First Signs of a Policy Nightmare

Michael Shifter is a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service

Colombia is quickly becoming a "front burner" issue for U.S. foreign policy. The reasons--escalating violence and rising drug production--are not hard to discern. But what the United States expects to accomplish in dealing with the hemisphere's most troubled country remains a mystery.

Washington's impulse to "do something" and "get tough" is understandable, even legitimate. But that impulse needs to flow from a hard-headed assessment of what goals are realistic and feasible, a clear understanding of how far the United States is prepared to go and a rigorous analysis of possible consequences and ramifications.

The United States' creeping involvement in Latin America's third-largest country is undeniable. Colombia ranks third, after Israel and Egypt, in receiving U.S. security assistance. This year, the U.S. is providing some $289 million to Colombia in counternarcotics assistance, three times the amount it gave in 1998, which had already doubled each of the preceding two years. The bulk of the money goes to Colombia's national police; the country's military receives about $40 million. In addition, the U.S. is sharing intelligence information with the military.

Few doubt that more--perhaps substantially more--is yet to come. Recently, after meeting in Washington with Colombia's defense minister and armed forces chief, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, U.S. drug czar, proposed increasing the amount of support to drug-producing countries by $1 billion, nearly $600 million of which would go to Colombia (more than the Colombians themselves requested). McCaffrey defended his proposal by citing the "explosion" in cocaine production and spreading insecurity. Fighting drugs, in fact, remains the only rationale for U.S. Colombia policy that is politically popular and palatable with the American people.

But over the past several months, the loss of government authority and frightening advances by insurgents, toward the capital city of Bogota as well as across the borders of neighboring countries, have deepened Washington's concerns. Insurgent and paramilitary activities, a pervasive drug economy, political and institutional decay and an unprecedented recession (unemployment is at a record 20%) produce conditions that seem to deteriorate by the day. Colombians who are able to leave are doing so in droves.

President Andres Pastrana, taking a big risk in dealing with decades-long, seemingly intractable violence, has identified peace as his highest priority. Yet, with almost a year in office, he has little to show for the effort. His administration has suffered repeated setbacks and occasional humiliations, both military and political, in its pursuit of peace. Talks with insurgents have now been postponed.

To be fair to Pastrana, making progress with the country's most formidable insurgent force is anything but easy. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which dates to the 1960s, is militarily and financially stronger than ever. Its roughly 15,000 combatants operate with a network whose members are estimated at two to three times that number. Aside from power in some form, it is not entirely clear what they want.

After an auspicious meeting last July between then-president-elect Pastrana and the FARC's undisputed leader, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, the country's chief guerrilla force has been obstinate in its behavior and unreasonable in its demands. There is a growing perception that the FARC is fundamentally uninterested in negotiations and that the insurgency is simply distracting the government while bolstering its position. Recent declarations by FARC leaders questioning the Colombian government's goodwill don't inspire confidence.

From the outset, Pastrana's idea has been to deal with the FARC before turning to Colombia's other major violent forces, the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) and the rightist militia groups, each with approximately 5,000 combatants. But the FARC's recalcitrance, coupled with the militias' and ELN's ruthlessness and peevishness--the ELN's kidnappings of airplane passengers and churchgoers shocked an already numbed nation--have made it difficult for the Colombian president to succeed. Although a government negotiating team and FARC leaders announced a common agenda May 2, the areas for discussion remain exceedingly vague and cover the gamut, from reforming the justice system to redistributing land.

All this disheartening news has raised serious questions, both in Washington and in Colombia, about the clarity and coherence of Pastrana's peace strategy and even about the desirability of trying to negotiate with the insurgents. It is thus not surprising that U.S. policymakers find themselves edging toward greater support for Colombia's security forces, whose principal goal is, after all, defeating the guerrillas.

Yet, is it, in fact, the purpose of U.S. Colombia policy to defeat the guerrillas? Is it to reduce drug production? Or, taking a page from the U.S. role in El Salvador in the 1980s, to "level the playing field," which would enhance the Colombian government's leverage to negotiate peace with the insurgents?

For many U.S. officials, the answer is: all the above. They regard the guerrillas and those involved in the drug trade, producers and traffickers, as virtually indistinguishable. They are interconnected in complex ways. But they are distinct and ought to be understood as such.

Important consequences flow from such a misunderstanding. For one, trade-offs among different policy aims tend to be ignored and belittled. There needs to be greater appreciation that not all objectives have equal weight--and not all policies, however valuable and well-intentioned, can be pursued at the same time.

The evolving U.S. policy toward Colombia also raises some human-rights questions. The country's human-rights situation is dire by any measure, with about 1 million Colombians displaced from their homes. The vast majority of all political killings are committed by the country's expanding militia groups, whose links with the armed forces are varied and complicated, often depending on the region. Confrontations between the armed forces and the paramilitary groups have been rare. Although U.S. law requires any military unit that receives U.S. assistance to be thoroughly vetted, in practice this is hard to monitor and is bound to be highly contentious.

Human-rights questions aside, however, what's crucial is to face squarely what military aid to Colombia actually means. Should the United States make defeating the guerrillas its main goal? If so, how much would that cost and how long would it take? Once undertaken, how far is Washington prepared to go? The Colombian situation has all the elements of "mission creep." But military assistance is, at best, only part of what needs to be a comprehensive approach to help Colombia deal with its underlying problems.

That is precisely why pursuing a program of reform and reconciliation is so essential. Increased U.S. support for the Colombian armed forces should be seriously considered. But that step should be an appendage of a broader strategy. The aim should be to improve the Colombian government's capabilities and leverage, to enable it to negotiate from strength.

The risk, however, is that advocates of military support will be too focused on that limited aspect. We cannot lose sight of the longer-term task of working with Colombia to help the country construct a more inclusive society and just, institutional order.

Few doubt that Colombia is at war. The United States, in conjunction with its hemispheric neighbors, can--and should--help the country arrive at that day when Colombians no longer consider violence their first option.

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