The U.S. should consider alternatives to a Clinton administration proposal to fight drug trafficking in Colombia with a strategy that could draw the United States into the country's civil war.
Anyone wondering where the next black hole for our military resources will open up should look south. The Clinton administration's anti-drug aid plan for Colombia has the potential for absorbing a large chunk of our military budget and, if we're not careful, sucking the United States into a guerrilla war that parallels Vietnam. Even some of our military leaders are expressing concerns about what we may be getting into.
Colombia is a country imploding under the dual stresses of insurgency and widespread drug trafficking. Three leftist guerrilla armies and a number of right-wing paramilitary groups have been battling for decades for control of various sections of the country. To finance these operations, insurgent groups have made alliances with drug traffickers, offering protection for drug fields, laboratories and personal airstrips.
According to a new study by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Drug Enforcement Administration, cultivation of coca, the raw material for cocaine, has been allowed to expand exponentially to 480 tons in 1998. Half of all coca grown in the world now comes from Colombia.
In response, the Clinton administration has proposed a whopping $1.6-billion plan to help prop up Colombia's flagging security forces with U.S. military trainers and high-powered equipment, including 30 Blackhawk helicopters and 33 Huey helicopters. But dissension over this plan is percolating inside the Pentagon, where some officials appear to understand the difference between an anti-drug campaign and a counter-insurgency operation. Senior defense officials have told the New York Times that they worry about the expanding role of our defense forces in the battle against illegal drugs and the risk of U.S. soldiers being drawn into Colombia's civil war.
In fact, the White House has acknowledged that a primary purpose of the plan is to "(help) the Colombian government push into the coca-growing regions of southern Colombia, which are now dominated by insurgent guerrillas."
There are alternatives to what the Clinton administration is proposing. Officials at the DEA suggest that training Colombia's special anti-drug police teams, as opposed to its military, would be more effective and less costly. Other U.S. officials say pressing Colombia to make internal changes, including reforming the judiciary, could make a difference. Of course, the real answer to combatting the flow of Colombian cocaine is for the United States to refocus its drug war on prevention and treatment. Reducing demand by providing universal drug treatment in this country would do more to hurt drug traffickers than our military involvement in Colombia.
Congress should put the brakes on the White House plan. Colombia's civil war should not become our war.
© St. Petersburg Times.