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Copyright 2001 The Washington Post
The Washington Post

April 01, 2001, Sunday, Final Edition


LENGTH: 1906 words

HEADLINE: A Plan, But No Clear Objective; General Powell to Secretary Powell: We Need to Talk Colombia

BYLINE: William M. LeoGrande and Kenneth Sharpe


Of all the unfinished foreign policy business Bill Clinton bequeathed to George W. Bush, Colombia stands out as perhaps the most volatile and dangerous. Later this month, when the 34 democratically elected leaders of the Western hemisphere meet at the Third Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, Bush will have his first opportunity to fully articulate his policy toward Latin America. His fellow presidents will be especially eager to hear what he has to say about the growing conflict in Colombia, which has begun spilling into neighboring countries.

Bush has endorsed Plan Colombia, which was jointly devised by the Colombian government and the Clinton administration in 1999 to fight drugs in the southern provinces controlled by leftist guerrillas. Clinton won congressional approval for $ 1.3 billion in new U.S. aid to Colombia, for a total of $ 1.6 billion; Bush has proposed $ 400 million more.

When he met with Colombian President Andres Pastrana in Washington in February, Bush pledged continued U.S. support -- economic as well as military. Still, some administration officials have expressed qualms about getting bogged down in Colombia. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said during his confirmation hearing that the drug problem in the United States is "overwhelmingly a demand problem," unlikely to be alleviated by increased military aid to Colombia. Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, has warned against deeper U.S. involvement there, invoking the specter of Vietnam. As the Bush administration formulates its policies toward Latin America and Colombia's worsening crisis, no senior official will be more influential in grappling with the diplomatic and military factors than Colin Powell. When he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Powell was known for advocating caution and clarity of purpose before committing U.S. military forces abroad -- the so-called Powell Doctrine. Now, as secretary of state, Powell has the chance to help craft the policy the military will carry out.

If Gen. Powell could buttonhole Secretary Powell, what advice might he give him? Define a clear political objective, the general would say. Then make certain the military's mission is clear and achievable. And make sure you have the support of the American people.

Powell's thinking echoes Karl von Clausewitz's 19th-century treatise on military strategy, "On War," which maintains that war is a means of achieving a political goal, not an end in itself. As Powell put it in 1992, speaking of Bosnia, "You must begin with a clear understanding of what political objective is being achieved."

But what exactly is the objective of U.S. policy in Colombia? Is it to reduce the flow of drugs into the United States? That's how former drug czar Barry McCaffrey defended the increase in military aid and advisers under Plan Colombia. Or is it to help the Colombian armed forces win their decades-long war against leftist guerrillas, as some U.S. military officials have intimated? U.S. policymakers have yet to clarify which of these very different aims is paramount. Some policymakers want to fight drugs, and some want to fight guerrillas. To satisfy both, Plan Colombia calls for fighting drugs in areas controlled by guerrillas, even though that is not a sensible approach to either problem.

If we could identify a clear objective, would our allies share it? The Colombian military's central mission is to defeat the guerrillas. The drug war has always been a sideshow -- a way to extract money from Washington, which until now has been reluctant to entangle itself in Colombia's fratrici- dal fighting, but has always found funds for counter-narcotic programs.

For the Colombian military to wage a concerted war on drugs, it would have to attack the rightist paramilitaries as well as the leftist guerrillas, since the paramilitaries are deeply involved in drug production and trafficking. The army has a notorious history of providing the paramilitaries with arms, intelligence and protection because they are the army's ally in the dirty war against leftist civilians and guerrillas. Will the military betray this ideological ally in order to prosecute Washington's war against drugs? Not likely.

Our regional allies are unanimous in their opposition to Washington's current military strategy, fearing the war's escalation. Our European allies, who Pastrana had hoped would provide several billion dollars in aid, regard the military thrust of Plan Colombia as so misguided and self-defeating that they refuse to fund even its social and economic components.

After Gen. Powell advises Secretary Powell to clarify the aim of U.S. policy, we imagine he would insist on a clear and achievable military mission for U.S. forces. "Military force," Gen. Powell said in 1992, "is not always the right answer. If force is used imprecisely or out of frustration rather than clear analysis, the situation can be made worse."

No close observer of Colombia believes that U.S. arms and advisers will enable the military to defeat the leftist guerrillas who have held sway in remote regions of the country since the 1960s. That is why every Colombian president since 1980 has sought a negotiated settlement. Secretary Powell acknowledged in January that the war "will only be solved by a political solution, by negotiations." Bush, in his meeting with Pastrana, endorsed the ongoing peace talks, though he rejected Pastrana's invitation for the United States to join the process as an observer.

Might U.S. military aid help foster diplomacy by weakening the rebels and making them more willing to bargain? Perhaps, but the opposite effect is just as likely. The Colombian military has consistently opposed civilian efforts to negotiate an end to the war. It also has one of the worst human rights records in Latin America, as the State Department's recent human rights report documents. U.S. aid will only encourage the army's dreams of victory, stiffen its opposition to negotiation and enhance its capacity to abuse human rights. If there is no attainable military solution and if escalating the war will make settling it harder, then military force is the wrong policy instrument.

Secretary Powell might protest that ending the civil war is not the central objective of U.S. policy. Drugs are our target, and military force is appropriate to the mission of eradicating coca -- the plant from which cocaine is derived -- in southern Colombia. The guerrillas are defending the peasants whose coca they tax; the police can't eradicate the coca without protection against guerrilla attacks. Creating special counter-narcotics battalions trained in counter-insurgency can accomplish this mission. Some 75,000 acres have already been sprayed.

Not so fast, the general might reply. Eradicating coca production in Colombia may be a policy goal, but it is not a clear military mission. Does it simply mean eradicating coca crops in the southern provinces? That's the thrust of Plan Colombia. But what about the plants and processing labs in northern Colombia, protected and taxed by the paramilitaries? Or heroin production, which is burgeoning throughout the country?

Plan Colombia ignores these other production points, making it hard to imagine how it can significantly reduce the flow of drugs to the United States. And when the fumigation of fields in southern Colombia drives producers and traffickers into Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil, will the U.S. military commitment extend to these new fronts? To combat drug production wherever it spreads requires an open-ended commitment to an ill-defined mission. Progress will end up being measured by the drug war's version of body counts: acres of coca fumigated, tons of cocaine destroyed, millions of dollars confiscated. By these metrics, we will win every battle, but as in Vietnam, we will come no closer to winning the war.

To win a war, Clausewitz argued, you must identify and attack the enemy's "center of gravity . . . the hub of all power and movement upon which everything depends." There is no such "center of gravity" for the drug trade -- no command headquarters, no capital city. Cocaine, heroin and marijuana are easy to grow, process, smuggle and sell. The trade has low barriers to entry, requiring little skill or start-up capital. To compensate for the risk associated with the illegality of the drug trade, traffickers exact premium prices for a commodity that is cheap to produce, creating huge profit margins that lure recruits into the trade at all levels. The Colombian government arrested or killed most of the drug lords of the big cartels in the early 1990s, but the trade simply fractured into dozens of smaller cartels. The Bolivian and Peruvian governments significantly reduced the acreage planted in coca in their countries, but production simply moved to Colombia.

Know your enemy, the general would surely remind the secretary. Think hard about who the enemy is and how military force is supposed to overcome him. The enemy in the drug war is not a guerrilla army, or peasant coca producers, or drug traffickers, or even drug cartels -- though at times the enemy assumes all these guises. The real enemy is an economic market in which all these players seek profit by selling drugs to the United States.

With overwhelming force, the United States might decimate the ranks of the producers and traffickers, but the market for drugs is so lucrative that for every profiteer we eliminate, another steps forward, drawn by the promise of quick riches. That is why, despite Washington having spent billions of dollars on drug eradication and interdiction over the past decade, more drugs enter the United States than ever before and the street price of heroin and cocaine has been falling for years. You can't use military force to repeal the laws of economics.

The quintessential element of the Powell Doctrine, a legacy of Gen. Powell's service in Vietnam, is the injunction never to commit U.S. military forces without public support. The human rights and religious groups that were the organizational core of opposition to Ronald Reagan's anticommunist policy in Central America are virtually unanimous now in their opposition to Plan Colombia. Last year, Plan Colombia faced significant opposition from liberal Democrats in the Congress, even though it was authored by a Democratic administration. It was approved, but only after the addition of stiff human rights conditions, which Colombia has not met and Washington refuses to enforce. The bitter policy battles over El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s demonstrated that you don't need tens of thousands of U.S. troops on the ground to unleash the kind of firestorm of domestic controversy that makes coherent policy and sustained commitment impossible.

Obviously, vital national interests may sometimes demand that the United States use military force in less than optimal circumstances. Powell himself has said that his "doctrine" is more a set of guidelines than a list of prerequisites. But when a policy fails every test of the Powell Doctrine as completely as does U.S. policy toward Colombia, that's a pretty good indication that it is a quagmire waiting to happen.

Gen. Powell would see that in a second and protest mightily against going down that road again.

Secretary Powell should, too.


LOAD-DATE: April 01, 2001