As congress moves toward approval of more military aid to Colombia, a perennial question looms even larger: How do you fight the still-rampant narcotics industry in that country without taking on the rebel forces that to a large extent live off the drug trade?
In other words, how does the United States stay out of a civil war that has flashed and simmered in Colombia for four decades? The specific US goal is to eradicate coca and poppy growing and processing and thus put a dent in the drug problem back home. But "mission creep," a la Vietnam, is a constant worry.
Case in point: US training of antinarcotics forces, at first focused on parts of southern Colombia, is expanding to other parts of the country. Some worry that the chances for US soldier/trainers to get into confrontations with rebels are growing.
The Bush administration is moving forward with a program started under Bill Clinton, called Plan Colombia, which is spending more than a billion over several years. Its goal: boost Colombia's ability to battle the drug traffic, while supplying economic aid - including funds to help farmers find livelihoods other than coca - and supporting efforts to arrive at a negotiated peace with the rebels.
Another large question is whether the rebels, who started out as Marxist revolutionaries, really want peace. They're doing quite well, raking off money from the drug business, and from kidnappings for ransom. President Andres Pastrana has tried mightily to cut a deal, even slicing off parts of the country as demilitarized areas that serve as havens for the rebels. His approach is likely favored by most Colombians, who want peace and stability. But breakthroughs have been elusive.
The simple fact is that shoring up Colombia's long-lived but fragile democracy, bringing all parties into political dialogue to prevent armed conflict, and rebuilding an economy hurt by a massive exodus of skilled, educated people, are very long-term tasks.
Should the US sign on? Cutting narcotics production has proven more difficult in Colombia than in neighboring Bolivia and Peru. But stemming such production is an important part of an antidrug policy - a policy that must include stronger efforts to stem the drug demand in the US.
Beyond drugs, the US has an interest in seeing Colombia, Latin America's fourth largest economy, become a stable member of the hemispheric family. Washington must stay involved, even as it keeps a firm eye on the line between helpful involvement and military entanglement.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor