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"Colombia's Cheap War," by Adam Isacson, The Washington Post, April 2, 2002
Colombia's Cheap War

By Adam Isacson

Tuesday, April 2, 2002; Page A15

With peace talks broken down, Colombia has plunged into all-out war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), one of the world's largest and most brutal insurgencies. Washington's response is a bipartisan rush to offer "counterterror" aid to Colombia's military, essentially putting the drug war on hold.

A supplemental funding request now before Congress would radically broaden the U.S. mission in Colombia, lifting all restrictions on U.S. military assistance to target the FARC. It would be a grave mistake, though, to change our mission in Colombia so hastily. The risks are far greater than in other second-tier "war on terrorism" countries such as the Philippines, Georgia and Yemen.

True, terror is a tool of the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army, as well as of the rightist paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. But these groups are larger and quite unlike the enemies the United States has confronted since Sept. 11. Unlike al Qaeda or Abu Sayyaf, Colombia's irregulars have nearly 40,000 members between them, control significant amounts of the countryside and have long histories. Counterterrorism in Colombia would require a strong dose of counterinsurgency, an area in which Washington's record is decidedly mixed.

The success or failure of counterterrorism (or counterinsurgency) will depend heavily on what the Colombians themselves do. U.S. military aid can make a difference only if Colombia satisfies two very hard-to-meet conditions.

The first is that Colombia break all links with the paramilitaries and get serious about stopping them. The United Self-Defense Forces are responsible for the vast majority of the more than 4,000 noncombatants killed in Colombia's war last year. Yet the State Department's March 4 human rights report reminds us that "members of the security forces sometimes illegally collaborated with paramilitary forces" throughout 2001. A well-documented pattern persists of military personnel aiding and abetting paramilitaries while evading investigations or prosecutions. This gives strong reason to fear that expanded U.S. assistance could support units and officers tied to the terrorists of the right.

The second condition demands that Colombia contribute dramatically more to its own war effort. Washington alone cannot help a country of 40 million people, with an area 53 times that of El Salvador, whose 150,000-member army can deploy only some 40,000 troops into battle. (The rest are at desk jobs or guarding vulnerable infrastructure.) This force would need to triple or quadruple to take on the insurgents effectively.

It is still unclear whether Colombia will make the necessary sacrifices. Colombian law excludes conscripts with high school degrees -- that is, all but the poor -- from service in combat units. The World Bank's figures show that Colombians pay only 10.1 percent of GDP in taxes -- half the U.S. figure and far from the 40 percent that Americans spent on taxes and war bonds during World War II. Bogota spends only 1.97 percent of GDP on defense, leaving a huge gap to fill.

The need goes far beyond defense spending. Colombia's war has deep social and economic roots, and ending it means improving the civilian government's ability to provide basic services. Even if Colombia meets both conditions, most U.S. aid must help Colombia meet its nonmilitary needs.

The danger is that Colombia will satisfy neither condition. Instead of sacrifice and mobilization, Bogota may choose a cheaper, less demanding course of action: giving free rein to the paramilitaries.

The 14,000-strong Self-Defense Forces have more than tripled in size since 1998, and their leaders, riding a wave of drug profits and donations from wealthy Colombians, are pledging to double again in a year. The guerrillas' behavior has increased the death squads' political acceptance. The candidate leading polls for the May presidential elections, hard-liner Alvaro Uribe, is promising to arm a million more civilians. On a February visit, I heard several reports of paramilitaries gathering townspeople and instructing them to vote for Uribe.

The paramilitary option tempting many Colombians may promise low-cost victory over the guerrillas -- but only after a bloodbath whose proportions will shock the world. And any peace that might follow would be very short indeed.

If Bogota embarks on a good-faith war and a good-faith peace effort, taking on all armed groups -- right or left -- U.S. support will be indispensable. If Colombians simply unleash the death squads, though, military aid will only add to the horror. Before rushing to expand its mission, the United States must be certain that it understands which path Colombia has chosen.

The writer coordinates the Colombia project of the Washington-based Center for International Policy.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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