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Last Updated:1/16/02
"Washington's Role," by Adam Isacson and Ingrid Vaicius, Semana magazine, January 13, 2002

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Washington's role

By Adam Isacson and Ingrid Vaicius
Center for International Policy, Washington

Two years ago, when the United States was debating the $1.3 billion "Plan Colombia" aid package, we often heard a curious argument: "military aid will speed negotiations by forcing the FARC to negotiate in good faith." Yet instead of moving faster, the peace process has collapsed. While U.S. military aid alone didn't cause the talks to break off, the Pastrana peace process offers important lessons for Washington's future actions in Colombia.

Last Tuesday, Ambassador Patterson delivered fourteen Blackhawk helicopters to the Colombian Army. It is important to remember that the Blackhawks and other weapons the United States has donated are counter-drug assistance. This means that, should Colombia return to "total war," U.S. law forbids the use of these helicopters and other grant aid to fight the FARC.

It is possible, though, that hard-liners in Washington may view a breakdown in the talks as a green light to change these weapons' purpose, and to send more weapons and more U.S. advisors to Colombia. Many Colombians may in fact support this.

Colombians should remember, though, that they and their children - not the U.S. military - would be doing the fighting and dying with those donated weapons. If Colombia returns to "total war," the human cost may exceed anything the country has seen before. We believe that the peace talks reduced somewhat the intensity of the violence. The FARC, with 17,000 armed fighters and hundreds of millions of dollars in income, is clearly capable of far more than kidnappings, occasional attacks on isolated towns, and blowing up pipelines. Meanwhile, the military has dramatically increased its capacities during the past three years. A return to total war could multiply the number of Colombians killed, and bring the country's economy to its knees. The United States should not be writing checks to make this possible.

The solution is ultimately up to Colombians. And it should begin by viewing the latest events not as the end of a process, but the end of a model.

The last three years have shown that Colombians can no longer manage the talks by themselves. It is unreasonable to expect two small, isolated groups of negotiators to overcome a history of distrust and animosity and make progress on their own. The talks need to re-start with a mediator who can keep negotiators on a timetable and focused on the topic at hand, instead of endless arguing over preconditions. The United Nations is able to play this mediating role, and the United States should encourage it to do so.

More U.S. weaponry will not bring back the peace process. All of Washington's efforts should now be directed at getting the talks restarted as soon as possible, under a more workable model. The United States is already occupied enough with other military missions; it cannot afford to become more deeply entangled in Colombia's conflict.

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