Wanton Wastes of Money, Manpower and Lives

While President Bush has spent much of the past four years fighting the war in Iraq and preparing for his reelection, both he and his administration seem to have forgotten about the war on drugs-an involvement that spans both domestic and international policy. Although White House critics accuse the administration of putting the drug war on the back-burner because no easy victory was in sight, President Bush insists that it is on target. In an effort to show his revived commitment to the drug war, Bush will quickly stop in Cartagena, Colombia on November 22 to meet with President Uribe to discuss both human rights and the still-flourishing drug trade. This summit will surely prove to be more rhetoric than substance, as both Presidents remain firmly committed to an increase of militarization in Colombia. Nevertheless, because Bush has done little during his first term to reduce the production of drugs in Colombia and the subsequent consumption in the U.S., a policy of ‘more of the same’ can be expected for the next four years.

Losing the War

Plan Colombia, a joint U.S.-Colombian five-year initiative to curb the inflow of cocaine to the U.S. was first introduced in 2000. Although the project has included various controversial anti-drug practices, such as the aerial spraying of toxic herbicides, the most contentious aspect of the project has been U.S. military aid to fund, train and equip the Colombian military to more effectively fight the war on drugs, and increase its anti-terrorist abilities. Colombia produces about 70 percent of the world’s cocaine and because of its proximity, the U.S. market is the major destination for the illicit substance. About 80 percent of the $40 billion of cocaine consumed annually in the U.S. is produced in Colombia. Over the past four years, the U.S. has spent close to $4 billion on Plan Colombia, with about 75 percent of the funding spent on military aid. Despite these Herculean efforts, the war on drugs remains as much of a failed effort today, as before the Plan Colombia initiative was first conceptualized.

During a June 2004 Congressional status report on Plan Colombia, Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) stated outright that, “Plan Colombia is a $3.2 billion failed foreign operation.” Even more telling, the White House drug czar, John Walters, declared in an August Associated Press (AP) interview that, “seizing cocaine, destroying coca crops and locking up drug traffickers in Colombia have had little impact on the flow of cocaine on American streets.” Additionally, the BBC reported Walters saying, “We have not yet seen in all these efforts what we’re hoping for on the supply side, which is a reduction in the availability [of cocaine].” These statements are supported by the constant demand and price stability of cocaine throughout the period of the program’s implementation. The AP reported that in 2002, about 352 metric tons of cocaine was available in the U.S., and according to recent U.S. government statistics, officials admit that the cocaine inflow has remained steady, and in some areas has even increased, since 2002.

Since his 2002 inauguration, Uribe’s approval ratings have consistently been among the highest in Latin America. Walter’s announcement comes at an unfortunate time for the Colombian president, as his popularity among citizens has recently slid. Although Uribe’s popularity remains at 67 percent, Latinnews reported on October 8 that polls showed an eight point decrease in his popularity, which may provide the opportunity for which his many opponents have been looking. Four days after these numbers were released, roughly one million Colombians took to the streets in a nationwide protest against a variety of Uribe’s economic, social and political policies.

While Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counternarcotics Mary Beth Long describes Uribe as “one of America’s strongest allies in our hemisphere,” many American officials are growing skeptical of the Colombian president. The New York Times reported in early August that a recently declassified September 1991 document closely linked Uribe to former drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, stating that the president was “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín Cartel at high government levels.” The Times’ revelation was an especially injurious indictment for both Washington and Bogotá, as Uribe has been one of Bush’s staunchest and most consistent Latin American allies in his war on drugs.

Why Washington Is Losing

With the stable flow of narcotics into the U.S. and growing unease with President Uribe’s performance, the Bush administration should be very concerned with why these two professedly stalwart allies are still losing the drug war. Before Washington starts lobbying for the renewal of Plan Colombia in 2006, it would be wise to reevaluate the ineffective way in which this war is being fought. Perhaps the subject will be discussed in the upcoming Bush-Uribe meeting in Cartagena.

On October 8, Congress passed the Bush administration’s proposal to increase the U.S.’ involvement in Plan Colombia by raising the permissible troop level. This measure is a component of the 2005 United States Defense Department Authorization Act, which increases the cap of U.S. troops allowed in Colombia from 400 to 800, and the presence of private contractors from 400 to 600. While this appears to be very good news for President Uribe, the U.S. military will probably be somewhat less enthusiastic.

U.S. military forces are currently stretched dangerously thin worldwide. Due to a shortage of troop strength, President Bush last June approved the enactment of a “stop-loss” policy, which forces many in the military to prolong their service after the original contractual enlistment has expired. This has been referred to as a “backdoor draft” by both former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (D-MA) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ).

Another Problem-Ridden Plan

In addition to Plan Colombia, Plan Patriot, a joint U.S. and Colombian military offensive launched in the summer of 2003, was the largest mobilization against leftwing insurgents in four decades. Although financed from the same fund as Plan Colombia, Plan Patriot was, according to U.S. government officials, designed by Bogotá with the intention to shut down the country’s largest insurgent group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), by capturing and killing its members and reclaiming land they currently occupy. One prominent Washington think-tank specializing in Latin American affairs warned against Plan Patriot and a subsequent increase in U.S. militarization for the anti-drug war, stating that, “Plan Patriot signals the entrance of the U.S. into a new, more intense phase of military involvement in Colombia’s internal armed conflict, and underscores the potential for escalation beyond the mission understood by Congress and beyond the appetite of the American public.”

In the vigilant wake of 9/11, the Bush administration began spreading the ‘war on terror’ like wildfire, loosely ascribing the terrorist label to many groups in Colombia, suggesting that the Andean nation’s civil war could be linked to al-Qaeda or other terrorist sponsored initiatives capable of launching large-scale attacks on the U.S. Uribe also became a vital ally in President Bush’s ‘war on terror’ paradigm, as the U.S. administration in recent weeks has decidedly pushed FARC to the forefront of so-called terrorist organizations that need to be dismantled. Despite Washington’s efforts to stretch the point, however, FARC is hardly comparable to al-Qaeda. Although FARC is a major opposition force involved in Colombia’s civil war, it is not an organization that neatly fits into Bush’s ‘war on terror’ schema; any efforts to categorize it as such only serve to confuse and perpetuate the true nature of the Colombian security situation, while wasting billions of U.S. tax dollars.

Plan Patriot’s efforts are entirely directed at fighting the leftist insurgency group, whereas the much more venal and drug-associated rightwing paramilitaries are not being challenged at all. Perhaps this is because the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) has been a longtime de facto ally of the U.S.-supported Colombian military. This drains the U.S.’ effort in Colombia of much credibility since the AUC is even more guilty of egregious human rights violations and massive narcotrafficking than FARC and other leftist groups. One should wonder why the U.S. has chosen to fund such a morally opaque and selectively indignant so-called anti-terrorist effort.

Bullets or Butter

According to a number of specialists, what President Bush fails to realize is that increasing the amount of arms and U.S. troops in this Andean country will not kick the Colombia’s cocaine habit, nor will it foster peace in the region. For a nation that has been engaged in a violent civil war between the government, rightist paramilitaries and leftist guerillas for more than 40 years, further militarization is the last thing needed. Peter Canby, a writer for The New Yorker, argues that, “Colombia is awash in guns. More and bigger guns aren’t likely to bring the country’s warring parties any closer to a peace accord.” Such an increase in military support sends the wrong message to Colombians, as it implies that the drug war can only be won with force.

Using military might to solve Colombia’s complex social and economic problems undermines the possibility of civic reforms and the propagation of peaceful democratic practices. Rather than hastening the demise of the cocaine industry, an arms build up will likely prolong Colombia’s domestic conflict, in which innocent civilians are doomed to suffer the most. If the White House is really serious about waging a successful war on drugs, it might start by creating a presence for itself in the otherwise desultory peace negotiations between the warring Colombian factions. James Zirin, a former member of the Council on Foreign Relations’ independent commission on U.S. strategy for the Andean region, noted in his August 15 Washington Times op-ed that, “The Bush administrationhas been conspicuously absent from the peace process [in Colombia].” Changes in Colombia’s situation cannot be made if there is a lack of dedication to peaceful resolutions from either side.

Prospects for successful peace negotiations and disarmament remain bleak, even after the October 18 announcement that a new phase of demobilization for the rightwing, vigilante AUC was scheduled to begin in November. The demobilization targets the Bloque Catatumbo-a faction of AUC that operates near the Venezuelan border-and is supposed to be the largest such initiative since peace negotiations between the AUC and the government were launched in December 2002. However, an independent Colombian Senator Carlos Morneo de Caro, recently expressed his doubts that the disarmament will begin on time, which would be a further setback to a peace settlement in this war-weary nation.

The slow and unlikely demobilization of the AUC is coupled with FARC’s rejection of possible negotiations with Uribe’s government this past summer. Also, the government announced on November 3 that a FARC plot to assassinate President Uribe was uncovered. If the peace process is constantly undermined, there is no hope in winning the war on drugs or ending Colombia’s tumultuous civil war.

What Remains to be Done

In addition to being highly involved in Colombian negotiations regarding the war on drugs, the Bush administration must address the country’s stifling poverty-one of the root causes of Colombia’s abiding drug problem. Rather than trying to abort the drug cycle with a quick-fix approach of increasing the volume of military assistance, a long-term commitment is desperately needed instead. Poverty and unemployment are major concerns in Colombia, where 55 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and the unemployment rate exceeds 15 percent. In a nation with almost three million unemployed, coca farming is a viable option for poor families to meet their basic needs; quite simply, cocaine is the upshot of poverty and the quest for survival.

In an August article in The Nation, author Robin Kirk was quoted as arguing that coca production for Colombian peasants has been “an entrepreneur’s dream.” Unlike the peasants who harvest the other natural commodities of the region, such as tar, rubber and wood, coca laborers are able to keep some of the wealth they create. Thus, the incentive for a poor farmer desperately trying to provide for his family is simply too great to ignore. If there is any hope for winning the war on drugs, the problem must be resolved at its most fundamental level. Instead of increasing the amount of guns, troops and violence Colombia needs economic assistance and a firm commitment to establishing an effective infrastructure that alleviates the dire poverty in which millions live.

Lastly, as the drug problem is not unique to just the U.S. and Colombia, these two nations cannot expect to win the war on drugs without geopolitical support from neighboring countries. Although President Bush is clearly not fond of working for an integrated solution through the international community to solve outstanding social or economic problems, this situation would benefit greatly from engaging other states in the region. As both the peace process and the war on drugs are inextricably linked, a massive undertaking of this kind requires the help and wisdom of Colombia’s neighbors. The recently retired commander of U.S. military operations in Latin America, U.S. Army General James Hill, told the AP in an October interview that the current situation “is not [just] Colombia’s war, but also its neighbors’ war and indeed a world war. It must be fought regionally by her neighbors.” He continued, “There is a growing understanding of that fact by Ecuador, Peru and Brazil and Panama. And I would hope, someday, Venezuela.” It remains to be seen what President Bush intends to do a propos Latin America in his upcoming four years, but hopefully he will realize the dire need for a change in policy regarding the war on drugs and the importance of including other Latin American nations in the process. Perhaps this is something that Bush will discover during his forthcoming trip to Colombia.

JENNA MICHELLE LIUT is a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.