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Deepening U.S. Military Involvement


On the Eve of an Expanded War: The Final Hours Before Uribe Assumes the Colombian Presidency and the Deepening U.S. Military Involvement

* President-elect Alvaro Uribe's combative warrior rhetoric is contributing to increased violence and military tension on the eve of his August 7 presidential inauguration

* Washington makes a fateful decision that could lead to a deepened military involvement in Colombia under the cover of an anti-terrorist exercise

* Despite indications of Bogotá's already inept handling of the war on drugs-including a GAO report criticizing Plan Colombia as well as revelations of the defalcation of $2 million in U.S. assistance-Congress has removed the firewall for using U.S. aid and training to fund counter-insurgency and has approved additional funds for a widened war

* As Washington and Bogotá prepare for an all-out assault on the leftwing FARC, rightwing paramilitary organizations, responsible for the majority of Colombia's human rights violations, continue their reign of terror almost unnoticed and unhindered

* Regional critics protest U.S. involvement in the Colombian civil war, claiming that preparation for a multinational military intervention in the conflict is now underway

* Some South American analysts predict the spread of violence to already turbulent Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru

The body count is rising as Colombian president-elect Alvaro Uribe Velez prepares to take office on August 7. Violence is no stranger to Colombia, where thousands routinely die each year in recurrent firefights between leftist guerrilla insurgents and rightwing paramilitaries, as well as government security forces. Over the past decade, the civil war, which has cost well over 30,000 lives, has extended its influence into every tier of society-from the wealthy and influential, whose high profiles make them prime targets for guerrilla kidnappings, to the rural poor, whose land, crops, livestock and loyalties the guerrillas and paramilitaries struggle to control.

The question remains: what will it mean in terms of an increased military role for the U.S. in that country's bitter conflict? By removing previous restraints prohibiting any involvement in Colombia's civil strife, the U.S. Congress has awarded the Pentagon a hunting license for dangerously broadening and deepening this country's role in fighting the leftist guerrillas, under the cover of furthering the war against terrorism, setting the stage for a major escalation of U.S. forces in Colombia's war.

Uribe's Campaign Platform

While outgoing president Andres Pastrana's attempts to negotiate peace with the guerrillas have had scant results during his term in office, the fiery campaign platform which first brought Uribe to prominence foreshadows a marked escalation of Colombia's civil violence. Uribe's supporters claim that his decisive 53 percent first-round election victory in May underscores a consensus in the country to root out the insurgents, but other analysts argue that this is far from the case.

Horacio Serpa, the Liberal Party candidate who received 31.7 percent of the vote, attributed his opponent's victory to the influence of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), Colombia's 15,000-member atrocity-prone paramilitary force. He accused the AUC of surreptitiously supporting Uribe, even though the latter is on record as having repeatedly denounced the rightwing vigilantes. Some Uribe adversaries insist that the vote did not accurately reflect national opinion, as only 46 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls. Whether Uribe's policies represent the desires of the majority, they will inexorably be put into place following his inauguration, with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)-his primary target-already increasing its activity in preparation for this new reality.

Uribe, whose father was killed by insurgent assassins, ran under the campaign slogan, "Firm Hand, Big Heart," and stressed the importance of taking the war to the rebels: "If we don't react immediately, our rule of law will die." Critics of Uribe's proposals (which include doubling the defensive budget in order to increase the size of Colombia's relatively small army of 50,000, augmenting U.S. monetary aid and creating a million-member armed militia) argue that his reactionary policies will further fan the flames of conflict, transforming Colombia's heated domestic civil war into a raging regional inferno, involving a number of Bogotá's neighbors.

Heating up the Conflict

The country's level of strife began to intensify several months ago. During the weeks preceding the election, leftwing guerrillas and rightwing paramilitaries stepped up their use of terror, attempting to disrupt electoral contests in rural communities, which would oppose each of their respective interests. On July 28, Colombian Caracol radio reported that a priority of the new administration would be to call up as many as 30,000 army reservists upon taking office. The FARC, meanwhile, began mobilizing almost as soon as Uribe was elected and has since increased its troop deployments in formerly guerrilla-occupied territory in anticipation of the impending assault against its forces.

The U.S. and Uribe vs. "Terrorism"

For years, Washington has opposed the FARC's leftist ideology and violent tactics, but has not been noticeably outspoken about its rightwing AUC paramilitary counterparts. Responding enthusiastically to Uribe's war hawk mentality, the Bush administration already has diverted funds from its anti-drug initiatives towards the implementation of anti-FARC operations. This development came after the White House successfully persuaded the U.S. Congress to void the firewall which previously had separated U.S. funding for the authorized drug war from U.S. tampering in the war against the guerrillas.

Washington has established that the AUC is a terrorist organization, and has acknowledged that it is responsible for upwards of 80 percent of all human rights violations in the country by placing the band on its official list of terrorist organizations. But until recently, the U.S. has avoided directly comparing the group to the FARC as a target of its concern. Consequently, it has failed to include the AUC as a potential target of Plan Colombia-possibly because of the AUC's close association with the Colombian military.

Despite undeniable evidence of collaboration between the AUC and Colombian military personnel, and flagrant human rights abuses by a number of that country's elite military units, the U.S. Congress has nonetheless agreed to modify and increase the original $1.3 billion aid program approved in July 2000 under Plan Colombia. Washington initially billed Plan Colombia as a counter-narcotics initiative, while Bogotá touted it as a mainly social program that would strengthen the state, promote democratic institutions and social justice, as well as support human rights. In fact, although Bogotá claimed that almost 3/4 of Plan Colombia's disbursements would go to strengthening the social sectors, 75 percent of the program has gone to backing the military.

Plan Colombia's Flaws

During his June visit to Washington, Uribe met with Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to request more aid under Plan Colombia, despite an unaccounted for $2 million, which the General Accounting Office (GAO) believes has been illegally expropriated by Colombian military and civilian officials.

Furthermore, a recent GAO report faulted Bogotá for failing to meet its commitments to the U.S. under Plan Colombia. The government has not provided nearly as many resources as it promised and it has yet to train pilots for 14 Black Hawk helicopters donated by the U.S. These findings have prompted Pentagon officials to request that Colombia double its current military spending levels to 7 percent of its GNP, something that Uribe may find exceedingly difficult to do, because of conflicting social demands from an increasingly alienated public.

New Counter-Terrorism Legislation

Despite these logistical concerns and disturbing revelations, the U.S. Congress was able to take advantage of generic anti-terrorist sentiment in the U.S. to accommodate Uribe's requests. Last week, President Bush signed into law HR 4775, a $28.9 billion counter-terrorism package. The controversial bill heaps together the interests of a number of nations and domestic initiatives and rescinds the provision that restricted U.S. anti-drug aid to Colombia for counter-narcotics purposes. This condition would allow funds from Plan Colombia, as well as the $625 million Andean Regional Initiative, to be funneled towards Uribe's looming counter-insurgency offensive.

The legislation also designates an additional $35 million in new aid to be used specifically against the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), a somewhat smaller leftwing rebel group. Washington describes the FARC as "the most dangerous international terrorist group based in this hemisphere," and the money it now appropriates to Colombia will go toward fighting that organization, not because it is more guilty of terrorism than the AUC, which the bill also recognizes as a terrorist organization, but because it poses a greater threat to the Colombian government and U.S. interests. Some analysts believe the AUC will receive additional funds covertly redirected by the Colombian defense ministry. On June 24, the Washington Post reported that the AUC "is still killing more Colombians than ever before," but its shift to small-scale massacres has better kept its operations off the international radar.

Unrest in the Andes

Uribe has also begun to enlist the collaboration of neighboring foreign leaders, such as Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez-another indication that the face of Colombia's civil strife is about to change. For years, the intrinsic instability of Colombia's situation has threatened to engulf its vulnerable neighbors. Refugees, drug traffickers and guerrilla forces, seeking R&R and additional territory for their tactical maneuvers, do not respect Colombia's ill-defined borders and surrounding nations are forced to deal with a conflict in which they want no part.

Although his critics accused him of associating with the FARC, Chávez has claimed to be "neutral" in Colombia's war. While he initially openly opposed Plan Colombia and refused to allow U.S. planes to fly into Venezuelan air space, in recent months, Chávez's criticism of Plan Colombia has decreased significantly. In July, Uribe's announcemed that the Venezuelan leader would be assisting his administration in the future.

Ripples in a Pond: The Violence Spreads

At a July summit in Ecuador, South American leaders met to discuss several timely issues, including their roles in Colombia's expanding war. Apparently, Chávez is not the only regional leader who is apprehensive over the spread of Colombian violence. Massive public protests dominated the conference, as local residents took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction over U.S. economic and military intervention under the leverage of the Free Trade Area of the Americas and Plan Colombia. Activists cited remarks made by a Chilean army officer who reported that a multinational military operation against the FARC was being "studied."

Regardless of whether such a military offensive materializes, the U.S.'s unrelenting financial support for Colombia's anti-insurgency forces-which will no doubt expand significantly during Uribe's presidency-means unconditional support of human rights violations and the approach of a total war across the region, as Washington flirts with repeating a new Vietnam, this time in South America.

This analysis was prepared by Andrew Blandford and Laura McGinnis of the COHA research group.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers."

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