U.S. Antidrug Plan to Aid Colombia Is Facing Hurdl

U.S. Antidrug Plan to Aid Colombia Is Facing Hurdl
Posted by FoM on February 06, 2000 at 11:02:02 PT
By Tim Golden
Source: New York Times
The Clinton administration's $1.3 billion plan to help Colombia fight drug trafficking and leftist insurgents is facing skepticism from military and law-enforcement officials concerned that the United States could be dragged into a long and costly struggle that may ultimately have little impact on the drug trade. 
The aid plan, which is to be presented in detail to Congress on Monday, is intended to reduce the booming production of cocaine and heroin in Colombia, strengthen the government and help it take control of a large part of its southern territory now dominated by the rebels. Privately, though, some senior defense officials are decidedly unenthusiastic about the American military's growing role in the antidrug effort and are worried that it may be dragged deeper into the civil war that has ravaged Colombia for almost 40 years. Many drug-enforcement and Coast Guard officials are similarly concerned, officials said. While the aid package may help Colombia's army fight the guerrillas, they said, it does not reflect a coherent strategy to fight illegal drugs. Virtually none of these complaints have been aired publicly. Officials said that the arguments have been heard repeatedly in the debate over the aid plan, but that most of the criticisms have been overridden by administration officials determined to establish a new American commitment to Colombia's stability. "Their attitude is, 'We don't really want to do this,' " one senior administration official said of generals in the Pentagon. Referring to the insurgency, he added: "The last thing they need is another level of engagement that has the 'I' word in it. That always has stress for the military -- it has ever since Vietnam." The White House drug policy chief, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, dismissed skeptics of the plan, noting that some of the criticism came from agencies disappointed by their failure to get funding increases under the Colombia aid package. "Everybody tried to get aboard this mule," General McCaffrey said in an interview, referring to the administration's request for $955 million on top of the $330 million budgeted for Colombia aid this year. But he added, "There wasn't a huge fight among agencies over this package." Senior administration officials said they were confident that the proposed aid, about two-thirds of which would go to Colombian security forces, would be approved. Republicans in Congress have been an important part of the impetus for greater American assistance, warning that the Clinton White House risked "losing" Colombia to rebel groups that have been battling the military with increasing success. A few Congressional liberals have criticized the aid program as militaristic and shortsighted, but they are unlikely to slow its passage except by attaching conditions meant to promote greater respect for human rights by the Colombian military. Still, the package is only a first step in what many United States officials acknowledge will probably be a huge effort, lasting for years, to strengthen Colombian institutions and help the government reach a peace with three leftist guerrilla groups and various right-wing paramilitary forces that operate in different parts of the country. Both Colombian and American officials continue to say the United States will not engage the guerrillas directly. Nor, they said, will they aid the fight against the guerrillas -- except those who hire themselves out to the traffickers to protect drug fields, drug laboratories or clandestine airstrips. "If they are not involved in the business," President Andrés Pastrana said in an interview, "they should be confident that nothing is going to happen to them." At the same time, though, United States officials are clearly softening their positions that American aid will not be used for counterinsurgency. In a program summary released last month, the White House listed the primary component of the aid plan as, "Helping the Colombian government push into the coca-growing regions of southern Colombia, which are now dominated by insurgent guerrillas." Gen. Fred F. Woerner, a former commander of United States military forces in Latin America, said the statement represented a significant clarification of the administration's goal. "How do you push into an area dominated by these guys without having anything to do with them?" he asked, referring to the rebels. "Anyone who believes that these counternarcotics battalions will not be involved in counterinsurgency is naïve." Administration officials said they would argue to Congress that the situation is dire now because of an explosion in the cultivation of coca, the raw material of cocaine, in areas of southern Colombia that the rebels dominate. Their main evidence will be a new study by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Drug Enforcement Administration showing that Colombia's coca production over the last two years was about three times greater than what American analysts had thought. Until the last few years, nearly all the world's coca was grown in Bolivia and Peru. But with the introduction of new varieties of the coca plant, Colombia has more than made up for major reductions of coca growing in the neighboring countries. Moreover, intelligence officials said that new refining techniques are enabling Colombian traffickers to produce more cocaine from their crop than ever before. While the C.I.A. said last year that Colombia grew 182 tons of coca in 1998, officials said the new study would show that it actually grew a staggering 480 tons, or more than half the worldwide total. That total, however, is not expected to rise significantly. "We do not see any signs of an explosion," one official said. He added that, despite a surging cocaine market in Europe and the former Soviet Union, "at some point, there has to be an issue of supply and demand." American military officials agree that the Colombian military should be strengthened. But many of them are reluctant for the United States to get more involved in that process -- both because more trainers would represent a bigger American target for the rebels and because of the stress that their deployment would put on Pentagon resources. Many Defense Department officials fear being drawn more deeply into Colombia's civil war. "It depends on who you talk to; I am personally concerned about that," one senior military official said. But he added: "Here's the dilemma: Do you just let them go down the tubes? It is far preferable for us to try to train them and equip them than it is for American troops to ultimately have to be there." In the first major draft of the administration's aid plan, put forward last fall, officials proposed nearly three years of intensive United States training to create six new special Colombian Army battalions to operate against drug traffickers and insurgents who support them. After objections by senior American military officials, the proposal was scaled back to the creation of two new battalions over about eight months, administration officials said. A first battalion has already been trained, and the number of United States military trainers in Colombia will not be significantly increased, they said. Some Pentagon officials said they were also concerned about the single biggest piece of the aid package: 30 sophisticated UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters being provided to the Colombian military at a cost of more than $400 million. The aircraft, which will remain State Department property, are not only very expensive but will also require extensive pilot training and cost tens of millions of dollars to operate each year, officials said. Law enforcement officials, for the most part, have more strategic concerns. Drug enforcement officials argue essentially that the push into southern Colombia -- intended to destroy coca-processing laboratories and secure growing areas from guerrillas -- is important, but not that important. Under the administration's plan, that campaign is to cost about $600 million, or nearly half the $1.28 billion to be spent on the package. By contrast, officials say, successful Drug Enforcement Administration programs to train and support special Colombian police teams that work against the country's biggest traffickers cost only a few million dollars a year. Other officials assert that Washington should start by pressing the Colombian government to make important policy changes that would cost almost nothing. Those may include increasing prison sentences for drug offenses, reorganizing the judiciary, and taking cellular telephones away from jailed traffickers so they cannot operate from prison. "Many of the changes that are required there could be made overnight," one American official said. "And they would require no or nominal amounts of money." United States Coast Guard officials also argued for a bigger piece of the new package, officials said. With its own cocaine seizures booming, the agency sought new funding for innovating programs to detect drug shipments and deploy armed helicopters against high-speed drug boats in the Caribbean. Administration officials said that while they had not included any new money for those programs in the proposed Colombia package, they had agreed to ask for about $17 million for the helicopter program next year, $7 million more than in the current year. But some money for other high-priority Coast Guard drug programs has already been denied, officials said. Last year, administration debate over the aid plan was mainly between officials who sought greater support for the Colombian military and those who argued strongly for a bigger complement of social and economic programs. Now, administration officials said funding would rise most sharply of all for nonmilitary programs like crop-substitution efforts, strengthening human rights and economic development. "This was a case in which we really said to people, 'How fast can you spend money?' " one budget official said, referring to United States economic development officials. "It gets to a question of what is achievable; almost none of these programs are in place in Colombia now." Published: February 6, 2000Washington, Feb. 5 Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company Related Articles:A Veteran of the Drug War Fires at U.S. Policy Expects Protests Over Drugs
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