Mr. President: Don't Make Colombia Another Afghanistan

by Teo Ballvé

The Progressive, Op-Ed, Aug 20, 2009

The Obama administration should reconsider its decision to escalate U.S. involvement in Colombia's long-running civil war.

The White House already has its hands full with Iraq and Afghanistan; it does not need to be drawn deeper into another bloody conflict.

In recent months, negotiations have been quietly under way to turn at least three – and possibly five – Colombian bases into U.S. military outposts. The Pentagon would be allowed to station as many as 800 U.S. military personnel and 600 private contractors at the bases.

As part of the deal, the Pentagon has agreed to provide Colombian forces with round-the-clock, real-time intelligence through a network of spy planes and satellites. The Colombian government says the aerial surveillance will help it smoke out drug-fueled rebel groups hiding in the country's impenetrable jungles.

But Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is worried that the technology could just as likely be trained on his country – one of Washington's harshest critics in the region.

Rafael Pardo, a former Colombian Defense Minister, echoed Chávez's concern by likening the base plan to "lending your apartment’s balcony to someone from outside the block so that they can spy on your neighbors."

President Obama has promised a new era of cooperation and respect in Washington's relations with Latin America. But the military escalation is a throwback to the old era of haughty intervention on behalf of unsavory regimes.

Colombia has the worst human rights record in the hemisphere. More trade unionists are killed there than anywhere else in the world. And the latest in a long line of scandals involves the Colombian army's execution of innocent civilians, who were later claimed to be rebels killed in combat.

Before the scandal surfaced, military units with the artificially high body counts were rewarded with bonuses and extra vacation. An official U.N. statement denounced the practice as "cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit."

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has claimed the new base-sharing agreement "guarantees the continuity of Plan Colombia over time." Plan Colombia is the multibillion-dollar U.S aid package ostensibly aimed at fighting the drug trade.

Signed in 1999, Plan Colombia had the stated goal of slashing the country's cocaine-destined coca crop by half. But after ten years and more than $6 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars, a recently published congressional investigation revealed that Colombia's coca and cocaine production has actually increased.

The United States is making a grave mistake by getting further involved in Colombia.

In Colombia, as in Afghanistan, the Obama team will be facing some of the most battle-hardened combatants in the world – some have spent more than 40 years fighting in Colombia's tropical jungles. The parallels do not end there: Besides being harbored by an inhospitable geography, where they can slip easily across porous international borders, the rebels also enjoy an endless supply of funds from the drug trade.

With an already overloaded domestic and foreign policy agenda, the last thing the Obama administration needs is another Afghanistan.

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