The Powell Doctrine Meets War in Colombia
S.F. Chronicle Editorial Thursday, December 21, 2000

COLIN POWELL faces a dilemma. America's military engagement in Colombia does not meet the criteria laid out in his well-articulated "Powell Doctrine." In the aftermath of his military experience in Vietnam, the soon-to-be secretary of state developed a clear and simple way to determine when military force should be used: As a last resort, with the full support of the public, and with a well- planned exit strategy. So far, the U.S.-backed war in Colombia, funded with $1.3 billion approved by Congress in June, is on a collision course with the Powell Doctrine.

This week's series in The Chronicle about that war, by staff writer Robert Collier, showed that President Andres Pastrana's weakened government can no longer protect its citizens. Inside Colombia, there is escalating instability, commonplace corruption and widespread violations of human rights -- by all sides. Every year, 25,000 Colombians die from violence. The country's homicide rate is among the highest in the world. More than half of the world's kidnapping takes place inside Colombia -- it is an important source of funds for the two major armed guerrilla forces.

The result of the deadly chaos is that 1.5 million people have fled their homes. The American engagement in Colombia is rife with futility. The goal is to cut off the supply of cocaine. To accomplish that, the U.S. must train soldiers in counterinsurgency tactics against armed guerrillas who protect coca-growing peasants. But such military attacks -- especially from helicopters -- increase the level of violence for ordinary citizens.

Aerial fumigation of coca fields frequently destroys edible crops as well, leaving peasants without a secure food supply. As the army swoops down on their villages, hungry peasants have little choice: Either flee and join the displaced or else take up arms with rebel forces. To have a real impact on the traffic in drugs, the United States would have to wage a war against the giant narco-agriculturalists and the paramilitary forces that protect them.

But this is not part of "Plan Colombia." The battle is against those who want land reform, not those who already own huge coca plantations. The struggle is also to secure access to oil and gas, which the United States regards as vital to this country's national interest. But fighting a war isn't the solution anyway. As long as Americans crave cocaine, farmers in Colombia -- and elsewhere -- will continue to cultivate the lucrative coca leaves from which the drug is processed.

This is the quagmire faced by Powell, whose widely cited doctrine is completely at odds with the war in Colombia: Military intervention here is not a last resort. The United States has brushed aside the call by European and Latin American nations for an nternational negotiated peace agreement. The American public does not support this military engagement. In fact, most Americans hardly know it is happening.

Finally, there is no apparent exit strategy. The goal of the Colombian army is to destroy farmers' coca fields and defeat guerrilla forces, both of which can move deeper into the rain forests. Attrition, as we witnessed in Vietnam and El Salvador, seems to be the only measure of military "success." Colombia poses a major challenge for the Bush administration. As a new secretary of state, Powell could help lead the United States back from an ill- conceived, expensive military intervention that threatens to spill into other Andean countries. In the end, only a negotiated peace settlement that addresses land reform and economic inequality will end the 36-year-old civil war that has devastated Colombia.

Powell has created a clear and compelling doctrine for deciding when to use military force. Now he has a chance to put into practice the very sound principles he has proposed. May he succeed.



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