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September 21, 1999

Colombia: Counterinsurgency vs. Counter-narcotics

Michael Shifter
Senior Fellow
Inter-American Dialogue

Mr. Chairman, I very much appreciate your invitation to appear before the Caucus this morning to discuss US policy towards Colombia. This is precisely the right time to ask hard questions, and engage in an open, public debate about where the policy is heading -- and ought to be heading. Our interests and goals in Latin America’s third largest country deserve serious discussion. That is why this hearing is so important.

Let me start with the question of what purpose we want to achieve in Colombia. The objective should be clear: we need to do all we can to strengthen the Colombian government’s authority, capabilities and effectiveness. Our efforts should go towards helping the government reach a political solution to the country’s deep, internal conflict. We should also do what we can to encourage the government to develop a consensus within Colombian society that is grounded on the need for social justice and adherence to the rule of law.

In many respects, Colombia’s severe problems can be attributed to the weakness of the country’s institutions. These institutions have not been able to deal effectively with rising violence and insecurity, drug production and trafficking, human rights abuses, and the increasing movement of Colombian citizens, both within the country and beyond its borders. Strengthening those institutions, of course, is the ultimate challenge and responsibility facing all Colombians.

But the United States can be helpful and can act as a constructive partner in this effort. Doing so would serve US interests. It would help make Colombia a better partner in dealing with the major problems that affect both nations. The United States does not have the luxury of remaining indifferent to Colombia, or disengaging from the country. In light of so many shared problems, that is not an option.

To help the Colombian government calls for greater discipline and coherence among different US government agencies. A bipartisan policy is essential. We need to articulate our policy in a clear, consistent voice. This is important in dealing with a complex Colombian government.

To the extent possible, we should deal less with key figures in the police, armed forces, or judicial system, however impressive and important these individuals may be. We should, rather, deal directly with the head of Colombia’s elected government, Andrés Pastrana. We should work hard to minimize conflicting signals and messages in our Colombia policy.

The policy needs to reflect a global, comprehensive approach. Colombia’s multi-faceted problems call for an integral response. The peace process, the drug question, the severe economic crisis, and the profound social problems are connected to each other, and they all need to be addressed together.

It is less important to think about how many resources are being used for economic assistance -- or for support to the police or military for counternarcotics – than to insist that such resources be directed explicitly towards strengthening government authority and capacity. That’s the fundamental standard against which we should judge any proposal or recommendation for US assistance and involvement in Colombia.

By moving in this direction, the United States would be helping a troubled country address an array of acute problems. We would also be taking advantage of a process already underway in Colombia that seeks to bring the guerrilla war to an end and to reconcile the forces in conflict. That process, to be sure, has suffered setbacks and frustrations since President Pastrana launched it more than a year ago. It will continue to have its share of disappointments. The conditions are far from ideal. The process will necessarily be long-term and will require great patience.

Pursuing a comprehensive approach is the best of all options regarding Colombia. It is an option most Colombians ultimately favor, despite many discouraging developments. It is also an option the United States is uniquely positioned to back. We have the capacity and resources to be helpful. The approach will most strengthen the Colombian government – and most help us.

The only other possible option would be to try to defeat the FARC, Colombia’s principal insurgency, through military means. Whether one calls it counternarcotics or counterinsurgency, focusing only on targeting the FARC for defeat in this way would be a misguided course, fraught with substantial risks. It would require more resources – in terms of money, time, and American lives – than we would, or should, be prepared to commit. Not only would the costs be too great for the United States, but it would also do little to help us address the immense problems that affect both countries, narcotics particularly.

More seriously, the military option would only fuel more violence in Colombia, and would push the country closer to a full civil war, or a “dirty war,” on a scale that we have not yet seen. The situation in the country is already critical. A narrow, single-minded focus on a policy aimed only at fighting drugs would have serious, negative consequences and would only make matters worse. We must avoid that myopic course.

We should also play a crucial, diplomatic role on the regional and international stages. There is no question that Colombia will need sustained external support to deal effectively with its multiple conflicts. While there is considerable concern about the deteriorating situation in Colombia, especially by neighboring countries, there is also ample goodwill and interest in supporting a collective, constructive solution.

The United States can and should assist the chosen, multilateral instrument that emerges in the Colombian process. We should do what we can to help to make the most viable instrument develop. The instrument may be a group of “friends” of Colombia, the United Nations, the regional Organization of American States, or some combination of these.

If it is effectively and productively employed, it could very well help strengthen the Colombian government’s authority and capacity. This goal is in the interest of all Colombians, Colombia’s hemispheric neighbors, and the international community. It is also best serves our own interests and values, and should get our full support.

Thank you very much for this opportunity. I would be happy to clarify or expand on any of these points, or answer any questions you might have.