Obama Administration Shifts U.S. focus in Colombia from Counternarcotics to Counterinsurgency

  Source: Colombia Journal

The Obama administration’s proposed 2010 aid package for Colombia appears to be sailing through the Democrat-controlled Congress with little opposition and few amendments. As a result, the administration is poised to achieve a shift in U.S. policy in Colombia that will see an even greater portion of the aid under the counternarcotics initiative known as Plan Colombia used for counterinsurgency operations. The Obama administration’s aid package indicates that the new government in Washington is not only continuing the militaristic policies of the Bush administration in Colombia, but actually intensifying them by developing even closer ties to the worst human rights-abusing military in the Western Hemisphere.

The $518 million in Colombia aid requested by the Obama administration for next year is only marginally less than the final aid package—$545 million—delivered by the Bush administration. Furthermore, for those who were hoping that the new administration would reduce funding for the Colombian military in favor of increased social and economic aid, the new package is particularly disheartening. The Obama administration’s proposal has 57 percent of U.S. aid going to the Colombian military compared to 56 percent last year under the Bush administration. The final package will most likely see a small reduction in the amount earmarked for the military thanks to amendments made to the House bill (54 percent of aid to the military) and by the Senate Appropriations Committee (53 percent).

It is not only the amount of U.S. aid earmarked for the Colombian military that is troubling, but also the distribution of that funding. The Obama administration is seeking to reduce funding for counternarcotics and law enforcement programs by 13 percent (from $247.5 million to $216 million) while increasing aid to the Colombian military that is not specifically tied to the war on drugs by 30 percent (from $57.6 million to $74.6 million). The House and Senate versions of the foreign assistance bill have slightly reduced the amounts requested by the administration for both the military and counternarcotics portions, but they have retained the percentage increases and decreases.

The aid numbers represent a troubling shift in U.S. policy in the opposite direction to that sought by many domestic supporters of Obama. Instead of diminishing the U.S. military role in Colombia and perhaps boosting social and economic aid, the Obama administration has intensified U.S. intervention in the South American nation’s internal armed conflict. In addition to the disturbing numbers in the proposed aid package, the Obama administration has sought other ways to escalate U.S. intervention in Colombia’s conflict.

Ongoing negotiations between the Obama administration and the Colombian government are expected to result in an agreement that will provide the U.S. military with access to three Colombian Air Force bases. The United States is seeking to replace its military base at Manta in Ecuador following the decision of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa not to renew the existing agreement between the two countries when it expires later this year. Under the terms of the agreement with Ecuador, the U.S. military can only use aircraft flying out of Manta for counternarcotics missions; it is prohibited from engaging in intelligence-gathering operations related to Colombia’s armed conflict.

In contrast, reports suggest that the new agreement with Colombia will allow the U.S. military to use the flights not only for counternarcotics purposes but also for “counterterrorism” activities. In other words, the United States will be allowed to engage in intelligence-gathering operations targeting Colombia’s largest leftist guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and, according to the country’s largest daily El Tiempo, the Colombian military will have access to real-time intelligence gathered by these missions.

The Obama administration’s policy towards Colombia is particularly troubling in light of the atrocious human rights record of the Colombian military, including recent revelations of more than 1,100 extra-judicial executions perpetrated by soldiers supposedly engaged in counterinsurgency operations. Ultimately, the Colombia policy of the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress represents a marginal shift from that of the Bush administration and the Republicans. Sadly, that shift is in the direction of increased militarism.