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Bush Could be Courting Disaster in Colombia

Bush Administration Could be Courting Disaster in Colombia

For immediate release:

Friday, August 31, 2001


Bush Administration Could be Courting Disaster in Colombia

Statement by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA):

The high-level mission headed by Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, which arrived back in Washington today after traveling to Colombia on Wednesday, targeted as its main concern the peace talks that the administration of Andrés Pastrana has been holding with the 16,000-member FARC rebels, as well as more spasmodically with the ELN guerrillas.

Although Pastrana insisted that the U.S. team backed the peace talks, which in effect have made almost no progress since they were initiated several years ago, this may be wishful thinking on the Colombian president's part.

In reality, Washington sees the talks as an illusion which should no longer be the centerpiece of Bogotá's strategy, a point which may be emphasized when Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in Colombia's capital on September 11. The fact that Colombia is getting such heavy-duty attention from Washington, while the rest of Latin America is being all but ignored, could play out with the Grossman-led team being merely a prelude to the expansion of U.S. military aid to the area going beyond Plan Colombia and the Andean Regional Initiative (ARI). It is likely that the later Powell mission can be expected to provide a revealing signal to Colombian officials, emphasizing that while the U.S. wants peace, all that the region is now getting is war and that it is time that this fact be faced by Pastrana.

Talk of peace but war goes on The inter-agency team that just returned to Washington will most likely be carrying a finding back from Bogotá that could bring the U.S. ever closer to making the fateful decision to eliminate the already undermined firewall separating the anti-narcotic from the anti-guerrilla war. Through calculated leaks, the Bush administration has been hinting even prior to the Grossman mission that the anti-drug and anti-guerrilla wars today are both sides of the same campaign, because the guerrilla groups are intricately involved in drug trafficking through providing protection and transportation of drugs, in return for payoffs and "taxes," which allow the rebels to buy sophisticated weapons in the international gun market.

By attempting to exert a dramatically stepped-up hands-on authority over events in the country, as well as regionally through the ARI, the White House's search for a new direction effectively will vaporize the Clinton administration's policy of tolerating negotiations between Bogotá and the leftist guerrilla groups, which, while ultimately unsuccessful, had been able to keep the conflict in check up to now. But in the waning days of the Clinton administration, Pastrana's economically-oriented Plan Colombia was given a militarized twist by supplying scores of sophisticated helicopters to the Colombian security forces, nominally for anti-drug activities, but which always could be reassigned to an enlarged war against the guerrillas.

Washington's focus on Colombia The intense current focus of the Bush administration on Colombia suggests a strategic shift concomitant with reports of significant improvements among the Colombian military that have lulled many in Washington and Bogotá to erroneously conclude that an all-out military victory over the guerrilla groups is, for the first time, a possibility. The further militarization of the conflict would likely ignore the drug-trafficking role of the 5,000-member rightwing paramilitary groups which are responsible for the bulk of the country's violence and human rights violations.

Like the Contras in Nicaragua during the 1980s, the paramilitaries could play a surrogate role in Washington's thinking as they could be relied upon to target the guerrillas, at a price, if the U.S. gives the signal. The Bush administration's increased involvement in the region helps to explain the harsh reaction, or overreaction, to the recent detention of three IRA members in Colombia before more details were even known, as well as the well-publicized revelation by the Colombian military that the FARC has been using an abandoned refinery to produce gasoline for coca processing.

Fall-out for Brazilian-U.S. relations In addition, the Bush administration's policies threaten to touch-off a regional escalation of its militarized strategy to combat drug trafficking which is bound to further strain U.S.-Brazilian relations, since the countries in the ARI's penumbra help to define much of the Brazilian border and could be viewed by that country's officials as posing a threat to their country's national security. Recent sources of tension between Washington and Brasilia, stemming from conflicts over dumping, tariffs and other FTAA issues, have damaged the traditionally close ties between the two behemoths.

Given the formidable strength of the FARC and, to a lesser degree, the ELN, Washington could be trifling with an ultimately dangerous deviation by plotting a new strategy based on military victory in a war without end.

Instead, the U.S. should try taking the profits out of drugs through either legalization or an allocation of massive funds to treat the estimated 7.5 million drug users in this country. Militarization of the anti-drug war, together with removing the all-important distinction which up to now has limited any U.S. anti-guerrilla involvement in Colombia, will mark a change in kind rather than simply degree.

By its anticipated initiative, which will place this country on a direct road to deepening the U.S. involvement in a fused anti-drug, anti-guerrilla conflict, Washington will be opening the door for an escalated combat role for U.S. forces - at first gradual, but one that gains momentum until it builds up to a critical mass. Such escalation inevitably will mean that the White House will press for the later removal of the 500 cap on the number of U.S. military personnel allowed in Colombia at any one time, an increase in the present $2 billion budget appropriation for Colombia and nearby countries through Plan Colombia, the pending ARI and the increase in the number of contract hirees in the country, usually retired U.S. military officials. It will also mean that there is a high probability that Colombia will become this era's Vietnam, and that the Bush administration's spin machine will have to go into overdrive to justify a policy which is more likely to bring body bags back to the U.S. than victory on the ground.

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

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