c o m m e n t a r y
Extending the War on Terrorism to Colombia
A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come
by Adam Isacson | February 8,
This commentary was commissioned and originally distributed
by the joint IRC-IPS Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) project. It is reproduced
here courtesy of FPIF. Foreign Policy in Focus-A Think Tank Without Walls-can
be accessed online at http://www.fpif.org .
The world’s third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid is the South American nation of Colombia, the focus of our never-ending war on drugs.
Before September 11, this made a lot of people in Washington nervous.
Now there is even more reason to worry. President Bush’s fiscal 2003 budget
is requesting $98 million in new Pentagon training and equipment for the
Colombian military, in a new initiative to transform the war on drugs
into part of our global war on terror.
U.S. aid to Colombia’s military and police has increased six-fold since
1997, to $1.5 million per day in 2002. Both Clinton and Bush foreign policy
officials have had to repeatedly assure members of Congress and the media
that the U.S. mission in Colombia is tightly restricted to anti-drug activities.
They have sworn not to cross an invisible line between the war on drugs
and Colombia’s brutal, messy, multi-front civil war, which has been raging
since the Johnson administration.
Viewed through the lens of anti-terrorism, though, Colombia—home
to three groups on the State Department’s list of foreign terror organizations—sticks
out prominently on a post-September 11 map of the world. Now a recent
Bush administration "policy review" is seriously considering
crossing this invisible line and transforming the war against drugs into
a war against terrorism. If it does so, Colombia’s military will be allowed
to use future U.S. aid—guns, helicopters, intelligence, and training—to
fight leftist FARC and ELN guerrillas, and presumably right-wing paramilitaries.
But the Colombian military’s collaboration with these death squads, such
as the United Self-Defense Forces, is well-known and -documented, even
though these groups are responsible for up to 70% of human rights abuses
in the war, according to Amnesty International.
Before identifying the reasons why converting our anti-drug efforts to
a war on terrorism in Colombia would be a bad idea, it’s important to
clarify our terminology. In the Colombian context, counter-terrorism equals
counter-insurgency. Colombia’s guerrilla groups have large memberships
(17,000 in FARC, 11,000 in the various paramilitaries, and 3,000 in the
ELN), control large chunks of territory, and are well funded. These are
not shadowy cells living in caves like Al-Qaeda. Wiping them out would
require a large counter-insurgency effort, an area in which the United
States has a decidedly mixed record.
A counter-insurgency campaign against terrorist groups in Colombia would
be disastrous for three reasons. The first is the sheer size of the effort
that would be needed. The case for such a policy is clearly spelled out
in a June 2001 study by the Rand Corporation, funded by the U.S. Air Force.
Recommending that Washington build up Colombia’s anti-guerrilla efforts,
the report argues, "The U.S. program of military assistance to El
Salvador during the Reagan administration could be a relevant model."
Never mind that twelve years of civil war and nearly two billion dollars
of military aid achieved only a stalemate in El Salvador, after fighting
killed 70,000 people and displaced over a million civilians. The Rand
study’s recommendations fail to estimate the financial expense to the
United States or the potential human cost to Colombia, which is fifty-three
times the size of El Salvador.
The second reason to pause before plunging into a counter-insurgency
campaign is that there are few guarantees that our aid—whether weapons,
intelligence, or military training—would not be misused against innocent
civilians. Of the 3,500 people Colombia’s war kills each year, 75% are
men, women, and children killed in their homes, their places of work,
or on the street. It is not unreasonable to imagine, given the Colombian
military’s past cooperation with right-wing death squads, that if we give
the army intelligence about guerrilla movements in a certain village,
it could be passed on to the paramilitaries to commit atrocities against
Finally, our past experience with counter-insurgency shows that it’s
doomed to failure if the local military elites do not share our commitment
to fight the enemy. There are strong reasons to doubt that commitment
in Colombia, where the law excludes high school graduates, meaning all
but the poor, from serving in combat units. The World Bank’s figures show
that Colombians pay only 10.1% of GDP in taxes—half the U.S. figure
and lower than most of Latin America—which makes a serious war effort
impossible. Even now the army, in the midst of a fighting a civil war,
must go begging for gasoline from the government near the end of every
fiscal year. It is doubtful that U.S. funds and personnel could or should
make up the difference.
The roots of Colombia’s conflict are deep and complicated, and will require
a creative mix of strategies to solve it. While there is a role for Colombia’s
military, the real difference will be made by peace negotiators, judges
and prosecutors, human rights and anti-corruption activists, honest legislators,
reformist police and military officers, muckraking journalists, and others
who want to build a viable, functioning democracy. Colombia has no shortage
of these brave and committed people, but all are working at great risk
to their lives. The United States must support them, too. Resorting solely
to the sledgehammer of counterinsurgency tactics in the name of fighting
terrorism will bring neither security to Americans or peace to the Colombians.
Adam Isacson coordinates the Colombia project of the Center for International
Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, and is the Colombia
analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus ( www.fpif.org ).
Distributed by the
Americas Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). Originally
published by the joint IRC-IPS Foreign Policy In Focus project. Š2002.
All rights reserved.
citation: “Extending the War on Terrorism to Colombia: A Bad Idea
Whose Time Has Come,” Americas Program Commentary, (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric
Resource Center, February 8, 2002).