Global Policy Forum

Lifting the Cap:Bush Administration Seeks to Expand


By Elanor Starmer

Americas Program
May 12, 2004

Last month the Bush administration announced plans to deepen U.S. involvement in Colombia by doubling the number of U.S. troops and private military contractors stationed there. The move came in the midst of an energetic public-relations campaign by the U.S. State Department and the Colombian government. Both administrations attempted to paint U.S. policy in Colombia as an assured success. However, statistics show a stable presence of cocaine on the U.S. market, and there's evidence of continued ties between members of the Colombian military and brutal right-wing paramilitary groups.

Four years ago the U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly to pass a $1.3 billion aid package known as Plan Colombia. The support of moderate Democrats and Republicans hinged on a number of safeguards included in the legislation, which they hoped would keep the United States out of the "quagmire" of Colombia's internal conflict. Congress has restricted the number of U.S. troops and private military contractors allowed on the ground to 800 total and limited their mission to anti-drug efforts, legislating that no intelligence, training, or equipment be used to assist Colombia in its war against left-wing insurgents. Congressional supporters also promised that the U.S. commitment in Colombia would last no more than five years.

Human rights groups, drug reformers, and some members of Congress warned repeatedly that military aid would pour fuel on the flames of the long and brutal conflict involving the Colombian government forces, right-wing paramilitary allies, and left-wing insurgents. Many critics, including current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, also argued that attacking drug production at the lowest level of the supply chain—the poor farmers who grow drug crops in Colombia's rural areas--was an inhumane approach that would ultimately prove futile.

Despite these grave concerns, Plan Colombia was signed into law. The Republican congressional leadership touted it as a reasonable policy that was limited in scope but which would help bring an end to America's drug problem. Following September 11th, however, the policy began to transform. The Bush administration and congressional allies broke promise after promise made in 2000, and skepticism of the policy grew in Congress.

In the spring of 2002 the Bush administration expanded the U.S. mission in Colombia beyond anti-drug efforts arguing that U.S. aid should be used to help Colombia fight a "unified campaign against narcotics trafficking, terrorist activities, and other threats to its national security." It earmarked some $600 million for the cause. This year Colombia is slated to receive over $500 million in U.S. aid— the majority of it military and police assistance.

The Bush administration now argues that more force is needed to make progress in the joint campaign against drugs and terrorism in Colombia. In a recent visit to Washington, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe proposed--"Plan Colombia II"--a second phase of U.S. assistance that could last another 5 years. Bush administration officials applauded the idea.

The proposal to lift the troop cap, announced by President Bush last month, would increase the number of U.S. personnel allowed in Colombia to 800 soldiers and 600 contractors—nearly double the current limit established by Congress.

Lifting the cap would mean devoting additional resources and manpower to a failed policy.
Approving additional U.S. military assistance would send all the wrong messages to a war-torn Colombia. It implies that the conflict can be solved by force, effectively squelching civil society and sporadic government attempts to engage in a negotiated peace process with armed groups. As the war accelerates, thousands more Colombian civilians will lose their lives in the crossfire. Committed to a military solution, the U.S. government could be forced to request ever-increasing levels of troops and funding when the conflict proves more enduring than anticipated.

Support and training for the Colombian armed forces also puts the United States firmly on the side of a military with a brutal history and a proven reluctance to reform. According to the United Nations, direct human rights violations by the Colombian military increased last year, and even the U.S. State Department admits that Colombia has failed to break ties with the paramilitaries. Rather than reduce aid pending an improved human rights record, the United States has turned a blind eye to abuses and continued to provide aid.

The result has been grave for many Colombian civilians, particularly Afro-Colombian communities, trade union leaders, and human rights defenders. Those who speak out against abuses by the military or discuss collaboration between the Colombian armed forces and paramilitaries are routinely labeled as being sympathetic to the guerillas, and targeted with threats and attacks. According to international observers such as Witness for Peace, paramilitary presence in areas with a high level of Colombian military activity—notable among them the departments of Putumayo and Arauca, two epicenters of U.S. involvement—has increased dramatically since 2000.

Colombia's conflict is a long and complicated one, and solutions ultimately lie with Colombians themselves. While the United States may never be able to provide a cure for what ails Colombia, a first and crucial step will be to stop aggravating an already grave situation. Rather than back a military approach to the conflict, the United States should support peace negotiations and aid those Colombian institutions that are working to support human rights and address the roots of the conflict. Issues such as poverty, unequal land distribution, and a political system that excludes poor and rural communities must be addressed as Colombia looks toward a better future.

In mid-May Congress will address the troop cap issue during debate over the 2005 Defense Authorization bill. The last few years have shown that military aid feeds a vicious cycle of human rights abuses and killing, while the drug trade simply takes on new, more virulent forms. With no exit strategy in sight in the Iraqi conflict, the last thing the U.S. needs now is expanded involvement in Colombia.

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