The United States is sending one of the Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB) to Colombia to teach, advise, and assist Colombian counternarcotics forces as the country once again has seen a rise in the cultivation of illegal narcotics. 

What makes this deployment so noteworthy is that the SFABs will be working for the first time in Central and South America, something their command stated will be happening with increasing regularity. It will also be the first time that SFAB will be conducting a counternarcotics mission. 

In 2018, Colombia had 208,000 hectares of land that were growing the coca plant, which is broken down to produce cocaine. In 2019, the total of hectares dedicated to coca-growing increased to 212,000 hectares.

The American Embassy in Bogota released a statement announcing that the advanced elements of the SFAB have arrived and the deployment of troops will soon begin. 

“The U.S. Embassy and the Colombian Ministry of National Defense announce the arrival of a U.S. Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) to help Colombia in its fight against drug trafficking. The SFAB is a specialized unit of the U.S. Army formed to advise and assist operations in foreign nations. Its mission in Colombia will begin in early June and will last several months, during which it will focus its efforts primarily on the “Zonas Futuro” defined by the National Government.”

In the words of Admiral Craig Faller, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), “The SFAB mission to Colombia is an opportunity to show our mutual commitment to countering drug trafficking and supporting regional peace, respect for sovereignty, and the enduring promise of defending shared ideals and values.”

Op-Ed: Security Forces Assistance Brigades: The death of Special Forces

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In addition, the Minister of Defense of Colombia Carlos Holmes Trujillo and the Commander General of the Military Forces General Luis Fernando Navarro said that for the Colombian Government, the fight against drug trafficking is a shared priority with the United States. “This scourge is one of the main motors of the violence that affects communities, social leaders. Drug trafficking kills our farmers, destroys forests and wildlife, and contaminates Colombia’s rivers and seas.”

Reaction among the Special Forces troops, especially the 7th Special Forces Group who had a virtual monopoly on counternarcotics missions to South America since the 1980s, was about what one would expect. Part of the collective ire is self-induced although the Army, and principally the Chief of Staff, made some comments that have many SF scratching their heads.

With the ongoing wars in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Special Forces troops have been doing a preponderance of Direct Action missions, and while those are certainly within the wheelhouse of SF, they are just the tip of the iceberg. The Syrian mission among others was, and still is, a classic Unconventional Warfare (UW) type of mission tailor-made for SF — Delta and SEAL operators have also been tasked to do the job.

SFAB came into existence as a response to SF, and the entire Special Operations Force, being overtasked. SFAB was the brainchild of then-Army COS General Milley, who was himself an SF officer. SFAB would take over the conventional FID mission, while SF would retain the FID mission for SOF units. 

What was even more concerning to SOCOM troops, however, were the comments by the Army Chief of Staff, General James McConville. Back in February, McConville made the following comments about both Special Forces and SFAB drawing the ire (and deservedly so) of the SF troops. 

“Special Forces is very good at training tactical-type units. They’re very good at accompanying tactical-type units. But SFABs build a professional military force, which is different. [author’s emphasis] How do you do logistics? How do you maintain vehicles? How do you build a professional military that will provide security.”

These comments would lead anyone reading them to believe that Special Forces is an unprofessional military organization and only good for small unit actions. SF troops point to two countries, El Salvador and Colombia, as examples of countries that were about to go under and were saved by the efforts of SF. In El Salvador, SF troops (limited to just 55 advisors) completely revamped a military that had committed multiple human rights abuses. It transformed it into a “professional military force.” They were so good that the FMLN guerrillas, who were fighting against the government, insisted that SF be part of the peace process. 

SF troops are already smarting from the higher-ups who are closing the Special Forces Museum, which they feel (correctly so) is impinging on their legacy. Now another part of their legacy (the counternarcotics mission to Colombia) is now going, going, gone to the SFAB. 

And the Chief of Staff’s comments put an even unhappier face on things… Stay tuned.