We’re constantly being asked about how U.S. policy toward Colombia might change after next week’s elections. The short answer: it’s probably going to change a great deal, no matter who is elected. The longer answer is more interesting: as we see it, the policy could go one of three ways next year.
The United States’ approach to Colombia has not changed much since about 2002-2003, when the Plan Colombia counter-drug framework was broadened to include aid for “counter-terrorism.” Big-ticket initiatives begun then â€“ protection of the Arauca pipeline, creation of a commando unit to go after illegal groups’ leadership, helping create new mobile units, and others, including “Plan Patriota” â€“ have been in place for some time now. The aid request for 2005, which Congress is in the last stages of approving, closely resembles 2004 aid (with the doubled troop cap the main difference).
We don’t expect the policy to remain on autopilot for much longer, though. As the next Congress debates the 2006 aid proposal, 2005 will be sort of a “crossroads” year for the U.S. strategy in Colombia, perhaps the first such year since 2000.
The election result is only one reason why, and in fact not a major one. Whether the next president is a clean-slate Kerry or a strengthened Bush, we’ll have an administration headed by a consistent proponent of Plan Colombia. Though the two candidates clearly disagree on some aspects of the policy â€“ such as the weight that should be given to human rights â€“ both appear to have supported the policy’s general thrust, including the overwhelmingly military content of U.S. assistance.
There are more important reasons why 2005 is likely to be a year of reconsideration.
- U.S. officials insist that Plan Colombia, which they define as a six-year plan begun in 2000, is “ending” after 2005. What comes next? Will the United States continue to aid Colombia with more than $700 million per year (80 percent of it for the military and police)?
- The 2006 U.S. aid package for Colombia will have to compete with other priorities that didn’t exist in 2000, like greatly increased aid for the Middle East, the Millennium Challenge account, and the Bush administration’s global HIV-AIDS initiative. The pool of resources available for these priorities â€“ the annual foreign aid bill â€“ has grown since 2000, but not as much as one might expect given the urgent need to win more hearts and minds in the “war on terror.” (Foreign aid totaled $16.5 billion worldwide in 2000; for 2005, the Senate would provide $19.6 billion and the House $19.4 billion. The new priorities listed above cost more than the $3 billion increase of the past few years; in fact, the administration plans to cut development and child-health aid to Latin America by 10 percent between 2004 and 2005.)
- Many policymakers, convinced of success after more than two years of Colombian government statistics claiming gains against drugs and violence, may believe that it is time to consolidate gains by shifting tactics.
Sometime in early 2005 (usually February, though a new administration often starts later), the next president will send his 2006 aid request to Congress, and the debate will begin. We foresee three possible scenarios for what U.S. policy toward Colombia will look like after that debate concludes.
Scenario 1: “Plan Colombia 2″
What would happen: It is possible that the U.S. military commitment will continue to expand after 2005. Military aid levels would increase, with counterterrorism / counterinsurgency becoming the chief focus. In this scenario, the U.S.-supported “Plan Patriota” offensive currently going on in southern Colombia would be seen as a pilot project for a profusion of similar offensives launched elsewhere in the country. U.S. trainers, logistics teams, intelligence specialists, and others would help the Uribe government expand its efforts to retake territory and go after guerrilla (probably not paramilitary) leadership. New weapons transfers â€“ including more helicopters â€“ would also be likely. This expansion would in turn create new pressures to raise the “cap” on the U.S. military presence once again. Under this scenario, a significant increase in economic aid would be unlikely. Even counternarcotics would become a secondary goal put on autopilot; fumigation, for instance, might even decrease to what State Department counter-narcotics chief Bobby Charles has called “maintenance levels” of spraying.
Who wants it: The Uribe government has already gone on record in favor of a “Plan Colombia 2,” asking for an extension of aid through 2009 and more help fighting guerrillas. Segments of the Pentagon, Southern Command and State Department who want to support the Uribe program would also get on board; Southcom’s commander, Gen. James Hill, has spoken often about the need to “stay the course,” pressuring the FARC so hard that by 2006 they will be “combat ineffective” and have no choice but to negotiate. Some congressional Republicans would no doubt support this scenario as well.
What they will argue: Citing the statistics that come from Colombia’s Defense Ministry and elsewhere in the Uribe government, this option’s proponents will contend that progress is being made â€“ we may even hear references to “the light at the end of the tunnel” â€“ and insist that now is the time to begin to hit harder. This group may also argue that now is not the time to talk about economic aid or poverty alleviation, that security must come first.
Scenario 2: A more balanced approach
What would happen: While aid to Colombia would stay in the $700-750 million dollar range, military and police aid would decrease while economic and social aid increases. The military component would shrink to far less than the 80 percent that it has been since 2000. The United States would invest more on priorities like judicial reform, citizen security, alternative development and job creation, and aid to the displaced. The USAID mission would grow.
Who wants it: Some â€“ mainly mid-level â€“ officials at the State Department and other agencies may favor this shift. Congressional Democrats, including both opponents and some mild proponents of Plan Colombia, are likely to push for this scenario. Perhaps â€“ and this is less certain â€“ some congressional Republicans may begin calling for a better balance in assistance; an indicator of that could be last month’s letter from nine key House Republicans recommending support for several job-creation initiatives (PDF format). If so, this scenario would enjoy the support of an unusual coalition of policymakers who come to the same conclusion from very different perspectives.
What they will argue: Liberals will argue, as they have for years, that an overly military strategy won’t work, as it ignores and worsens the poverty and inequality that feed Colombia’s cycle of violence. They will argue that economic aid is an inseparable element of a security strategy, and that it makes no sense to keep waiting for ideal “security conditions” to be established before making non-military investments. Conservatives, again citing official statistics, will argue that Plan Colombia and Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policies have made rapid gains in drug-crop eradication and security, but they will express concern that these gains could be ephemeral without a stronger non-military strategy to sustain them.
Scenario 3: “AdiÃ³s, amigos”
What would happen: The proportion of military to economic aid may or may not shift, but it wouldn’t matter much, as the overall amount of aid to Colombia would begin to shrink well below the current level of $700-750 million. Along with less aid, the U.S. military commitment and overall level of interest in Colombia would also decrease.
Who wants it: Some congressional Republicans, especially in the House, appear to be ready to start winding down after 2005. In the non-binding narrative report language accompanying its version of the 2005 foreign aid bill, which was released in July, the House Appropriations Committee’s Republican majority seemed to be expressing “Colombia fatigue.”
The Committee is concerned that the level of resources provided by the United States Government to Colombia is increasing in 2005, including increased funding for a costly air bridge denial program. Therefore, the Committee anticipates a decrease in the President’s budget request for 2006 for the Andean Counterdrug Initiative for Colombia.
What they will argue: Proponents of this scenario will argue that while Colombia may have been a high priority in 2000, the world has changed dramatically since then, and the United States faces more immediate security threats. The foreign aid budget is already stretched very thin, they will contend, and our focus on the Middle East means that we’ll need to redirect some of the hundreds of millions that go to Colombia. Another likely argument would hold that, since the statistics indicate that Plan Colombia and Uribe have brought Colombia’s problems down to “manageable” levels, the United States can afford to “take its eye off the ball” and reduce its commitment.
Which of the three scenarios is most likely? We honestly haven’t the slightest idea. CIP obviously favors the second, and we predict that it may be somewhat more likely to come to pass should Kerry be elected. However, it is also easy to imagine a Kerry government, including among its officialdom the original Clinton-era authors of Plan Colombia, going with Scenario 1. It’s also possible that a Bush government, not wishing to make an ideological stand in a region it has largely ignored, might give in to a coalition pushing for Scenario 2. And the reality of Scenario 3 looms over both possible administrations.
The policy could change for the better in 2005, or it could spiral deeper into disaster. Much of the outcome will depend on whether U.S. policymakers are hearing from U.S. citizens. While Scenario 2 is attainable to an extent unseen in years, making it a reality will require that concerned Americans let their members of Congress and senators know that the choice they make next year matters to them. Without this input, our policymakers â€“ whether under a Kerry or a Bush administration, a Republican or a Democratic Congress â€“ will be debating and deciding the future of the U.S. Colombia policy in a vacuum. They will see no political cost if they choose either to launch “Plan Colombia 2″ or to disengage from Colombia.
So be sure to vote next Tuesday â€“ but also be sure to let whoever wins know what you think about where we should be headed in Colombia.