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"A 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

Published: February 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.

Colombia's peace 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 standards.

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

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