Why the U.S. Is Getting Involved in Colombia's War

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Along with the presidency, Bill Clinton inherited from President Bush the Somalia deployment — a well-meaning overseas military operation that turned into a nightmare. And as his parting gift, Mr. Clinton will leave his successor an expanding U.S. military commitment in Colombia, which could just as easily turn nasty.

President Clinton last week visited the troubled country to showcase the $1.3 billion in mostly military U.S. aid being sent ostensibly to help Colombia's security forces fight the war on drugs. But nothing is that simple in a country that has been in the grip of an almost 40-year civil war in which all of the major protagonists — the left-wing guerrillas of the FARC and ELN groups; the right-wing paramilitary groups; and the government's own army (which will be the prime beneficiary of the aid) — have been linked both with ugly human rights abuses and with narco-trafficking. Peace talks between the government and the guerrillas, which began after the government recognized guerrilla control over huge swaths of territory, have failed to resolve the conflict, and concerns over Colombia's expanding narcotics exports have prompted Washington to intervene on the government side.

Colombia produces 80 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, the largest proportion of it in territory under the direct control of the FARC. Taxing the traffickers in exchange for protection earns the Marxist army some $700 million a year, making it easily the wealthiest peasant guerrilla movement in history, one that is better equipped than the army it is fighting. That has prompted the U.S. to blur the distinction between counterinsurgency and the war on drugs in order to strengthen the government's forces — which many observers in the region and in the U.S. believe is a no-win proposition unless America's appetite for narcotics is diminished. But what congressional opponents of the U.S. aid package really fear is that it may drag Washington into the quagmire of the ongoing civil war. After all, the guerrillas and their supporters may be tempted to retaliate for Washington's involvement by directly attacking U.S. personnel, which would tend to prompt the Pentagon to expand its commitment. And the human rights record of the Colombian military Washington is currently re-equipping and training certainly won't win any prizes — many of its officers have been widely reported to be working hand in glove with the paramilitary groups responsible for a number of massacres of civilians.

Yet the White House and the majority on Capitol Hill believe that without the aid, the Colombian state is in danger of collapse, which in the end would be good news only for the narco-traffickers and the Marxist tycoons who protect them. On the other hand, regional leaders have pointed out that even if "Plan Colombia" succeeds in lowering production of narcotics in that country, that would simply displace the problem across the border into Brazil, Venezuela or Peru. As long as there's a bullish market for drugs in the U.S. and grinding poverty in Latin America, there's little chance of eliminating the cocaine industry. So "Plan Colombia" remains a high-stakes gamble that may well force Clinton's successor to be more engaged with Latin America than any president since Ronald Reagan.