The friendly, fraternal, and mutually supportive relationship between Colombia and the United States is longstanding. It dates back to 1950, when the South American nation joined the United Nations multinational forces under the leadership of the U.S. Army to face North Korea during the Korean War.
Since then, the partner nations have continued to forge bonds through combined cooperation efforts, exercises, and operations to ensure regional security and stability. So much so, that Colombian Army Brigadier General Juan Pablo Forero leads the Exercises and Coalition Affairs directorate at U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) since August 2017.
It’s the first time a general officer from the military forces of a partner nation joins SOUTHCOM's joint staff. Diálogo spoke with Brig. Gen. Forero to address his role and other issues.
Diálogo: For SOUTHCOM to choose a general officer from a partner nation to head one of its directorates says a lot about combined efforts. Why is this an important milestone, and what message does it send to partner nations? Also, what does it say about U.S.-Colombian relations?
Colombian Army Brigadier General Juan Pablo Forero, director of Exercises and Coalition Affairs at U.S. Southern Command: First of all, I want to say that I completely agree with that, but it's fundamentally based on the confidence the United States has in Colombia and in other nations in the region. That’s one of SOUTHCOM’s goals: to build trust and gain the confidence of these nations. Such confidence is not won overnight, or from one day to the next. Trust is built through exchanges—through relationships—and such relationships need to be maintained over time through long-term policies, so that this union among our nations will continue to grow. For Colombia, the United States has been a source of unwavering support. SOUTHCOM has always been there whenever Colombia needed it. We’ve been at war for more than 50 years, and SOUTHCOM always assisted us. But the most important thing is that Colombia repaid the support we received in every area. Colombia showed results. Colombia demonstrated that it emerged from years of heavy crisis—very difficult years at the end of the 90s—and now serves as an example for the region. It’s an example of how you can break free from a struggle—a war—and still maintain relations even in the middle of a conflict. Finally, I’d like to say that one decisive factor in our relationship was when President [Andrés] Pastrana and President [Bill] Clinton of the United States implemented Plan Colombia, between 2000 and 2001. Plan Colombia brought our two countries even closer, and the result of Plan Colombia was that Colombia once again began to be seen differently. Prior to Plan Colombia, we were seen as a failed democracy with too many problems. But with help from Plan Colombia and the European Union, we moved past that and built tremendous trust in the region.
Diálogo: The [J7/9] Exercises and Coalition Affairs directorate manages some of SOUTHCOM’s core focus areas, including exercises, trainings, humanitarian aid, and integration, among others. How will you leverage your experience in the Colombian Army to offer a new perspective on the [SOUTHCOM’s] formula? Why is it important for a partner nation’s perspective to be included in that formula?
Brig. Gen. Forero: The fact that Colombia has always been an ally of the United States makes my job easier, because we’re used to working with SOUTHCOM. In the various leadership positions that I recently held, I had the opportunity to receive visits from SOUTHCOM, from U.S. Army South. As commander of the Rapid Deployment Force in Macarena [Colombia], I welcomed the commander of U.S. Army South, the director of the CIA, FBI staff, and members of U.S. Congress who all came to see how the funds they provide to different countries—in my case, Colombia—are used. That gives you a sense of what it’s like. I don’t come to SOUTHCOM with my eyes closed. I know how we can assist other nations that don't receive the same level of support because they don't have the same problems we do. But as soon as I begin doing my work here, I’ll be able to speak up and help other nations so they can get the same level of support. That experience allowed me to hold my job and still be able to remain on both sides. First, as director of Exercises and Coalition Affairs, where I have a lot of responsibility in this command, running the entire program of exercises and training events; and second, through coalition affairs, with all that involves assisting with emergency situations, providing humanitarian aid, [and responding to] natural disasters. Colombia also suffered such disasters. We have that experience, and we created a series of units that can be replicated in other countries. In my job here, apart from being in charge of exercises, training, and coalition affairs, I’m also responsible for the third line of the command’s efforts, which is rapid response. And we can look at rapid response from various standpoints. Some nations, due to natural causes, are always going to be the ones to suffer, but there are other nations that also suffered but built up their capacities. This is something that SOUTHCOM can leverage, enlisting these nations in support of others, which lack those capacities and are limited by such constraints. We also have countries like Chile, Peru, Brazil, and Colombia that developed a lot of capacity for natural disasters, and at SOUTHCOM we can request their assistance when it's our turn to deal with a disaster or assist other nations—for example, in the Caribbean, where they don't have the same capacities. Deploying such capabilities in other nations builds trust and brings us closer. When we go to the Caribbean during hurricane season, we build trust. We come with solutions; and at the same time, they believe in us. The latest example is Argentina—a nation we can count on once again and that’s been heavily integrating in recent years—and its unfortunate case with the ARA San Juan submarine in the Atlantic. The United States and SOUTHCOM gave their full support to Argentina, providing technical assistance using cutting-edge technology—first to rescue potential survivors, and later to locate and salvage the submarine. This built incredible trust between the two countries. It’s one way we can carry out the mission at SOUTHCOM.
Diálogo: That is why your perspective gains greater importance, because of the experience that Colombia brings—from that perspective—and now from the perspective of other nations. It seems to be a key element to be able to talk with other nations and come closer together through trust.
Brig. Gen. Forero: I have the benefit of seeing these problems from a different point of view. We always see SOUTHCOM as an organization with all the capabilities and potential to assist in all areas. But now that I’m here, I’m able to observe that, sometimes, there are also certain difficulties—but what matters most is to be willing to assist our nations.
Diálogo: What do you expect to take away from this experience as a lesson learned when you return to Colombia?
Brig. Gen. Forero: First of all, I want to help and contribute to achieving SOUTHCOM’s objectives. That’s the essential duty of every service member. Being able to carry out and complete the assigned mission in the time set. For me, it’s about completing the mission that I’ve been assigned here by SOUTHCOM, which is based quite directly on exercises: how to improve exercises; how to make sure exercises bring us into greater integration; and how to ensure that through these exercises, we bring in even more people, all extremely important. What will I take away from this? An awful lot, an awful lot. When I leave, I’ll return to my country with a better view of things. I’ll be able to have better relationships with the United States and with the various other nations, as I interact with a lot of countries here. That’s really important to me: at the end of this year, bringing back and replicating all the lessons that I might learn here—the way to do planning and procedures. Often, due to the resource limitations we face back in our countries, we do short-term planning: one or two years, maximum. But this helps me see that we can plan even more. In Colombia, we've been rolling out a transformation process since 2011, and that transformation process is vital to our military forces. I’d like to assist with that transformation process when I return to Colombia, bringing different ways of planning, and helping to use our resources better so that we can meet our transformation goal. Because transformations take place to change what needs changing—improve what needs improving—but certain processes that usually work well should continue as they are. You want to have everything that's available here, but you have to be realistic when you get back to Colombia and know that, at times, there are some constraints. For other things, we have all the assistance needed, and that’s how I’ll be able to leverage what I learned here to the maximum in my country.
Diálogo: What do you think your greatest challenge is in fulfilling your mission for exercises and coalition affairs?
Brig. Gen. Forero: I think that my position at SOUTHCOM not only opens up opportunities for Colombia, but also for the region. My main challenge here is, first of all, quickly immersing myself in procedures and learning a lot. Although we’re all armies or military forces, some procedures are different. That would be the challenge: delving into a process where there’s already vast knowledge and power, while advising, supporting, and facilitating so these things can be carried out. And with the experience from my country and the region, that's going to be wide-ranging. The challenge is to learn really fast so that I can develop or leverage all my capabilities to benefit the region.
Diálogo: How do you think your presence in the J7/9 leadership will open up new inroads in SOUTHCOM’s interactions with partner nations?
Brig. Gen. Forero: My presence here, as I’ve said, is a vote of confidence—in this case, a vote for Colombia—but it’s also a vote of confidence for the region, showing that SOUTHCOM knows and understands the capabilities our military forces have. That’s my reason for being here. It’s like a nudge to other countries, getting us to realize that what we do is being seen here at SOUTHCOM. First, my presence serves to support, assist with, and mainstream certain things, and help others in their countries. But it also builds trust that the United States and SOUTHCOM help in various areas, driven by a commitment to make the region more secure, with acceptable security levels and democratic authorities acting without detriment to sustainable economic development.
This experience is a laboratory. It’s an experiment that perhaps can be replicated in the rest of the U.S. combatant commands. I’m the first one to take part in an experiment of association and collaboration among partner nations. Who knows whether, through my performance, the Pacific Command or European Command will want to include partner nations from their respective areas of responsibility in their directorates to improve relations and mutual collaboration. We pave the way to serve as an example in the future.
Diálogo: Would you like to share anything else with Diálogo’s readers?
Brig. Gen. Forero: Finally, I think I’d like to take this opportunity to send a message of gratitude—a message of brotherhood and friendship—to all nations of the region, because with the situations we face, all our nations have a great responsibility and make an immense contribution. All of our military forces are as one. Our military forces are the bastion for each of our nations. I want to congratulate them for their dedication and hard work in that important role, which is so essential in each of their nations.