The U.S. Military is in Danger of Going to War
on the Wrong Side

by Jonathan Power, August 11, 1999

The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research (Internet site)


MADRID- After Kosovo why not net Colombia, land of the drug barons and 40 years of near continuous civil war? The rest of the world may drop its jaw at the idea of Nato troops being sent to pacify leftist guerrilla groups, army-backed, fascist-inclined paramilitaries and the world's most ruthless drug cartels. But in Bogota, Colombia's capital, it is being touted by some as a necessary solution. And if not Nato, at least the U.S. army.

Don't drop your jaw too far. For none less than the U.S. commander in chief, Bill Clinton, said last month that vital American interests were at stake in Colombia. It is "very much in our nationalsecurity interests to do what we can". When a U.S. president uses these code words it essentiallymeans that the backbone of the U.S. military, intelligence and national security bodies has decidedthat, if necessary, the U.S. is prepared to go to any lengths, even war, to deal with the problem.If Clinton's statement was sparked by the relatively trivial loss of a U.S. military reconnaissanceplane flying over Colombia, it comes after a long period of slow-burning, mounting frustration at theinability of successive Colombian governments to get to grips with the armed gangs that threaten todestabilise the government and with the country's narcotic dealers, who for decades have been theprincipal suppliers of hard drugs on the American market.

If U.S. intervention were likely to be even-handed perhaps there could be an argument for it. Afterall Colombia is often ehibit 1 for those who say, look what happens when the outside worlddoesn't intervene: the local fires just burn brighter and fiercer.

But "even-handed" does not appear in the current leicon in the Pentagon's thinking on Colombia.Almost perversely, the Clinton Administration seems to be ignoring what the New York -basedHuman Rights Watch describes as "the root of these abuses.... the Colombian army's consistentand pervasive failure to ensure human rights standards and distinguish civilians from combatants."Terrible violence is being inflicted both upon each other and on civilian innocents by all three sidesin the armed struggle. But by no stretch of the independent reporting available, whether it be doneby Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or the very few outside journalists who have daredto risk their lives studying the situation close up, can it be said that the left wing guerrillas are themost vicious or the most responsible. The clear concensus is that the army is in league with theright wing paramilitaries who, in turn, are in league with the drug mafia. It is they who consistentlyset the pace in assassinations, organising death squads, inflicting torture and practisingwidespread intimidation.

The army has not only failed to move against the rightist paramilitaries in any significant way, it hastolerated their activity, even providing some of them with intelligence and logistical support. Onoccasion it has even coordinated joint maneuvers with them.

In a report last year the Bogota office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rightsobserved that "witnesses frequently state that massacres were perpetuated by members of thearmed forces passing themselves off as paramilitaries."

It is true that both the preceding government of Ernesto Samper and the present, relatively newone, of Andres Pastrana have moved to suspend or close down particular units, such as the army'snotorious Twentieth Brigade. Yet offficers are rarely, if ever, prosecuted, and some have even beenpromoted. Occasionally there is a dismissal.

"Defending human rights in Colombia is a dangerous profession", says Susan Osnos of HumanRights Watch. Yet it continues to attract unusually dedicated people. Last year when assassinsgunned down the president of a human rights committee in his office in Medellin, the drugtraffickers' home town, it was the fourth president to be killed since 1987. But still someone hastaken his place.

The Clinton Administration's attempts to be even handed have been derisory. It allows the StateDepartment to issue human rights reports that are highly critical of the Colombian establishment,even, in last year's report, acccusing the government of "tacit acquiescence" of abuses. In May lastyear the U.S. revoked the visa of one particularly corrupt and cruel general. Nevertheless, the maindirection of the Clinton Administration is clear- increasing levels of aid for the Colombian military,less strings attached to how it is used and the deployment of CIA and Pentagon operatives to workwith Colombian security force units that have not been give a clean bill of health on human rightsabuses. Last year General Charles Wilhelm, head of U.S. Southern Command, told a committee ofthe U.S. Congress that criticism of military abuses was "unfair".

Now with the pace being set by U.S. General Barry Mc Caffrey, the Administration's topanti-narcotics official, Washington is giving more and more aid to the Colombian military,supposedly for combating the drug menace, but in practice aimed disproportionately at theleft-wing guerrillas. Already Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel and Egypt.Washington's sense of frustration is understandable. The left wing guerrillas have not respondedwell to the significant steps taken towards them by President Pastrana. But then nobody in theirright mind epected the betrayals, bad memories and fears of 40 years of war to be quickly set onone side by handshakes and face to face meetings. But if the U.S., angry at the slow pace of eventsin Colombia, allows itself to be drawn in it will be quite counterproductive.

It will simply give substance to all the marist twaddle that has been talked for decades acrossLatin America by left wing intellectuals and guerrillas about who really pulls the strings. And it willembolden the Colombian army and its paramilitary allies to even worse excesses.

The path to peace in Colombia lies where it has long been- in honest and humane governmentwithin the country and serious moves by the world's largest drug consuming nation to pull the rugfrom under the drug barons by amending its outdated and outmoded laws on prohibition.

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