetric.
Operation Jaque was an incredible feat of intrepid leadership that elevated the human spirit, while decimating the objectives of the insurgency. While the future is still uncertain, the Colombian military seems to be capitalizing on a renewed sense of public support to the end of the conflict by military force. After the devastating blows inflicted to the FARC secretariat in 2008, Colombia’s Uribe enjoys the support of an international community who has recognized the respect for human life and the championing of freedom without unnecessary violence. However, Colombia has recognized that violence, though just a means to an end, is critical in its proper application to bring the FARC to the negotiating table.
The lessons of Operation Jaque can be useful to other theaters of conflict presently involved in insurgency warfare. In Iraq, the lack of clear determination and intrepid leadership by its military against the insurgency is a sign of diverging interests that can only be resolved culturally within their own set of values. Similarly, military violence by Israeli forces in Lebanon has only served to demonize the role of the bigger opponent and justified the insurgency to the eyes of the public. While violence is misused tends to loose its value, it does have its timely place within the context of insurgency warfare.
To convince the population that significant force is needed against an insurgency, a credible threat from the insurgency has to be established, based on real evidence of evil doing. This approach served well the forces of Colombia in justifying their cause against the FARC internationally, as well as an unprecedented public support to end the conflict any means possible, to include military force. As a result of the doctrinal changes of military operations in Colombia, the country as a whole has improved its human rights record, and increased international investment is taking place. Through successful policies that championed the human spirit, the government of Colombia has proven that it can achieve its most priced strategic goal: getting the protracted support of the population to win the war against the insurgency.
In the past, the Colombian military believed that shear strength would make risky operations unnecessary. However, as Operation Jaque manifested, it can be devastating to the insurgency, because it tells the insurgents that its enemy is willing to use ingenious, low-cost tactics against them and willing to depend on chance and circumstances as much as they do. This reaffirmed the guerrillas of Colombia that the government forces had adopted a protracted stance based solely on the gains achieved by public opinion. Since public opinion champions these types of operations, insurgents have a steeper hill to climb. A by-product of these types of tactics is that the population is more willing to turn over insurgents living among them, as witnessed by the success of the campaign against the FARC through the payments of information leading to the capture of its leaders.
Despite superior technology at its disposal, the government of Colombia sided with similar tactics as those used by the insurgency. This doctrinal support to a new way of tactical engagement calls for a transformation in the way the military sees insurgency warfare and the way power is to be applied. In America’s involvement in foreign lands, the experience has been that it is not the weapons that men fear, but the doctrine behind their use. This suggests that our doctrine of insurgency warfare needs to be analyzed for the contemporary issues affecting public opinion today. Concepts such as “national” versus “liberation” insurgencies,25 or how to rapidly deal with emergent indigenous conflict intricacies are hardly understood by military strategists today, mainly because the doctrinal sets of values used are different –not right or wrong- than that of the enemy.
Perhaps our military tactics are too rightly based on a desired effect, driven by clear objectives; however once implemented, the effects often fall short of the best possible outcome. Future tactical operations will call for intrepid use of air power based on effects that exceed expectations, and uplift the human spirit by preventing loss of life and granting the natural desire for liberty –values we can all share. Future air interdictions will require the use of weapons that are mindful of the best effect possible; this includes a weapon that renders a human enemy target immobile while an extraction is attempted, as opposed to destroying the whole building where he or she resides, to avoid making a monument of anger and dissent among people who would have otherwise not raised arms against the American soldier. Best effect will also call for joint ops, and highly trained Air Force personnel in all areas of tactical combat, combined with mobility and ISR. Operation Jaque proved the power of ingenuity as two intelligence officers gave the biggest blow to the FARC thus far. Fighting insurgencies with conventional concepts only conduces to the enemy to adapt; the future will call for infiltrating their core and disrupting their internal trust. The effects of surgical interdictions to disrupt or guide the tactics of the enemy are priceless
Operation Check uplifted the human spirit in combat, without a single shot being fired. It did so because it prevailed at preventing the loss of human life, while at the same time bringing freedom to those who needed it. While loss of life cannot be avoided, especially when the objectives are specifically to search and destroy enemies, the effects have to be closely analyzed to come up with the best possible effect through a range of military applications. This may be easier said than done, but entire conflicts have been lost or won by the perception of the public regarding which side is more violent and threatens their right to live or be free.
How do we champion and uplift the human spirit? Conditions will arise, where good and evil are in clear opposite corners. These are opportunities, which with the minimum amount of force, can produce the greatest feats of testament that the human desire for freedom is a value shared by all. This commonality breaks through differences of cultural beliefs, party politics, or radical religious sentiment. This sense of humility in the application of military power achieves more perhaps, and in the end, it may help root out radical warriors that are assisted in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, not because the population prefer them, but because the population does not see a clear polarization of good and evil, but rather they see two evils. Uplifting the human spirit from the tactical to the doctrinal and diplomatic, will help America polarize good and evil, and it will do wonders for their efforts around the world against radical terrorist insurgency. It will transform the people who we seek the support of.
1. IKV Pax Christi (2008). Kidnapping is booming business: A lucrative political instrument for armed groups operating in conflict zones, retrieved on 6 Dec 08, from www.ikvpaxchristi.nl/files/Documenten/LA%20Colombia/Eng%20brochure_Opmaak%201.pdf
2. US Department of State (2008). Travel warning: Colombia. Retrieved on 7 Aug 08, from www.travel.state.gov
3. Cruz, G. (2007). Ex-Captive: US hostages could die in rescue. USA Today, retrieved on 02 Aug 08, from http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2007-05-19-pinchao_N.htm
4. The leadership of the FARC, composed of several regional commanders.
5. Associated Press (AP). Copters leave Venezuela for Colombian hostages. CNN, retrieved on 2 Aug 08, from http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/americas/12/28/chavez.hostages.ap/index.html?eref=ib_topstories
6. Lima, J. (2008). Unknown details of Operation Jaque told by one of its main “bishops”. El Tiempo, retrieved on 6 Jul 08 from
7. Bajak, F. (2008). Colombia rescue hinged on rebel disarray, payback. Fox News, retrieved on 2 Aug 08, from http://www.foxnews.com/wires/2008Jul03/0,4670,ColombiaHostages,00.html
8. Brittain, J. (2006). Abandoning a negotiated prisoner exchange for a military rescue attempt? Uribe further alienates Colombia’s elite. Colombia Journal, retrieved on 2 Aug 08, from http://www.colombiajournal.org/colombia246.htm
9. Golden, E. (2003). The United States Army in Afghanistan: Operation Enduring Freedom. CMH Pub 70-83-1.
10. The Army concept of “every soldier a sensor” exemplifies practices that are yet to be adopted and made part of the culture by the US Air Force.
11. Schleifer, R. (2006) Psychological operations: A new operation on an age-old art: Hezbollah versus Israel. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 29, 1-9.
12. A similar tactic, though conducted only by American-trained Pilipino forces, attempted to rescue the Burnhm family kidnapped in the Philippines in 2001. The rescue resulted in the death of M. Burnham.
13. Lima, J. (2008). Unknown details of Operation Jaque told by one of its main “bishops”. El Tiempo. Retrieved on 6 Jul 08
14. Leech, G. (2008). The significance of the deaths of the FARC leaders. Colombia Journal, retrieved from http://www.colombiajournal.org/colombia278.htm
15. Associated Press (2008). Colombia to accuse Chavez before international court. CNN News, rerieved on 2 Aug 08 from http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/americas/03/04/colombia.venezuela/index.html
16. Center for International Policy (2008). Colombia Program, retrieved on 2 Aug 2008, from http://www.cipcol.org/?cat=46
17. Gambil, G. (2006). Implications of the Israel-Hezbollah war. Middle East Monitor. Vol 1, No. 3, retrieved from http://www.mideastmonitor.org/issues/0609/0609_2.htm
18. Lima, J. (2008). Unknown details of Operation Jaque told by one of its main “bishops”. El Tiempo, retrieved on 6 Jul 08.
19. U.S. Department of State report (2008). Country reports on human rights practices, retrieved on 6 Jul 08, from http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2007/100633.htm.
20. Markey, P. (2008). Colombia says top FARC commander killed in combat, retrieved on 6 Jul 08, from http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSN0122624520080301?feedType=RSS&feedName=worldNews.
21. Barak, F. & Sequera, V. (2008). Colombia: Chavez funding FARC rebels. ABC News, retrieved on 6 Jul 08, from http://www.abc3340.com/news/stories/0308/500934.html.
22. Metz, S. & Miller, R. (2004). Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the 21st Century: Reconceptualizing threat and response. Strategic Studies Institute. 1-43.
23. Tamayo, J. (1999). Colombian guerrilla seeks peace through war. Latin American Studies, retrieved from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/colombia/eln-war.htm
24. M-19 (1990). April 19th Movement, retrieved on 6 Jul 08, from CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/interactive/specials/0008/organization.profiles/m.19.html
25. Metz, S. & Miller, R. (2004). Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the 21st Century: Reconceptualizing threat and response. Strategic Studies Institute, 1-43.
|Capt Dylan D. Dombret, USAF (BS, Western New England College; ALM, Harvard University) is an Air Mobility Liaison Officer, McGuire AFB, New Jersey. The captain attended undergraduate navigator training at Randolph AFB, Texas. An instructor navigator with more than 100 combat missions, he has held several positions such as deputy chief of wing scheduling and squadron chief executive officer. Captain Dombret is fluent in Spanish, French, and Portuguese. He has also served as a mobility officer for a joint assistance and training team in JTF Omega (Colombia), and recently as a liaison officer for 10th MTN DIV in Iraq and 101 ABN DIV in Afghanistan. Captain Dombret is a graduate of Advanced Air mobility Operations Course and Squadron Officer School.|
Disclaimer : The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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