Cheap War," by Adam Isacson, The Washington Post, April 2, 2002
By Adam Isacson
Tuesday, April 2,
2002; Page A15
With peace talks broken down, Colombia has plunged into all-out war with
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), one of the world's
largest and most brutal insurgencies. Washington's response is a bipartisan
rush to offer "counterterror" aid to Colombia's military, essentially
putting the drug war on hold.
A supplemental funding
request now before Congress would radically broaden the U.S. mission in
Colombia, lifting all restrictions on U.S. military assistance to target
the FARC. It would be a grave mistake, though, to change our mission in
Colombia so hastily. The risks are far greater than in other second-tier
"war on terrorism" countries such as the Philippines, Georgia
True, terror is a
tool of the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army, as well as
of the rightist paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
But these groups are larger and quite unlike the enemies the United States
has confronted since Sept. 11. Unlike al Qaeda or Abu Sayyaf, Colombia's
irregulars have nearly 40,000 members between them, control significant
amounts of the countryside and have long histories. Counterterrorism in
Colombia would require a strong dose of counterinsurgency, an area in
which Washington's record is decidedly mixed.
The success or failure
of counterterrorism (or counterinsurgency) will depend heavily on what
the Colombians themselves do. U.S. military aid can make a difference
only if Colombia satisfies two very hard-to-meet conditions.
The first is that
Colombia break all links with the paramilitaries and get serious about
stopping them. The United Self-Defense Forces are responsible for the
vast majority of the more than 4,000 noncombatants killed in Colombia's
war last year. Yet the State Department's March 4 human rights report
reminds us that "members of the security forces sometimes illegally
collaborated with paramilitary forces" throughout 2001. A well-documented
pattern persists of military personnel aiding and abetting paramilitaries
while evading investigations or prosecutions. This gives strong reason
to fear that expanded U.S. assistance could support units and officers
tied to the terrorists of the right.
The second condition
demands that Colombia contribute dramatically more to its own war effort.
Washington alone cannot help a country of 40 million people, with an area
53 times that of El Salvador, whose 150,000-member army can deploy only
some 40,000 troops into battle. (The rest are at desk jobs or guarding
vulnerable infrastructure.) This force would need to triple or quadruple
to take on the insurgents effectively.
It is still unclear
whether Colombia will make the necessary sacrifices. Colombian law excludes
conscripts with high school degrees -- that is, all but the poor -- from
service in combat units. The World Bank's figures show that Colombians
pay only 10.1 percent of GDP in taxes -- half the U.S. figure and far
from the 40 percent that Americans spent on taxes and war bonds during
World War II. Bogota spends only 1.97 percent of GDP on defense, leaving
a huge gap to fill.
The need goes far
beyond defense spending. Colombia's war has deep social and economic roots,
and ending it means improving the civilian government's ability to provide
basic services. Even if Colombia meets both conditions, most U.S. aid
must help Colombia meet its nonmilitary needs.
The danger is that
Colombia will satisfy neither condition. Instead of sacrifice and mobilization,
Bogota may choose a cheaper, less demanding course of action: giving free
rein to the paramilitaries.
Self-Defense Forces have more than tripled in size since 1998, and their
leaders, riding a wave of drug profits and donations from wealthy Colombians,
are pledging to double again in a year. The guerrillas' behavior has increased
the death squads' political acceptance. The candidate leading polls for
the May presidential elections, hard-liner Alvaro Uribe, is promising
to arm a million more civilians. On a February visit, I heard several
reports of paramilitaries gathering townspeople and instructing them to
vote for Uribe.
option tempting many Colombians may promise low-cost victory over the
guerrillas -- but only after a bloodbath whose proportions will shock
the world. And any peace that might follow would be very short indeed.
If Bogota embarks
on a good-faith war and a good-faith peace effort, taking on all armed
groups -- right or left -- U.S. support will be indispensable. If Colombians
simply unleash the death squads, though, military aid will only add to
the horror. Before rushing to expand its mission, the United States must
be certain that it understands which path Colombia has chosen.
The writer coordinates
the Colombia project of the Washington-based Center for International
© 2002 The Washington
As of April 9, 2002,
this document was also available online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A48583-2002Apr1.html