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The Slippery Slope Approaches in Colombia


Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Memorandum to the Press
03.07
For Immediate Release
Monday, March 3rd, 2003

The Slippery Slope Approaches in Colombia

Buildup of U.S. Troops Begins:

* Washington seeks a "strong response" to the current abduction crisis in Colombia, setting the basis for an accelerated posting of U.S. military personnel to the country

* 150 U.S. Special Forces arrive, surpassing the legislative "non-emergency" limit on U.S. personnel allowed in Colombia

* After 40 years, the ongoing civil war continues unabated, with all signs pointing to further escalation and rising fatalities

* Oil concerns are a prime factor pushing the Bush Administration to wade further into an increasingly spongy South American quagmire

* Washington risks vertigo as it proceeds pell-mell in militarizing its regional diplomacy

* If the U.S. could not subdue Communist insurgency in Vietnam and is unable to liquidate al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, how will it cope with FARC in densely canopied forest and urban settings?

* With war in the Middle East approaching, and U.S. troops headed to the Philippines, can Washington's already stretched resources be over-committed to yet another long-term conflict without a sufficiently coherent exit strategy?

America is nearing the point of no return in Colombia. After years of providing an average of over half a billion dollars annually in economic and military assistance to the troubled nation, Washington is rapidly ridding itself of any restraints and is assuming a hawkish stance regarding the depth of its intervention in Colombia's internal affairs. The slippery slope of another Vietnam has never been closer in that country. By sending more troops to search for its kidnapped contract workers, Washington is providing a revealing clue as to how it will respond when its armed forces begin to experience casualties as a result of stepped-up combat there. Already, Colombian troops tracking the guerrilla column thought to have captured the missing Americans, have benefited from the intelligence and logistical leadership provided by U.S. advisors, which helped them to kill four of the rebels who may have been involved. These first few steps, involving relatively small allotments of U.S. personnel, could lead to substantially larger deployments in the future.

Faced with powerful insurgent forces, a deficient battlefield response by the Colombian military, and a growing stake in the country's crude oil, the White House may be coming around to the idea that the seemingly endless, drug-fueled civil war will need a substantial infusion of U.S. military might to push it towards a favorable outcome. But in reality this conflict and the underground narcotic economy that fuels it, most likely cannot be resolved through a blunt military adventure unless the U.S. is willing to shoulder the substantial expense, inflict massive human suffering and commit itself to further years of involvement in Colombian democratic reforms.

Also, the Bush administration would be deceiving itself if it confuses the world-class military cadres formed into the FARC and the other leftist body, the ELN, with the inept troops of Manuel Noriega's Panamanian Defense Force and Maurice Bishop's Grenadian police constabulary, which provided U.S.

armed forces with a cakewalk.

A New, Aggressive Approach

Recent events mark a new development in U.S. involvement in Colombia.

The death of one American and the capture of three contract workers represent the first employees of the U.S. government to be killed or captured in Colombia in twenty years of fighting. Three United States' congressman have voiced their desire to see a "dramatic response" to the kidnappings of American civilians by leftist rebels after a U.S. government plane crashed in the southern province of Caqueta on February 13th. As Washington commits more personnel to the region, it is increasing the certainty that such bloody encounters will not be the last in which Americans lose their lives.

Engine failure caused the single engine Cessna carrying the four American civilians contracted out by the U.S. Southern Command for anti-narcotics intelligence activity, along with one Colombian military intelligence officer, to crash in FARC-controlled territory while on route to the provincial capital of Florencia. Shortly after the crash, the bodies of one American ex-military officer and one Colombian were found with bullet wounds to the head and chest. Although President Bush at first described their deaths as "clearly an execution," U.S. officials later determined, based on an initial autopsy, that at least one of the deceased was in fact killed while attempting to escape their captors. It is believed that the three remaining survivors were taken to mountain strongholds by the FARC, a leftist guerrilla movement primarily financed through narco-trafficking, "war taxes," kidnappings and extortion. It has been battling Colombian authorities for decades in a protracted civil war. Scores of Colombian military and police abductees as well as politicians and civic figures are currently being held captive by the FARC, including one-time presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

Carrying a Big Stick

Congressmen Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), James P. Morgan (D-Va.) and Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) met with Colombian and U.S. Embassy officials during a two-day visit to the country to discuss possible responses to the abductions. While the Colombian military, with support from approximately 100 U.S. Special Forces trainers, is already conducting a search and rescue operation, administration officials are indicating that they are seriously considering a response of greater magnitude, possibly using an augmented number of U.S. Special Forces in a more aggressive and combat-oriented approach.

Congressman Davis, Chairman of the Government Reform Committee, was quoted on February 20th in the Washington Post, as saying, "There is no doubt that this act by the FARC is going to meet with a very strong response." He went on to note "they [the FARC] have made a very grave error." But the U.S. could as well be making a grave error by exposing U.S. military and civilian personnel to a war which no U.S. fatalities have occurred through armed combat until a few days ago.

Turning Up the Heat

In November, President Bush signed the secret National Security Presidential Directive 18, which officially widened the scope of U.S. military assistance to Colombia. U.S. aid being sent there already had been expanded late last year to include combating the leftist rebels and right wing paramilitary groups -dubbed "terrorist" organizations by the State Department - instead of focusing solely on counter-narcotics as was previously mandated by Washington. In response to the crisis produced by the recent air crash and kidnappings, President Bush, using his presidential authority to "carry out emergency search-and-rescue operations for U.S. military personnel or U.S. citizens," authorized sending an additional 150 Special Forces soldiers to Colombia to support the ongoing search and rescue operation. According to the Washington Post, this put the U.S. military contingent in Colombia at 411 personnel - just over the legislated limit of 400 set by Congress.

For many, this has raised concerns that a cycle of rapidly increasing U.S.

military involvement in that country, as well as growing danger, has begun.

The Oil Connection

As concerns over the reliability of Persian Gulf oil supplies have increased, interest in exploiting alternative petroleum resources in the Western Hemisphere have grown. Four of the ten major sources of oil for the U.S. bound market are located in the Western Hemisphere - Mexico, Canada, Venezuela and Colombia, now the 10th largest supplier of petroleum to this country. In the northeast Colombian town of Aruaca, U.S. Special Forces are training Colombian soldiers in counterinsurgency warfare to combat leftist rebels who repeatedly attack the oil pipeline at Caño-Limon, which is crucial to Colombia's fragile economy.

The Occidental Petroleum Company, based in Los Angeles, half-owns and operates this facility, which transports some 100,000 barrels of crude a day. According to the Center for Public Integrity, Occidental has spent nearly $8.7 million lobbying American policymakers on Latin American affairs, focusing on Colombian aid packages. The funds have been well spent: whereas Occidental budgeted little more than $3.00 per barrel for security costs, the amount that U.S. tax payers are now bearing is over $8.00 per barrel. U.S. policy-makers increasingly realize the importance of preserving stability in important petroleum producing regions and are actively pursuing proactive initiatives to do so. On February 26, the State Department once again referred to its Latin American oil supply, calling for a negotiated settlement of the current political stalemate in Venezuela.

Approaching the Slippery Slope

There are striking similarities between the existing conflicts in Colombia and the Philippines, with that of Vietnam in the late1950s and early1960s.

Special Forces at first trained and advised Vietnamese troops in combat against the Viet Cong. As casualties increased and conflict spread throughout the region, American ground forces were incrementally sent into the country to directly assist Vietnamese personnel as well as the U.S.

trainers, culminating in an ever-growing commitment. As in Vietnam, at a certain point the quantitative growth in U.S. troop strength will become qualitative.

The recent commitment of 3,000 U.S. marines to the southern Philippines to fight the Abu Sayyaf bears a remarkable resemblance to the Vietnam scenario.

It is such unilateral diplomatic and military initiatives by the White House, which are causing serious concerns over the runaway role being assumed by Washington policy-makers around the world. The fatal flaws in past interventions have been the lack of a clearly thought-out exit strategy for controversial U.S. initiatives. The same could be true regarding Colombia, particularly because the guerrilla forces are first-class fighters, superbly trained and armed, as a result of years of fighting in a stalemated war and their ability to purchase sophisticated arms on the international black market.

The Colombian conflict has carried on for nearly 40 years. The FARC, by some estimates, exacts hundreds of millions of dollars yearly from narcotic trafficking, "war taxes," extortion and kidnapping. Access to such substantial funding has allowed the FARC and the ELN to more than adequately arm themselves with a full range of modern weaponry, including shoulder-mounted Stinger missiles designed to knock out low flying aircraft, such as the Black Hawk helicopters the Pentagon recently has given to the Colombian Army. After 40 years of low-intensity guerrilla warfare, the insurgents are battle hardened and remain highly motivated. Any major new commitment on the part of the Pentagon must not be considered lightly, but with a realistic analysis of risks versus benefits.

Colombian President Uribe finds himself in an extremely untenable position.

He is under pressure from the United States and right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia to continue his aggressive campaign against the FARC.

He now must face, as the result of the FARC's recent adoption of an urban strategy, the kind of war that neither the Colombian, or for that matter, U.S. army are trained to wage. Without clear evidence of an enhanced capacity to effectively deal with the insurgents, paramilitary groups, created several years ago by wealthy landowners to defend their own interests, may once again lose confidence in the state, renege on the AUC's cease-fire arrangements with the authorities and also join in an all-out urban war. Regardless, as the conflict escalates, urban combat and attacks on civilians, such as the bloody Bogotá social club bombing on February 7th, may become commonplace.

An increasing U.S. military presence may complicate matters further. U.S. troops will have to enhance coordination with their Colombian counterparts.

Yet, despite years of effort and government orders to the contrary, the latter has consistently failed to completely sever its conspiratorial ties with paramilitary forces. As a result, U.S. forces could get caught up in the chronic massacres staged by the AUC against civilian populations.

Carrying on combat against the leftists while, de facto, excluding the rightists could have potentially destabilizing ramifications. The FARC has warned the United States that American involvement in Colombia is tantamount to a declaration of war and therefore it can be expected to target U.S. personnel and interests. Such strife would occur on a battlefield in which U.S. forces have had minimal training and experience. Deepening U.S. involvement could potentially further radicalize the rebel groups into a patriotic, anti-imperialist framework that may serve to widen the scope of the conflict, while further threatening the stability of Colombia and its neighbors and alienating a population already desperately searching for the answers and solutions which unfortunately are not readily available.

This analysis was prepared by Thomas Gorman and Neil T. Duren, Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Washington, D.C.

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." For more information, please see our web page at www.coha.org; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email coha@coha.org.


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