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Plan Colombia Broadens | The Nation

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Plan Colombia Broadens

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On the other side of the Hill where the Democrats are in control, several powerful senators have seen the House bill, and are not pleased--especially after a pointed encounter with Administration representatives last week. At a July 11 hearing before the Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittee, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Rand Beers incurred some ire by dodging a number of questions put to him about the use of--and lack of information about--State Department contractors like DynCorp.

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Jason Vest
Jason Vest writes on national security affairs for The Nation.

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The neocon think tank's recent call for an increase in troop strength is myopic.

In Washington, it's hardly without precedent for a presidential appointee to swear one thing before a Senate confirmation committee and then, once ensconced in the sought-after post, do another.

But Beers also told senators that US contractor pilots would be out of Colombia by the end of 2002--an assertion which some senators and their staffs now find strange, given the language in the House bill. "If anything, the number of Americans should be going down, not up, as people in the Andean countries learn from Americans and take on their own responsibilities," says a senior aide to one committee chairman. "There are concerns here about the growing presence of Americans in Colombia and throughout the Andean region, and about the limited information on what they're doing, and risks to their safety."

Which raises another question about the Andean Counterdrug Initiative. Apparently even the most vigilant Andean policy critics missed a condition buried in the original Plan Colombia package that has cropped up again in the ACI legislation, a proviso stating that "section 482(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 shall not apply to funds appropriated under this heading." The first part of Section 482 forbids State Department contractors from using federal money to buy weapons. But Section 482(b) actually exempts State Department counternarcotics contractors from this restriction, allowing them to buy guns and ammo with federal funds to arm aircraft and personnel--as long as it's for "defensive" purposes.

"Defensive," as staffers and others note, can already be expansively interpreted; by essentially erasing the "defensive" clause, the new bill removes even the vaguest restrictions on armed contractor arsenals and activities. According to Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project of the Institute for Policy Studies, the re-affirmation of the Section 482(b) exemption is particularly troubling, as it echoes a proposal in a US Air Force-sponsored RAND Corporation report that policymakers are reading with increasing interest.

Entitled "Colombian Labryinth," the RAND report asserts that "drugs and insurgency are intertwined in complicated and changing ways but the former cannot be addressed without the latter," and concludes US-backed efforts to reduce the drug supply in Colombia have been ineffective, The reason, RAND says, is because the United States has focused more on "counternarcotics" assistance (aid to anti-drug police and special military anti-drug units) rather than "counterinsurgency" (aid to Colombian military in its war with the left-wing FARC and ELN).

While a number of investigative journalists and watchdog groups have demonstrated US aid and assistance has already crossed the line from counternarcotics to counterinsurgency, RAND recommends that the United States once and for all dispense with the dubious notion that there's any difference between the two, and lays out an expansive proposal for increasing US military aid and assistance to Colombian government in its fight against leftist rebels. But use of US troops is something even the Bush Administration is leery of: At his confirmation hearing earlier this year, Peter Rodman, Bush's nominee to be Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, told senators that "none of us wants to get into a war. The word 'counterinsurgency' scares the hell out of everybody."

But as Tree notes, everything the RAND report recommends--helping the Colombian military develop new infantry and air tactics, setting up better intelligence networks in Colombia, and greater training and equipping Panama's police and military--are all things that don't necessarily have to be done by active-duty US military personnel, but hired contractors. "While there are certainly those who favor that approach," says a Congressional specialist on Colombia, "we haven't really felt that much pressure to go down that road this year, contrary to last year. Whether that view would carry weight here, without a fair amount of more selling on the part of the administration, isn't clear." There is, however, even more money slated for Colombia's armed forces and counternarcotics operations in the Pentagon's FY02 spending bill, which is still stuck in the Defense Appropriations subcommittee. In additional, while troops may be capped, a lot of US-produced military hardware is already heading south.

As for the language in the House bill, whether or not it gets a warm reception from Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittee remains to be seen; Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) is no fan of the drug war, and even ranking minority member Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) is working with Leahy to legislate a ban on presidential waivers of human rights conditions tied to counternarcotics aid. While Leahy's office did not return calls, Allison Dobson, press secretary to Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN), said Wellstone will "certainly fight the House provision" if it crops up in the Senate. "Plan Colombia," she said, "is quicksand. What this shows is we're being asked to put more and more into it, which is what we feared from the beginning."

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