Drugs

America's Other War Heats Up

A day after getting 14 Black Hawk combat choppers from the U.S. -- supposedly to fight the Drug War -- Colombia's president broke off peace talks with FARC rebels, pushing his country to the brink of war.
It looks like the war is about to turn a lot uglier. No, I'm not talking about Afghanistan. I'm talking about America's Other War -- the Drug War -- and the way it's playing out down in Colombia, where a simmering civil war is wired to explode.

After three contentious years, the Colombian government broke off peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) late last week, as 12,000 troops prepared to retake control of the demilitarized region ceded to the rebels in 1998. FARC leaders responded by vowing to use "all forms of struggle" against the government and its supporters.

This will undoubtedly lead to a much bloodier phase of the conflict -- now in its 38th year -- that pits the rebels against the Colombian military and right-wing paramilitary groups. The war has already claimed 40,000 mainly civilian lives in the last 10 years.

The question is: Will the U.S. role in this intensified war increase the chances for peace or increase the civilian body count?

For an answer, look to the fact that President Andres Pastrana broke off the peace talks just one day after the U.S. ambassador handed him the keys to 14 spanking new Black Hawk combat helicopters -- part of the $1.6 billion in aid, most of it military, Congress has earmarked for Colombia.

"We will continue working together to liberate Colombia, the region and the hemisphere from narcotics," said Ambassador Anne Patterson at the chopper ceremony. This one statement sums up the pie-in-the-sky ludicrousness of U.S. drug policy. After 35 years of failed eradication, interdiction and "liberation," our government still doesn't get it. The problem isn't the supply from foreign countries; it's the demand here at home.

And since the drugs she intends to liberate the hemisphere from are grown in areas protected by both the FARC and the paramilitary groups, she and her bosses in Washington are effectively condemning the United States to stage manage an escalating battle with highly questionable allies and no endgame in sight.

The helicopters are only supposed to be used for counternarcotics efforts -- but if the Colombian military finds itself in the midst of an all-out war, don't you think it's going to be just a little tempted to put those state-of-the-art Black Hawks to use on the rebels?

After all, its record for restraint and a strict interpretation of the rules of engagement leaves quite a bit to be desired -- starting with its close ties to the paramilitary death squads, which were recently placed on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. If President Bush is serious about declaring war on all regimes harboring terrorists, what are we doing arming one of these regimes to the teeth?

Or is Ambassador Patterson planning to take back the Black Hawks, one by one, each time the paramilitary terrorists slaughter innocent civilians?

The collapse of the peace talks demonstrates just how wrong the champions of Plan Colombia were when they insisted that the best way to speed the peace process was to strengthen the Colombian military.

In fact, just the opposite has happened. Hard-liners in the Colombian military have been emboldened to believe that Uncle Sam would come to the rescue if things turned ugly, while the rebels have found little reason to make peace with a government fortifying itself with billions in military aid.

Military analysts agree that neither side can win this war. And what has made the war even more unwinnable is that it has become so thoroughly enmeshed in that quintessentially unwinnable fight -- the war on drugs.

No less an authority than Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted as much during his confirmation hearing, when he derided the notion that the drug war could be won with military action. "The drug problem is," he said, "overwhelmingly a demand problem. If the demand persists, it's going to find ways to get what it wants."

Maybe Rumsfeld should have a nice, long talk with our ambassador in Bogota, as well as his colleagues in Washington, who continue to foolishly believe that high-tech helicopters and gun boats will bring peace to Colombia and fewer drugs to our streets.
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