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Last Updated:3/20/00
Dissenting view of Rep. David Obey in House Committee Report 106-521 on H.R. 3908, March 14, 2000
Most Americans know that Colombia is a major exporter of illegal drugs. But many do not know that illegal drug trafficking is only one of the serious problems facing that country. Colombia has suffered for more than 50 years from periods of political chaos and extreme violence. It has by far the highest murder rate in the world and military conflicts account for only a portion of the murders. It has not one but two major leftist guerrilla movements that control major portions of the nation's land area. It has armed terrorist right-wing para-militaries that like the guerrillas derive significant funds from drug trafficking, kidnapping and other illegal activities. It has a population deeply divided along racial, social and economic lines. Adding greatly to the complexity of Colombia's difficulties is the fact that all of these problems are deeply intertwined with one another.

There are a number of things that the United States can do to reduce drug trafficking in Colombia and increase the opportunities for Colombians to build a safer and more lawful society that do not inject the United States into the middle of the long standing social and economic conflicts in that country and do not risk an ever widening U.S. commitment. Some of those things are contained in this package. The approximately $200 million for monitoring and interdiction of narco-air traffic offers by far the greatest hope for reducing the flow of drugs to the United States and Europe and reducing revenues to the guerrilla movements, the para-militaries and various other criminal elements. It turns the difficult terrain of that country to the advantage of those wishing to stop the sale of drugs rather than to the advantage of those who wish to sell them.

But the $522 million appropriated in this bill for the creation and support of three elite infantry battalions in the Colombian Army could have exactly the opposite effect. It is unlikely to have significant impact on drug trafficking, and it will inject the United States into a whole range of internal Colombian issues, which we as a nation neither fully understand nor have the ability, on our own, to control. Furthermore, the executive branch and the House Republican leadership are asking the Congress to place the country on this course without full hearings or an informed and deliberate debate. Neither the Armed Services, the Foreign Relations, the Intelligence nor the Appropriations Committees have had the opportunity to hold the type of hearings that would in my opinion represent minimum due diligence for a decision of this magnitude.

It is true that Colombia is an important country. Its peace, stability and prosperity have an important effect on all of Central and South America and they are important to U.S. national interests. Colombia now has a President who is saying and apparently trying to do the right things after years of governments in that country that did mostly the wrong things. But it would be a grave mistake for us to fail to differentiate between the national leader and the country he is attempting to lead. An alliance between President Pastrana and the United States cannot defeat the FARC, cannot stop the drug traffic, cannot stop the violence by paramilitaries and other criminal organizations and cannot bring peace, security and prosperity to Colombia. Only the Colombian people can do that.

I do not know whether the people of that country are ready to do all or any of the things we envisage for them. The true level of resolve among the bankers, businessmen, landowners, middle class professionals, or peasants in Colombia to undertake this battle is not easy to determine. If they are fully committed there would be excellent prospects for success. But if this is a situation where we are training and supplying a military force that in the end receives more support from us than the country it represents, we are crossing a line today that will be remembered for many years. It is a line we have crossed before and almost always with deep regret.

While I do not know the degree to which Colombians are committed to the course that this appropriation presumes they should take, there are some troubling signs. Ralph Peters, a retired U.S. Army Officer who served in the Andes and in the Office of National Drug Control Policy wrote in the Washington Post recently:

Does the Colombian government--feckless, corrupt

and inconstant--deserve our help to survive *** Plenty of

Colombians profit from the disorder and do not really want the

rule of law. They only want a little more room to maneuver.

Expatriate Colombians, lolling on Florida beaches or shopping

in Madrid, would be perfectly willing to fight to the last

American G.I.

I don't know how to square the argument that Colombia is ready to shoulder this burden with the fact that they have recently signed an agreement with the IMF to cut back on military expenditures. I don't know

how to square that argument with the fact that neither the

elites of Colombia nor their upper-middle class counterparts will be

represented in either the officer or enlisted ranks of these new

battalions. I certainly don't understand how to square it with the fact

that more than half of the Colombian Army is exempt by law from serving

in a combat situation by virtue of the fact that they hold a high school


There are some in the administration and in the Speaker's Office who would say that we have no choice but to move forward with this package at this time. President Pastrana has taken risks. He is in a precarious situation. He must have our support. If that is true, then it immediately raises a second question. What if we go forward with this package, train and equip these 3,000 Colombian troops and they get the devil beaten out them by the 15,000 FARC running around in the same jungle in Eastern and Southern Colombia to which they are being deployed? What will be the options before the Congress and the American people then?

If we have a difficult choice today how much difficult will it be after a military defeat of the force we have trained and equipped. Will we drop President Pastrana or his successor like a hot potato. Will we train another brigade to take the place of the one that was lost and let it face the possibility of the same fate? Or will we up the ante? Pastrana or his successor will at that point have taken even greater risks at our urging and direction, and will be even more politically vulnerable as a result. The dilemma we face today is a relatively simple one compared to the one we would face, if our new units are less successful than the optimists who favor this policy are predicting. If you don't wish to face the dilemma you might want to vote to take a little more time in providing this money because the prospects for one or more of these units being mauled appears to be significant.

The FARC are by all accounts the best-armed and equipped guerilla force in modern history. They have better uniforms, better weapons and better pay than the Colombian army. An article published in Janes Intelligence Review a little more than a year ago described an encounter between the 52nd Counter-Guerilla Battalion and two FARC units in Caqueta during the spring of 1998. As the Colombian Army units approached the FARC they:

* * * determined their speed and direction and set

up a ``U''-shaped trap around an opening in the jungle and

occupied all of the high ground and crestlines. They drew the

army battalion into the mouth of the `U' and then sealed the

open end. * * * Outside this ring the guerillas set up a

second echelon consisting of ambushes against both aircraft

and ground forces. Between Sunday March 1 and Tuesday March 3,

the guerillas launched vicious assaults against the army

troops in the trap. Using mortars, machine guns, rocket

launchers and small arms, the guerillas pounded the army unit

until it effectively ceased to exist.

Jane's concluded that the FARC have rapidly developed new operational capabilities. These include:

The capability to attack and overrun small and

medium garrisons.

The ability to directly confront and defeat army

units in open combat.

The capability to simultaneously mass large units

against multiple targets around the country.

They are a long way from being capable of

overthrowing the government. They are, however, in a position

of strength in terms of demanding favorable political terms.

Some degree of territorial autonomy seems to be prominent in

both the FARC and the ELN's thinking.

Before we provide these funds we need to decide exactly what we want the three hundred men we are going to train to do with respect to the 15,000 to 25,000 rebels in the FARC and the ELN. According to the best information we have available, they will be assigned to patrol two of the ten provinces that lie in Colombia's portion of the Amazon Jungle Basin. Those two provinces alone occupy and area of more than 40,000 square miles, an area almost the size of Pennsylvania, an area that is virtually without roads, an area that in covered with a dense jungle canopy.

If we succeeded in driving the FARC out of those two provinces, what would we have accomplished, politically in behalf of Colombia, or in terms of reducing drug supplies? There will be 150,000 to 200,000 square miles of Colombian Jungle left--an area about the size of California. And that entire area is merely a fraction of the entire Amazon Jungle Basin that covers significant portions of not only Columbia but Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Bolivia as well. What we may actually be doing is forcing a massive deforestation of successive sectors of the rain forest as we push coca growers from one region to the next.

Currently, neither the FARC nor the ELN have a strong base among the peasants they claim to represent in most of the populated areas of Colombia. But, we may very well change that with a counter insurgency operation run out of Washington, D.C. If the Colombians truly want to shoulder the burden of forcing these organizations to the table, we should help them. But we will make a terrible and tragic mistake to get out in front of the people of Colombia in solving this problem.

Finally I would point out that Plan Colombia is a six-year plan. Only last week the Pentagon laid out their understanding of the military aspects of the plan. Phase I will take the first two years and will be concentrated in Putamayo and Caqueta. Phase II will be during years three and four and will focus on the rest of the South Eastern Colombia and in the Central Jungle Areas. Phase III will be focused on the Northwestern Provinces where the overwhelming portion of the population resides. We may or may not know the price tag for the first year, but as far as I know there are no estimates for the cost for the whole six years. To assume that it will take only six years is to assume that everything will go as planned. Does anybody think they have a responsibility to have at least some ballpark estimate of how much we are going to have to spend over the next decade if we obligate ourselves to this course of action?

There are good pieces in this package. The air interdiction can and I believe will be quite effective both in reducing FARC revenues and reducing drug traffic. The assistance in institution building can be very positive if it is effectively executed. Efforts to make the Colombians realize that a nation of ``haves'' and total ``have-nots'' will never produce a truly stable society or reach its economic potential are extremely important. Also efforts to provide education, nutrition, housing and medical care to that nation's poor are essential to any real or lasting change. But we should think very carefully about the path that calls for us to train and equip a counter-guerrilla military brigade. It certainly should not be decided in a bum's rush to act first and ask questions later.

It is not enough to say that Madeline Albright, or Thomas Pickering, or General McCaffery is convinced that this is the right thing to do--or that the Speaker favors this. The Constitution requires that each member of Congress must make that judgement, and if you feel that you do not have the information to make the right judgement, you should demand that this decision be delayed until you have sufficient information to make that judgement.

The amendment I offered in Committee would have deferred consideration of this matter until we bring the regular bills to the floor--hopefully in June. (See Committee Rollcall Vote No. 1 on page 63 of the Report) If no action is taken by the House on this matter by July 15, my amendment would have brought the matter immediately to the floor under an expedited procedure. Whether we resolve this in April or July will not in my judgement materially affect President Pastrana's ability to move the peace process forward. It will on the other hand greatly affect our ability to understand exactly what obligations we are making on behalf of the American people before we make them.

Dave Obey.

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