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Colombia and South Carolina Envision Future

At a crossroads in a 52-year conflict, Colombia looks to its National Guard partner for lessons in developing Citizen-Soldiers
MG Robert E. Livingston, Jr. (second from right) participates in a panel discussion during the Colombian Army Transformation Symposium in Bogota, Colombia on Aug. 5, 2016. Photo by SGT Brian Calhoun
MG Robert E. Livingston, Jr. (second from right) participates in a panel discussion during the Colombian Army Transformation Symposium in Bogota, Colombia on Aug. 5, 2016. Photo by SGT Brian Calhoun

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA Amid a ceasefire in a 52-year war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia is looking to the future. With a potential peace agreement ahead, the democratic government hosted senior leaders from the South Carolina National Guard, its State Partnership Program (SPP) ally, at the Colombian Army Transformation Symposium in August. The purpose: Discuss the advantages and challenges of developing a robust reserve component. 

The challenge is real, but the opportunity is great. 

Colombia’s war with FARC goes back to the 1960s and has resulted in the deaths of more than 220,000 people. Although the Colombian people voted down the initial peace accord on Oct. 2, the ceasefire with FARC remains in effect and negotiations are expected to continue. Upon approval of an agreement, the Colombian military would transition from a wartime to a peacetime force. By developing a reserve component force, the South American country could maintain military capability at a fraction of the former cost. 

At the Colombian Army Transformation Symposium, Major General Robert E. Livingston Jr., adjutant general of South Carolina, discussed that exact possibility and shared the National Guard’s own lessons as a reserve component. The following are highlights from Livingston’s symposium talking points.

  • On sustaining relevancy: “As the peace process begins, your call to action and fight will be reduced. However, natural disasters, external threats and even the possibility of internal threat will continue to exist.”
  • On community integration: “A reserve force lives and works in all of our communities, creating a lasting bond. Allowing this reserve to be responsive to local needs and priorities will strengthen already existing trust and partnerships.”
  • On Citizen-Soldiers: “When you demonstrate to the Soldier the value of staying in the reserves and sharing how that translates to employers, it is a win for everyone.” 
  • On military capability: “It must be a capable fighting force. … Our Reserve forces are held to the same standards as our Active forces. … We are completely interchangeable in war.”
  • On the support of the people: “The strength of a democracy is always the will of the people. Above all, we must remember this important fact.”

Through the SPP, the South Carolina National Guard will be available to assist the Colombian military during this transitional time. Partners since 2012, South Carolina and Colombia have conducted more than 50 engagements together this year alone, on topics covering law, disaster response, maintenance programs and more.

U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel David King, SPP director, says that is exactly why the program was founded.

“The purpose of the program is to look at different techniques and training methods we use here in the United States that they can adopt in Colombia, and to talk about what they do in Colombia to see if it is applicable here,” King says. 

He added that the goal is for the program to continue to expand. 

“Previously, our engagements have been military-to-military,” King says. “However, this year we are looking to move to military-to-civilian collaborations.”

SPP goals reflect an international affairs mission for the National Guard to interact with both the active and reserve forces of foreign nations, interagency partners and international nongovernmental organizations. This evolving mission emphasizes the Guard’s unique state and federal characteristics. 

These collaborations will be more important than ever as the Colombian military looks to transition to a reserve force.