Bush Administration peers into Colombian abyss and blinks

March l, 2002

Colombian President Pastrana in late-February ended three-years of fruitless peace talks with the leftist guerrillas of the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces), and the Colombian military began moving into the rebels' former safe haven. Pastrana and his military high command pleaded for the US to allow its military assistance program to be used for broad counterinsurgency war instead of being limited, as now, to explicitly counternarcotics' missions.

In something of a surprise move, the Bush administration this week turned them down. Despite backing from civilian officials in the Pentagon and drug czar John Walters, the Bush administration has rejected-for now-two proposals that would have dramatically escalated US involvement in the Colombian civil war.

The first proposal - that President Bush issue a new secret directive to replace a Clinton-era directive limiting US military assistance to counternarcotics efforts - would have allowed for US military aid and intelligence-sharing to be used explicitly to defeat the FARC.

The second proposal, even more far-reaching, would have made defeating the guerrillas an integral part of the Bush administration's "war on terror." But according to a report in the Washington Post on February 28th, a foreign policy triumvirate of Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, nixed the plans for significant escalation. The decision was based on Rice and Powell's belief "that a fundamental shift in US policy was not advisable at the moment because of uncertainty about congressional reaction and upcoming Colombian presidential elections in May," the Post reported.

"We think this is a good decision," said Jason Hagen, Colombia associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, "but we don't think this is the final gesture the administration will take. We anticipate that the administration will try to work with Congress to ensure that any military assistance will not be restricted to counternarcotics," he told DRCNet. "This is something of a tactical move. We expect significant pressure from the White House to get Congress to allow them to share military intelligence with the Colombians."

With the gloves now off in the wake of Pastrana's decision to end peace talks and send the army into the FARC's Switzerland-sized safe haven, the Colombian military is going to need all the help it can get. Despite decades of US assistance and mentoring and billions of dollars in US assistance over the years, the Colombian military has yet to show much indication that it can defeat the 17,000 soldiers of the FARC and the roughly 5,000 soldiers of the smaller ELN (Army of National Liberation).

Still, the Colombian military is now moving into the former safe haven, bombing villages, and cautiously creeping toward the FARC guerrillas, who abandoned towns and cities in the safe haven, but only to retreat into nearby villages, jungles and mountains. They are presumably taking their hostages with them, including Green Oxygen Party presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was seized February 23rd as she attempted to be the first candidate to enter the former safe haven.

The Bush administration has allocated an additional $98 million to equip and train a new Colombian army brigade whose task will be to protect oil pipelines belonging to Occidental Petroleum. With the end of the peace talks, fears are rising that Colombia's 38-year-old civil war, an already bloody conflict that kills thousands each year and has left almost two million internal refugees, will get even worse. The rhetoric of the Colombian government has turned increasingly shrill, with Pastrana now referring to the FARC as "terrorists," while the FARC has begun a campaign of attacks on the country's economic infrastructure and is threatening to take the civil war into the cities.

"Once more, the Colombian oligarchy impedes the path of dialogue from constructing the structural, economic, political, and military changes Colombia requires to exit the profound crisis" left as the legacy of elite two-party rule, the FARC charged in a communiqué issued in late-February. "It is clear that the true objective of the government in deciding to end the peace process is to make the discussion of fundamental themes contained in the talks' agenda to build a new Colombia disappear," the FARC added. The communiqué also contained a promise to work with the next government if it "shows interest in retaking the path to a political solution of a social and armed conflict."

Whether the FARC, Colombian government or US government wish to see such a solution realized remains to be seen.

The Razor Wire is a publication of The November Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates drug law reform. Contact information: moreinfo@november.org
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