In Colombia, first signs of a policy nightmare

August 02, 1999|By Michael Shifter

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" is understandable, even legitimate. But that impulse must 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.

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 United States is providing some $289 million to Colombia in counternarcotics assistance, three times the amount it gave last year, which was double 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.

Few people doubt that 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.

Fighting drugs

General 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 percent) 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.

No easy solution

To be fair to Mr. Pastrana, making progress with the country's most formidable insurgent force is anything but easy. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or 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 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.

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 about the clarity and coherence of Mr. Pastrana's peace strategy and even about the desirability of trying to negotiate with the insurgents. So it is not surprising that U.S. policy-makers find themselves edging toward greater support for Colombia's security forces, whose principal goal is, after all, defeating the guerrillas.

Yet, is it 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?

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 must 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.

Michael Shifter teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 8/02/99

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