Colombia’s army walked back on Tuesday part of a contentious policy to step up attacks in the country, saying it would change its pledge forms in which officers are required to list the number of criminals and militants they plan to kill, capture or force to surrender in battle.
The change came only days after The New York Times revealed the army’s new orders instructing top commanders to “double the results” of their combat operations against guerrilla, paramilitary and criminal organizations in Colombia.
The orders had unnerved some senior army officers, who said the intense pressure to carry out attacks was heightening the risk of civilian casualties and had already led to suspicious deaths by overzealous soldiers.
Colombia endured as many as 5,000 illegal killings in the mid-2000s after soldiers were pressured by their superiors to increase attacks on guerrillas fighters during the country’s civil war.
Many soldiers killed innocent peasants during that era to lift their combat numbers, sometimes even dressing up civilian victims in rebel fatigues and planting weapons near their bodies to make them look like enemy fighters.
Two years ago, the Colombian government reached a peace deal with the country’s largest rebel group — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — in an effort to end decades of conflict.
But peace has been elusive. Many Colombians opposed the peace deal, saying it was too soft on the rebels. Some armed groups never agreed to the deal, while many former guerrillas have returned to fighting.
A new government has taken over since the deal was struck, and at the start of this year, Colombian generals and colonels were gathered together and told to sign the written pledge to step up attacks again.
After the Times investigation, Maj. Gen. Nicacio Martínez Espinel, the top commander of the army, told the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo that he would withdraw the pledge required of officers.
Then on Tuesday, an army spokeswoman said the pledge would be “subject to some modifications” because of “a possible wrong interpretation” by those outside the military. She did not specify what the changes were.
In an interview with The Times last week, General Martínez acknowledged that he had issued the orders to officers to “double the results” of their operations, citing what he called a growing threat of the country’s paramilitary and guerrilla groups.
But he disputed how officers interviewed by The Times had interpreted his instructions on the pledge form, saying commanders only needed to vow to be “operationally effective.”
On Monday, Colombia’s defense minister, Guillermo Botero, released results from recent operations that indicated there had been a 33 percent surge in overall operations since mid-December, including a 124 percent increase in combat operations.
Between Dec. 11 and May 18, there were 67 deaths, up 6 percent from the same period last year; the number of those arrested increased 132 percent, to 1,713 arrests this year.
While the pledge to increase captures, kills and surrenders would be changed, the Defense Ministry indicated no change in other orders that had also worried officers.
One order apparently still in place instructs officers not to “demand perfection” in carrying out attacks, even if significant questions remain about the targets they are striking.
“You must launch operations with 60 to 70 percent credibility or exactitude,” the order says.
The orders, which all appeared this year, have already led to suspicious killings and cover-ups, according to officers interviewed by The Times.
Colombia’s military remains under investigation by prosecutors in Colombia for the series of illegal killings in the mid-2000s, known as “false positives.”
At least 1,176 members of the security forces have been convicted of crimes related to the illegal deaths, according to the government.
In an interview published Monday in El Tiempo, President Iván Duque said he did not know about the pledge form but that he had a “zero tolerance guideline for the armed forces.”
Mr. Duque said he stood by General Martínez, whom he described as having a good record.
He added, “I don’t tolerate nor will I tolerate any violation of the Constitution or the law by any member of the armed forces.”