New US aid to Colombia - deeper into the antidrug mire

Between the years 1994 and 1998 the United States went to extremes to isolate the then-president of Colombia, Ernesto Samper, as it suspected him of receiving $6 million in campaign contributions from the Cali drug cartel.

Yet, the US continued fighting its war on drugs in Colombia by circumventing Mr. Samper's office and working directly with the Colombian National Police and its highly respected commander Gen. Rosso Jos Serrano. Many US officials now admit the isolation of Samper was a mistake because it weakened the Colombian state at the very time both paramilitary and guerrilla groups were gaining strength in the countryside.

Now, believing the situation in Colombia could spin further out of control and possibly spread into neighboring countries, the Clinton administration is trying to compensate for its earlier misguided policies - and the continued failure of the war on drugs in general - by sending $1.3 billion over the next two years in mostly counternarcotics-related assistance to Samper's successor Andrs Pastrana.

This $1.3 billion is more than all of the US military aid sent to combat a leftist insurgency in El Salvador during the 1980s.

Many policymakers in Washington seem to be arguing that the massive size of this aid package alone ensures that it will be able to at once stabilize Colombia and win the long and elusive war on drugs. Yet, the type of "reform" promoted by Washington is predicated on domestic political concerns rather than the situation in Colombia. It could potentially do even greater harm than was done during the Samper years.

Both Congress and the executive branch are well aware the American public remains weary of military involvement in complex conflicts in "far away" lands. With this in mind, the White House has continued to insist aid be geared toward only drugs, not guerrilla insurgencies. Indeed, the massive package, agreed on this month by the House and Senate is predicated on vastly increasing the Colombian military's involvement in coca and poppy fumigation and the destruction of clandestine cocaine-producing laboratories.

Yet, a more stable Colombia - something all agree is the first step in addressing the drug problem - will not come about because the Colombian military is better able to fumigate coca plants and "bust" drug labs.

Rather, peace will only come when the Colombian military can better ensure citizen safety and increase its battlefield strength to force guerrillas into a negotiated settlement - prerequisites for the establishment of rule of law in any society.

In rural Colombia a large portion of civilians live under constant fear of violence from right-wing paramilitaries or leftist guerrillas, groups that both use civilians as pawns in efforts to increase their areas of control. Making matters worse, few Colombians have any faith that the military - normally the logical institution to take charge of this problem - is committed to protecting them. This dire scenario might lead some to conclude that the US should stay far away from the inept and often abusive Colombian military; that any assistance would only exacerbate an already bad situation.

But, in Colombia, as in a number of "failed states" around the world, there are rarely "good" options. Instead, there are "least bad" ones. In this case, what Colombia needs is a more professional military committed to protecting the 98 percent of the Colombians who support peace. Only when the Colombian military is considered legitimate by citizens in the areas of conflict will it ever be able to pressure the guerrillas effectively for a negotiated settlement. A peace agreement with guerrillas could then potentially isolate the paramilitary groups, forcing them to reconsider their violent ways. Only after it's clear that the military is firmly committed to this reform path could substantial US aid truly make a difference.

Over the past year, both Congress and the administration have realized that a more effective military is a key to peace in Colombia. Yet, driven by the powerful domestic political allure of "doing something about the drug problem," the US now promotes the "reform" of the Colombian military by vastly increasing its counternarcotics operations, efforts that until recently were carried out almost exclusively by the Colombian National Police. This type of support enables administration officials to claim the US is only "fighting drugs," not getting involved in counterinsurgency. But it does little to push the Colombian military toward reform that would help reduce rural violence and improve its negotiating position with guerrilla insurgents. In other words, a military that is essentially a larger version of the National Police is a reinforcement of the status quo, not the the type of stronger military Colombia needs.

Nor is there certainty among policymakers that more antidrug aid would even be able to make a dent in Colombia's cultivation and export of illicit crops. For instance, the linchpin of the revved up antidrug assistance is the delivery of more than 50 helicopters, including several state-of-the-art Blackhawks and the creation of several "elite" counternarcotics battalions culled from the ranks of the Colombian military.

Yet, US diplomats in Bogot insist quietly that there is absolutely no way the Colombian military is able to handle the massive influx of armaments. In the past year there has been more than one Blackhawk accident involving poorly trained Colombian pilots; also, the first "crack" counternarcotics battalion inaugurated last year is still far from full combat readiness.

If current policy runs its course over the next several years, the US will pump more than $1 billion into Colombia to push the military into a highly dubious drug war.

But even if the US did redirect aid toward a more comprehensive reform of the Colombian military, this too would fail unless the Colombian political and economic elites decide something drastic is needed to improve military legitimacy.

During the Vietnam War, the US continued to supply various South Vietnamese regimes even when it was clear the South Vietnamese population was ambivalent in its commitment to fight the enemy.

In Colombia, a firm resolve to do something about the decades-long and increasingly violent civil conflict is still lacking, and no amount of US aid will make a dent in the situation until this changes. For example, to date combat troops in the Colombian military are predominantly from the lower classes, while high school and college graduates are exempt from combat duty.

Ultimately, Colombians are responsible for the terrible conflict that has plagued their country. Hopefully someday soon they'll also be responsible for resolving it.

While it almost seems like it's part of the American psyche to believe the US can solve other nations' problems, foreign aid will only promote peace in Colombia once there are clear signals the military is committed to reform. This aid should go not toward what's politically most expedient in Washington, but for supporting the type of reform that Colombia needs.

*Russell Crandall is assistant professor of political science at Davidson College. He recently spent time in Colombia researching a book project on US policy toward Colombia during the 1990s.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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