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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Intervention in Colombia

U.S. demand created the drug crisis situation in Colombia, and our military intervention there merely places U.S. troops and civilian contractors in harm's way in an effort to salvage our failed drug policy.

The U.S. administration has proposed, and congressional Republicans seem prepared to accept, a $1.7 billion military aid package to Colombia. This formidable expenditure builds on existing aid - Colombia is already the largest recipient of U.S. military aid outside the Middle East - and involves us more deeply in a decades-old civil war, as well as perpetuates programs that have failed to control drug production.

As a veteran, I know the importance of a clear military objective, of having the resources needed for success, and a clear exit strategy. In Colombia, we are sending a handful of helicopters and a few hundred troops. Yet we were unable to control a smaller Vietnam with hundreds of helicopters and half a million troops. The Colombia military intervention seems poorly planned, unrealistic and doomed to fail. After a few years of military support, we will face the choice of accepting defeat or gradually being pulled into an expensive military quagmire in which victory is unattainable.

The reason the United States is becoming more involved in Colombia's internal affairs is that the U.S. government's efforts to reduce cocaine availability have failed miserably, and drug money has strengthened the rebel armies. We already spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually to eradicate crops in South America, especially in Colombia. According to a 1999 report by the General Accounting Office, "Despite two years of extensive herbicides spraying, U.S. estimates show there has not been any net reduction in coca cultivation - net coca cultivation actually increased 50 percent."

Rather than escalate a failed policy, we should recognize that the present strategy cannot succeed and look for new approaches. According to the Rand Corp., eradication is the least effective way to reduce drug use. Rand's research found that $34 million spent on drug treatment in the United States would have the same effect as $783 million in eradication expenditures. Naturally, the less cocaine the United States consumes, the less incentive growers in Colombia will have to grow coca. That would be the best eradication policy.

Further, we need to face the difficult and politically controversial question of whether prohibition enforced by the drug war provides better control of the drug market than regulation enforced by administrative law. If we want to get international cartels and urban gangs out of the drug market, we must determine how to control the market through civil law rather than criminal law. The administration's most frequent rationale for pumping millions of dollars in aid and tons of military equipment into Colombia is the need to fight "narco-guerrillas." In fact, there are reports that all sides - including the side the United States supports, the Colombian military - have been tied to the drug trade. It seems that we are supporting one group of drug traffickers while opposing another group.

Finally, one of the most troubling aspects of the aid package working its way through Congress is its near-total ignorance of the massive human rights violations being committed by forces allied with the Colombian government. According to Human Rights Watch, the Colombian army tolerates, aids and abets human rights violations. Terror is so rampant in Colombia that most human rights organizations have closed their Colombia offices. Yet just 4 percent of the aid package would go toward the improvement of human rights and judicial reform.

The Colombian aid package is nothing more than an introduction to a quagmire and an escalation of failed drug policy. The administration and Congress should step back and formulate goals they want to achieve in Colombia and then determine how best to achieve them without promoting bloodshed and lawlessness.

Robert Dowd, a retired U.S. Air Force officer, is an organizer of the Veterans for More Effective Drug Strategies. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.