In the Dirksen Senate Office Building a week later and several thousand miles away, Senator Jeff Sessions lit into Gen. Barry McCaffrey, America’s drug czar, and Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, for being doves on Colombia. It wasn’t enough that McCaffrey and Pickering had shown up to defend a Clinton administration plan to triple military aid to Colombia, a country that receives the third most United States security assistance of any nation on earth. To Sessions, the United States needs far more radical steps to help our southern neighbor. “We used to have a strong will and now we don’t!” he thundered. Pickering tried to explain the complexities of the situation and McCaffrey insisted that we are making progress. But Sessions, turning redder and redder, would have none of it: “The nation will not prevail until there’s progress on the battlefield!”

There was definitely something in what the senator said. If you go to war, you want to win battles; and to win battles, you’ve got to be committed. But there was also something deeply unnerving: If you’re going to win battles, you’ve got to know who you’re fighting and, in Colombia, it’s really not clear. Everybody’s hands seem a little bit bloody and every corridor seems a little bit dark. Clinton’s proposal would give aid to the government, ostensibly, to fight drug production. So are we just going to war against the drug runners who are supplying America’s cities with cocaine and heroin? Or are we also going to war with the leftist guerrillas fighting the government and often allied with the drug runners? Are we going to be fighting on the same side as the paramilitaries responsible for the El Salado massacre—international pariahs and public-enemies who have their own ties to the drug trade but oppose the guerrillas?

The Clinton administration has a serious plan and there’s a good chance it will pass. But before it does, we should stop and think about what Senator Sessions seemed to be saying. If you’re going to wade into a mess like this with guns-a-blazing, you’d better know who and what you’re fighting for, and you’d better be sure you’re willing to pay the price it’s going to take to win.

Mention of Colombia almost immediately brings analogies to Vietnam. One week after Sen. Sessions’ outburst, Sen. Ted Stevens demanded of Gen. Charles Wilhelm the commander in chief of the United States’ Southern Command: “Who’s going to be there when this blows up? Tell me this isn’t Vietnam.” In recent months, every media outlet seems to have drawn the comparison and The Washington Post and The Financial Times even chose an identical headline for different articles: “Shades of Vietnam.”

This is not surprising. Much of our foreign policy is conditioned by a visceral fear of repeating the disasters of the war in Southeast Asia. But the mistake we have to avoid in Colombia isn’t sending troops into jungle action without full public commitment; the White House and Congress have emphatically declared that troops aren’t going south and there’s almost no chance that the Colombian end-game will see American soldiers dying in the jungle while flags burn at home.

But the mistake we are in danger of repeating in Colombia lies in our decision-making process. Our Vietnam policy was crafted by highly intelligent people with legitimate strategic concerns who thought they were acting in the country’s best interests. The problem was their lack of information: They underestimated the North’s tenacity, overestimated our allies’ competence, and misjudged the public’s endurance for war. We didn’t look the situation squarely in the eyes, we didn’t hedge our bets enough to offset the complexities of that war, and we didn’t listen closely to people on the ground who considered the war hopeless.

With Colombia, we need to put a heavy burden of proof squarely on the shoulders of those who urge increasing our military aid. There are reasons to charge into Colombia—a country in quasi-anarchy whose drugs are pouring across our borders—but we shouldn’t unless we know our goals and exit strategy, unless we know it’s clear that we won’t end up directly or indirectly massacring innocent Colombians, and unless we know the benefits conclusively outweigh the costs. Unfortunately, this burden is far from being met.

Just a few hours south of Miami by plane, Colombia produces about 80 percent of the cocaine used in this country and more than half of the heroin. Farmers grow their coca crop deep in the jungle or in the mountains and sell it to traffickers. The traffickers then process it in mobile laboratories and smuggle their product across our border with elaborate networks of traffickers organized by cell phones, the Internet, and good old machine guns. Once here, the drugs offer quick buzzes and destroy lives. Over 50,000 people suffer drug-related deaths in the United States each year and Gen. McCaffrey continually emphasizes studies that show that illegal drug use annually costs this country $110 billion.

The Clinton administration believes in developing a broad strategy for our national drug control policy and the current plan—more or less a steroid-enhanced version of the policies of the Bush administration and Clinton’s first seven years—seeks to increase funding to choke off the supply side. Specifically, the plan calls for $1.3 billion in additional aid over the next two years on top of $300 million that has already been budgeted. Almost $600 million of the new money would be spent arming and training the Colombian army for a push into the country’s remote southern regions where most of the coca is currently grown. Much of this would be spent purchasing 30 high-powered Black Hawk helicopters and 33 UH-1Ns, commonly known as Hueys, the workhorse helicopters of the Vietnam War. A further $350 million would go to upgrade radar systems and provide narcotics intelligence assistance to Colombian security forces and drug interdiction units in neighboring countries; $100 million would go to the Colombian National Police for coca eradication programs, and the rest would be targeted toward economic development and civil projects. Roughly 80 percent of the total amount is dedicated to security and military; 20 percent is dedicated to economic assistance and social aid.

To determine the potential efficacy of the aid, one needs to look at the political situation and the different groups battling with, and around, the military we’d be supporting. Colombia has been wracked by armed conflict for much of its history, and for more than 30 years a leftist insurgency group, known as the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the Colombian government have been locked in a struggle in which each seems to lose equally. The FARC was founded in 1966 in reaction to the oligarchic settlement of the bloody 10-year war between the Conservatives and Liberals known as “La Violencia” that left more than 200,000 Colombians dead. Today, mixing its own particular brand of terrorism, extortion, and socialism, the FARC controls territory that, although sparsely populated, exceeds the size of California and represents 40 percent of the country.

The FARC operates as a coalition of highly organized fronts scattered around the country with a stronghold in the south. The guerrillas specialize in kidnapping and are fairly well armed—better equipped, in fact, than the Colombian military, according to our Congressional Research Service. Guerrillas generally base themselves in camps—tents, barracks, and, quite often, a soccer field—buried deep in the jungle from which they send out multiple lines of roving patrols to ambush and warn of approaching government troops. Politically, the FARC is a mixture of grizzled idealists still pushing a socialist agenda—according to conservative analyst Andy Messing of the National Defense Council Foundation, leaders like FARC’s commander Manuel “Sure Shot” Marulanda, “are very serious and they clearly want a better life for Colombians”—and brutal, opportunistic murderers reveling in power and the money they wrestle from the drug trade. Last year, the FARC kidnapped and murdered three American human-rights advocates without any apparent reason—they demanded no ransom and offered no explanation.

On the other side of the political spectrum are right-wing paramilitary forces—organizations of loosely-knit mercenaries maintained primarily to protect private business and drug dealers from the FARC and the ELN, another, smaller, violent leftist insurgency. Many of the paramilitary groups operating today were founded by the government in the late 1970s, but official connections between the two were legally cut a decade ago. Today, the State Department estimates that paramilitaries cause 70 percent of the human rights violations that plague Colombia.

In no small part, the paramilitaries exist to hunt the FARC, the ELN, and people who support them. On March 1, letting his face be shown for the first time in seven years, Carlos Castano, the leader of the largest paramilitary group (and a man who has been fighting the FARC since they kidnapped and murdered his father more than 20 years ago) told a Colombian television station: “Guerrillas are military objectives of ours, whether they are dressed as civilians or in uniform. I know this violates international humanitarian law. But the guerrillas violate humanitarian law all the time…. This is a really vile war.”

Colombian President Andres Pastrana has worked to break remaining governmental ties with the paramilitaries. Still, as might be expected from two institutions fighting the same enemies, there are, at least de facto, links and, quite possibly, some serious, tight, and brutal connections. A February report by Human Rights Watch reported that there is “detailed, abundant, and compelling evidence of close ties between the Colombian Army and paramilitary groups responsible for gross human rights violations.” One gruesome example detailed how members of the Colombian Army’s Fourth Brigade joined forces with paramilitaries to surround the village of El Aro, later burning more than half of the residents’ homes and killing 11 people. Why? Because the villagers were suspected of being sympathetic to the FARC. One store owner, Aurelio Areiza, was tied to a tree and had his eyes gouged out and tongue and testicles cut off before his eventual execution.

The State Department responds that recipients of U.S. military aid are required to be vetted for past human rights abuses and that none of the recipients of our current package was specifically mentioned by Human Rights Watch. But while serious improvements have been made over the past decade, this distinction is a little too neat and the lines aren’t nearly as clear as one would hope. According to Human Rights Watch, the commander of the brigade responsible for the alleged massacre in El Aro, General Carlos Ospina, has since been promoted to head Colombia’s fourth division—an army unit of three brigades in southern Colombia, one of which will soon be receiving Black Hawks and Hueys if the aid package goes through.

Along with many smaller groups such as the ELN, the FARC and the paramilitaries are both causes and symptoms of an imploding society. To a degree, Colombia has been at war with itself since it was founded in 1830 by the revolutionary leaders, and later rivals, Simon Bolivar and Francisco de Paula Santander. It began this century with a bloody “thousand days’ war” and since then has averaged one civil war every decade, many arising from the country’s startling class stratifications. Today, the raging war has forced approximately 300,000 displaced people’ to leave their homes.

This bloody chaos has helped create an ideal environment for the drug business—and that business has pulled the country down even further. Illegal narcotics are Colombia’s third-largest export and Robert White, former Ambassador to El Salvador, argues that, “You can’t have a business like that without having some sort of support from police, from banks, from the military.” The evidence bears him out: In November 1998, the chief of the military air transport command for the Colombian army was caught trying to smuggle half a ton of cocaine into Miami on his official airplane. Even U.S. officials aren’t completely to be trusted. Laurie Hiett, wife of a former U.S. military attache in Colombia, recently pleaded guilty to smuggling $700,000 worth of heroin through our embassy’s mail service.

With the nation spinning out of control it’s not surprising that there is one thing that everyone seems to agree on: They want peace. President Pastrana was elected primarily because of his pledge to bring peace to his country and, this November, approximately five million people took to Colombia’s streets demanding peace under banners reading “No Mas” or, in English, “No More.” The FARC has begun negotiating with the government (senior officials from both camps have just returned from a joint tour of Europe) and even Castano says he wants an end to conflict.

Most Colombians, like many Israelis, Palestinians, and residents of Northern Ireland, are just sick of living in a state of perpetual civil war. The war has forced people out of their homes, torn apart civil infrastructure (in Medelln, Colombia’s second largest city, university buildings are riddled with bullet holes and residents tell of endless nightly gunfire) and disrupted the economy. It also pulls good people into the drug trade. Many farmers are forced to grow coca simply because they have no other way to make a living. Many have two choices: grow coffee, for example, and drive it to markets over miles of torn-up roads stalked by guerrillas and paramilitaries; or grow coca to sell profitably when drug-runners come to pick it up at your doorstep.

At first glance, the Clinton proposal has little to do with the civil war or making peace. Administration officials claim that it is exclusively an attempt to knock out the drug trade and has nothing to do with the insurgency. But this is a distinction without a huge difference; money that goes to the military will almost certainly slip into counter-insurgency. The Colombian military isn’t focused solely on the drug campaign. They have been fighting the FARC for 30 years and neither they nor any FARC commander with a surface-to-air missile is going to care whether a reconnaissance helicopter has been assigned to a counter-drug or counter-insurgency mission.

Raul Reyes, top negotiator for the FARC, told The Associated Press on February 28: “Plan Colombia, as we understand it, is no more than a way… for hawks in the United States to become more deeply involved in our internal affairs… It’s a declaration of war by the United States.” Even Under Secretary of State Pickering hasn’t been able to avoid touching the issue: “Our goals in the military field are to eliminate the transport and production of narcotics. If the guerrillas are taking part, and I’ve no doubt they are, then they will be targets of our fight.”

But $1.6 billion is emphatically not enough either to win the drug war or to knock out the insurgency. Over the past decade, Colombian cocaine production has skyrocketed, even as we have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the Andes. This doesn’t mean the aid so far has done nothing (the problem would probably be worse if we had stood aside) but it does suggest that our current solution (and maybe any solution short of, say, $100 billion) will do little. Drug production has a way of operating like a girdle: squeeze down in one place, and it just pops out in another. When Peru stabilized its political situation in the early 1990s, drug production there began to plunge as traffickers simply moved east into the chaos of Colombia. Meanwhile, the biggest triumph the United States has had in the war on drugs in Colombia—the defeat of the Cali and Medelln cartels and the killing of Pablo Escobar in the early ’90s—appeared not to make a dime’s worth of difference. New, less-centralized and harder-to-isolate, traffickers filled their shoes and drug production shot up. Even if drug production was eradicated in Colombia, it’s quite possible the traffickers would just move into Ecuador (where the military recently toppled the government) or Brazil.

Furthermore, the military’s war on the FARC seems presently unwinnable and $1.6 billion is not going to change that equation. Colombia is more than three times the size of Vietnam and fifty times the size of El Salvador and, if anything, the FARC has been gaining ground on the army over the past two years of this more-than-30-year-war, though the government has won the most recent battles. The army deploys significantly more soldiers than the FARC (about 130,000 vs. 15,000) but more than two thirds of them (including, by law, every high-school graduate) are stationed in defensive positions and the guerrillas have proved themselves much more mobile than the military. In the jungle territory the rebels call home, the FARC has built and mapped networks of trails that allow them to move easily from one place to another while the army, frightened of ambush on the enemy-built trails, trudges slowly with compass-based navigation. The helicopters provided by the United States will certainly help the army’s fight, but, in a country as large as Colombia, 60 helicopters manned by soldiers with limited training is not going to turn the tide.

The danger of the administration’s aid package is that it will simply intensify the violence. The FARC will see it as a foreign invasion, the poorly disciplined military will start to run rampant, the drug trade won’t be slowed at all, and the only people who will really lose will be those caught in the crossfire—as has always been the case in Colombia.

But a $1.6 billion military aid package is not our only option. If we wanted to be sure to stay out of the war, and if we wanted to keep our hands clean of human rights violations, we could conceivably give the government money for schools and roads, not machine guns and helicopters. Instead of spending $200 million out of $1.6 billion on civil programs, we could spend every cent on them. Indeed, as this article goes to press, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Ca.) have taken the Hippocratic position of “first do no harm” and are circulating a “Dear Colleague” letter requesting that we stop considering any military aid.

There is merit to Schakowsky and Campbell’s plea; but there’s also reason not to go that far. If you build schools you still need to protect the children from being kidnapped by the FARC. If you build roads you may be facilitating drug smuggling. But even so, to protect the schools and roads, you don’t need to provide hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Black Hawks. According to former Ambassador White, one of the plan’s most vehement and public critics: “Would I support the aid package if it was 75 percent targeted toward civilians and 25 percent targeted toward the military? Of course.” Michael Shifter of the Inter-America Dialogue and one of the most respected Colombia experts in the country told me that the plan “is disappointing” and “misses an opportunity… I’m not sure giving them 60 helicopters to fight drugs is the wisest thing to do.”

The administration counters the argument that its aid package is too focused on the military by noting that the United States’ aid is simply a share of Plan Colombia, a blueprint for national Colombia’s development that balances military and non-military aid and includes contributions from Colombia, the United States, other countries, and international organizations. And, for better or for worse, the United States has the reputation for being the country most willing to provide military aid. Sweden and the World Bank aren’t going to give the Colombian military Black Hawk helicopters.

This argument, although not specious, is disingenuous. It is true that President Pastrana was talking about a Colombian “Marshall Plan” even before his election, but there’s evidence that the United States pushed a great portion of the military aid into the Plan or, at the very least, strongly suggested it during consultation. According to one defense analyst very familiar with the negotiations “it wasn’t written by Colombians for Colombians; it was written by Colombians and Americans for Americans.” According to the Center for International Policy, a non-profit organization that opposes the aid package, the first draft of the Plan, written entirely in Spanish, contained very little military planning. The final draft, which provides for the aid that the United States is supplying, was written with significant U.S. counsel and, according to opposition party leader Luis Guillermo Velez, quoted in the Colombian paper El Tiempo, “The first information that we had of the famous Plan Colombia came to us directly from the American Embassy and in English.”

The leader of the opposition party may just be trying to embarrass President Pastrana, but there still seems to be strong evidence that our administration has wedded itself to circular logic to support the military emphasis. Why do we need to give them helicopters? Because it’s in Plan Colombia. Why is it in Plan Colombia? Because we need to give them helicopters.

The administration does have some strong reasons for wanting to act forcefully in this way—Pastrana is far more trustworthy than his predecessor, the Colombian military is becoming more and more organized and reputable, and helicopters are a very useful tool for jungle drug interdiction. Still, there are also reasons to suspect that U.S. enthusiasm may be more a function of politics and the usual suspects than efficacy.

First, an aid policy so focused on military aid lets the Clinton administration (and the Democrats) look tough on drugs in an election year. Despite the billions that Clinton has poured into the drug war, the administration constantly faces fire for being soft. In August, Representative Dan Burton (R-Ind.) condemned the Clinton White House: “There is no war on drugs being waged by this administration unless you count the $200 million General McCaffrey spends annually for… television ads and these Frisbees and key chains.” Sen. Mitch McConnell refers to 1985-92 as “the era of Just say no’” and 1993-99 as “the era of I wish I had inhaled.’”

The Republican strategy has worked: According to research done this fall by the Mellman group, a Democractic polling organization, the public believes the Democrats are doing a better job than Republicans on almost every issue, from balancing the budget to improving education. The one issue where Republicans have a clear advantage is “keeping out illegal drugs.”

A military aid package so wrapped around hardware also offers substantial advantages to U.S.-based companies. United Technologies, the manufacturer of the unquestionably-effective Black Hawk helicopters, is based in Stratford, Conn., in the home state of Sen. Christopher Dodd, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Narcotics, and extremely near the district of Rep. Sam Gejdenson, the ranking member of the House International Relations Committee. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, United Technologies and its employees have given $33,200 to Dodd and $19,000 to Gejdenson over the past two years. Even if, as their spokesmen claim, neither Sen. Dodd or Rep. Gejdenson thought directly of donor obligations while considering the plan, money does have a funny way of working in Washington and, over time, policies that help out powerful lobbies do have a curiously strong tendency to win out over those that don’t. Rep. Schakowsky said to me: “I have no doubt that, in some ways, this is about helicopters.”

Third, and most importantly, the bill has to pass Congress and many Congressmen, particularly on the very powerful Republican far right, would much rather give money to fight guerrillas than to promote development. As Sen. Sessions demanded incredulously of Gen. McCaffrey and Undersecretary Pickering, “Is it the position of the United States that we are neutral [between the FARC and the government]?” Rep. Burton goes even further, using rhetoric that takes us back to the Cold War: “Colombia is important because, should democracy fall there, and a narco-state prevail or a Marxist-led government run by the FARC narco-terrorists succeed democracy, we are at severe risk in the United States.” Burton’s may be an extreme case, but he’s also one of the congressional Republicans who have invested the most time and effort in the issue.

If the package does go through, the administration argues that, in a best-case scenario, the threat of increased U.S. weaponry could help to push the FARC to the negotiating table as well as push them to keep their promises (as they very rarely have before). Then, if peace could be brought between the government and the FARC, perhaps the paramilitaries would begin to layoff, peace would come to the entire country, and Pastrana’s successor would have the opportunity to crack down on the drug trade.

But there’s a lot that could scuttle that scenario: the FARC might not be frightened by the money, it might just harden their resolve; it could become clear that Black Hawk helicopters are being used to slaughter villagers in places like El Salado or El Aro; Pastrana may be replaced by a hard-liner opposed to the peace process.

These are all distinct possibilities and strongly suggest that the current aid proposal doesn’t come close to clearing the high bar for military involvement our experiences in Vietnam should have taught us to set. The situation on the ground in Colombia is more like Vietnam than Kosovo or Iraq. We don’t know exactly what’s going on; we don’t have clear objectives; and there’s a fairly good chance that our guns and helicopters will merely increase the conflict and tear the country apart a little bit more. The odds of bringing peace by offering a package that emphasizes carrots seem just as likely as the odds of bringing peace through a package of sticks. And with carrots, you can’t swing, miss, and break your own knee-cap.

The unfortunate truth is that domestic politics have probably helped push us into a situation where we are forced to provide an aid package that is too militarized, and too likely to blow up in our faces. In fact, as we plunge toward Colombia, it almost seems as though we’ve only learned one thing since our mistakes in Vietnam: how to make new ones.

Nicholas Thompson is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly. You can email him by clicking here or read his other articles by clicking here

Related Links and More Information:

Plan Colombia (English) Aid Summary State Dept. Human Rights Report Washington Post Stories
Amnesty International: Colombia Human Rights Watch: Colombia Center for International Policy GAO: Colombia/Drugs
El Tiempo USIA Statements Heritage Foundation: Colombia Map of Colombia