Colombia, History, Inter-American Relations, War on Drugs

Plan Colombia — shock and…flaw?


Photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald; U.S. Dept. of Defense

Colombian special forces and intelligence officials pulled off a polished, technically sound, albeit risky rescue mission this past week. Needless to say, the payoff was nothing short of monumental. The operational ruse yielded a swath of the FARC’s most politically significant captives, including three American defense contractors and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt. Unless one was trekking the Amazon in search of the “lost tribe,” the aftermath played out center stage internationally— a sweeping political victory for President Álvaro Uribe.

For those who follow the Colombian counterinsurgency it should come as no great surprise that U.S. officials have played a deft but discreet role toward this poignant moment, perhaps the crushing blow to a once-formidable FARC. Officials of both countries have made it abundantly clear that Colombian forces planned, commanded, and executed this operation in full force. But, as Juan Forero of The Washington Post outlines in his piece this Wednesday, American assistance was pivotal in its combat support role. Actionable intelligence was exchanged, government consent provided, and U.S. Special Forces operators accompanied reconnaissance units they had been for years training in tracking the hostages’ positions along the Apaporis River of southern Colombia.

The professionalism and ingenuity of the Colombian armed forces and cadre of intelligence officers has truly been showcased this year. With remarkable breakthroughs in its long-winded counterinsurgency, it has now managed to ravage the ranks of the FARC secretariat, largely untouched for 40 plus years.

Riding the congratulatory wave, many officials here in Washington are eager to tout Plan Colombia as a beacon of American foreign aid, its largest package delivered outside of the Middle East. Highlighting the success of such initiatives, Senior Policy Analyst Ray Walser of the Heritage Foundation, asserts:

“The rescue is a powerful indicator that U.S. assistance and support for Colombia’s military through Plan Colombia continues to yield results in the campaign against the narco-terrorists of the FARC, stripping away their leaders and military cohesion, and now their ability to manipulate the headlines through exploitation of the plight of captives.” […]

“As [U.S.] Congress moves to debate continued funding for Plan Colombia, it should consider the rescue of Ms. Betancourt, Mr. Gonsalves, Mr. Howe, and Mr. Stansill as a demonstration of the effectiveness of Colombia’s military forces. Well-trained, professional and under civilian guidance, Colombia’s military is willing to partner with the U.S. to curb the depredations of kidnappers and narco-terrorists. “

While the bolstered state of the Colombian military indeed marks a solid affirmation and can be in part attributed to American assitance, Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombian affairs from the Center for International Policy, points out the following (see link for statistics):

“According to this exercise, we estimate that about 35 percent of U.S. military aid in 2007 went to non-drug missions. The remaining aid – nearly two-thirds – has gone to the drug war, which – as is now general knowledge – has not affected the amount of coca grown, or cocaine produced, in Colombia and the Andes.” (emphasis original to author)

Here marks the fine line Plan Colombia has teetered upon since its induction by President Clinton and Pastrana in 2000. In large part, the comprehensive package had been cloaked as a counternarcotics initiative, partitioning the contribution of U.S. resources from that of domestic counterinsurgency operations. In this respect it has failed rather miserably. While many would argue over the years the two campaigns are indistinguishable, political considerations drove this agenda amid frustrations of field-grade American and Colombian officials. As such, until recently, American policy in Colombia defined Washington’s initiative toward the fabled War on Drugs.
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