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Demystifying Gray Zone Conflict: A Typology of Conflict Dyads and Instruments of Power in Colombia, 2002-present


This case study elucidates the dynamics of Gray Zone conflict with particular emphasis on the role of nonstate actors. It does so through a detailed examination of the most recent phase (2002-present) of Colombia’s internal conflict (1964-present). More specifically, this research analyzes conflict dyads occurring between different types of conflict actors. It further examines which types of dyads leverage which instruments of power and to what extent activities are Gray versus Black or White across each type of dyad and instrument of power. Consequently, this research will help practitioners determine which instruments of power warrant careful consideration in Gray Zone conflicts depending on the types of actors engaged in conflict. This investigation will also aid Special Operations Forces in determining which types of belligerents may make effective partners and which instruments of power they should train and equip these partners to implement.

This research substantially bounds the scope of what needs to be considered by state forces operating in these environments. Specifically, the analysis shows that aggregating by actor-type is effective and that actors of the same type (e.g. leftist insurgents) behave very similarly. Moreover, it reduces the number of instruments of power that need to be considered for each type of conflict dyad. Even though five of the six types of conflict dyads entail multiple instruments of power, and the most complex dyad (government versus insurgents) involves six of the seven instruments, the average type of conflict dyad includes just 2.5 of the seven instruments.

Furthermore, this analysis demonstrates that Colombia’s conflict is Gray. While, Gray Zone dynamics also include White and Black activities, five (Government versus Insurgents, Government versus BACRIM Syndicates, Insurgents versus Insurgents, Insurgents versus Paramilitaries, and Insurgents versus BACRIM Syndicates) of the six types of dyads involve Gray activities. Gray Zone activities are especially prominent in four (Government versus Insurgents, Insurgents versus Insurgents, Insurgents versus Paramilitaries, and Insurgents versus BACRIM Syndicates) of these cases. The only dyad (Government versus Paramilitaries) that did not include Gray activities was extremely short-lived and involved the paramilitaries quickly acquiescing to government pressure to demobilize.

While the approach adopted by this research entails myriad advantages, readers should be cautioned that Gray Zone conflicts are extremely complex. Practitioners ought to consider how an intervention against one type of conflict actor might affect other types of belligerents. Only by doing so will they avoid negative externalities such as inadvertently strengthening other combatants. Moreover, commanders must recognize that the successful use of certain tactics by the state or their proxies within one instrument of power (e.g. military), can have profound effects on the efficacy of their opponent’s use of other instruments (e.g. informational). Finally, this case provides numerous examples of government forces collaborating with various, violent non-state actors. While Special Operations Forces are especially well positioned to do so, this requires extensive situational awareness at the micro-level. Alliances are fleeting and the willingness to cooperate with Special Operations Forces varies both over space and time.

Publication Information

Full Citation:

Koven, Barnett S. “Demystifying Gray Zone Conflict: A Typology of Conflict Dyads and Instruments of Power in Colombia, 2002-present,” Report to DHS S&T Office of University Programs and DoD Strategic Multilayer Assessment Branch. College Park, MD: START, 2016. https://www.start.umd.edu/pubs/START_ColombiaGrayZoneConflictCaseStudy_November2016.pdf

START Author(s):