New Plan for Colombia," by CIP Senior Associate Adam Isacson, The
Financial Times (UK), February 8, 2001
A new plan for Colombia
The Bush administration
should rethink the US's misguided and dangerous anti-narcotics policy
in the Andes, says Adam Isacson
7 2001 20:13GMT | Last Updated: February 7 2001 20:17GMT
Before plunging more
deeply into Colombia's bloody conflict, the incoming administration of
President George W. Bush has a chance to stop, take a deep breath and
consider a better course of action.
Colombia is the single
biggest threat to regional stability: fuelled by the drug trade, a 40-year-old
war is escalating rapidly. On average, 12 people die every day in the
conflict between government forces, leftwing guerrillas and rightwing
paramilitaries. The hemisphere's fourth most populous country needs international
help. But little help will come from the strategy President Bill Clinton's
foreign policy has left behind.
This strategy centres
on a billion-dollar aid package pushed through Congress last year. Three-quarters
is for Colombia's security forces, mostly for a military offensive called
the "push into southern Colombia". US Special Forces and private
contractors are creating three 900-man battalions in the Colombian army.
Equipped with sophisticated helicopters, the units are to keep the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), the most powerful leftwing guerrilla
group, from endangering anti-drug activities - especially aerial herbicide
spraying - in a key coca-growing area.
To fulfil their mission,
the battalions must clear the Farc from a zone it has controlled for 20
years. For the first time, US-aided units, funded by US taxpayers, will
go on the offensive against Colombian guerrillas.
The plan has little
inter-national support. Enthusiasm is also dwindling in Washington. Critics
of all political stripes point out the folly of sending units into a crucial
stronghold of the largest, best-equipped insurgency movement in Latin
American history. Many worry about military escalation and entanglement
if the "push" fails. Human rights activists cite military impunity
and collaboration with murderous paramilitary groups. Peace advocates
lament the damage the military aid is doing to the government's talks
with the Farc, which are currently suspended. Drug policy experts warn
that the strategy will merely move coca cultivation elsewhere.
The Bush team should
begin by abandoning the notion that military offensives can solve Colombia's
crisis. Helping Colombia will require a series of responses as complex
as the crisis itself. Some will be politically costly, few will bring
quick results and most will depend on international co-operation.
A consensus exists
in Washington that aid must help Colombia's government assert its authority.
This is a good starting point but a poor rationale for massive military
aid. Strengthening a democratic state means increasing the legitimacy
and effectiveness of its civilian institutions, from judges and legislators
to anti-poverty agencies and human rights defenders.
Military aid is risky,
often leaving behind arms and skills later used to subvert democracy or
violate human rights. It must be accompanied by close public oversight
and strict human rights conditions. Instead of funding offensives, it
should help improve management, modernise doctrine, increase respect for
civilian authority and fight impunity.
Instead of spraying
peasants' crops of coca, the plant from which cocaine is produced - a
policy under which the total area under coca cultivation has increased
dramatically in recent years - police aid should focus on stopping the
traffickers, kingpins and money-launderers who reap most of the profits.
Aid must create legal
economic opportunities in Colombia's coca zones. Coca production and violent
conflict have a common origin in the economic desperation of rural Colombians.
Yet last year's aid package provided more alternative-development funds
to Bolivia than to Colombia, now the world's biggest coca producer.
Without US drug users'
money, Colombia's conflict would probably have died out long ago. Yet
US programmes to reduce demand remain starved of resources.
Washington must encourage
Colombia to confront the paramilitaries and their powerful benefactors.
It must offer more frequent shows of support to human rights defenders,
who work under constant threat.
efforts deserve greater diplomatic, technical and financial assistance.
US officials must cease their public criticism of the Colombian government's
peace overtures and accept Bogota's invitation to meet guerrilla groups
involved in talks. In addition, the international community must demand
more sacrifice from Colombia's elites, who pay few taxes by US or European
It is a critical
time for Colombia's future. Andres Pastrana, Colombia's president, is
today expected to meet Manuel Marulanda, the Farc leader, in talks about
the peace process. US policy plays a critical role in that process. For
the Bush administration, it is still not too late to reinvent the counterproductive
policy it has inherited. There is still time to start afresh in Colombia.
The writer is a senior
associate at the Center for International Policy, a lobby group that campaigns
for democratic US foreign policy
As of February 9,
2001, this document was also available online at http://news.ft.com/ft/gx.cgi/ftc?pagename=View&c=Article&cid=FT3TZQ5HXIC&live=true