By Jonathan Power
August 30th 2016
After 52 years of fighting between the Colombian government and Farc, the left wing, drug-dealing, Marxist, guerrilla grouping, there is a peace agreement.
I’ve always wondered why the US and Nato never intervened militarily. They should have if they were to be consistent. Colombia has long been exhibit A for those who say, “Look what happens when the outside world doesn’t intervene- the local fires just burn brighter and fiercer”. (And it has been said likewise for Sri Lanka during its civil war.)
The facts say the opposite: fires burn brighter and fiercer when there are invasions by the US and Nato. In Kosovo Nato jets, at President Bill Clinton’s command, tore into Serbia to bring “peace” to an unthreatening backwater of Europe and left behind a mafia that de facto had unseated and replaced the government.
Similarly, they blasted into Afghanistan even though the original purpose was not a war across a whole country but merely an attempt to kill off Al Qaeda. Likewise, into Iraq and Libya. As in Afghanistan, all these interventions made the fires burn fiercer.
So why not Colombia? I don’t know the reason that made Clinton decide not to intervene but although this peace agreement has taken a heck of a long time to negotiate is it not better than stoking up from outside a terrible war with hundreds of thousands of casualties?
Clinton said in 1999 that “It is very much in our national security interests to do what we can Colombia”. When a US president uses these code words it means that the backbone of the US military, intelligence and national security bodies, has decided that the US is prepared to go to any length to deal with a problem.
Clinton’s statement came after a period of slow-burning, mounting, frustration at the inability of successive Colombian governments to get to grips with the irregular armies that threatened to destabilize the government. Yet no war occurred. In the end Clinton wisely pulled back.
However, Clinton did keep a foot in the door. In August 2000 Clinton made a one-day visit to Colombia to formally announce a $1.3 billion aid package, most of it to supply 60 military helicopters and train a new army anti-narcotics brigade for deployment not only against drug traffickers but also against the guerrillas who provided them with armed protection.
Before Clinton left on his flight south, the House of Representatives stripped the aid legislation of safeguards designed to improve military professionalism. Clinton felt compelled to waive one of the remaining human rights provisions so that the military aid could start flowing immediately.
If US aid intervention had been even-handed perhaps there could have been an argument for it. But “even-handed” did not appear in the lexicon of the Pentagon’s thinking on Colombia. Almost perversely Clinton, pushed by the Pentagon and Congress, ignored what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch described, “as the root of these abuses……the Colombian army’s consistent and pervasive failure to ensure human rights standards and to distinguish civilians from combatants”.
By no stretch of the independent reporting available, whether it was done by Amnesty International or the few outside journalists who dared to risk their lives, can it be said that the communist guerrillas were the most responsible for the violence.
The clear consensus was that the Colombian army was in league with the right wing paramilitaries who, in turn, were in league with the drug mafia. It was they who constantly set the pace in assassinations, organizing death-squads, inflicting torture and practising widespread intimidation.
For many years the army not only failed to move against the rightist paramilitaries in any significant way, it tolerated their activity, even providing some of them with intelligence and logistical support. On occasion, it even coordinated joint manoeuvres with them.
In a report issued in 1999, the Bogota office of the UN High Commission for Human Rights observed that “witnesses frequently state that massacres were perpetuated by members of the armed forces passing themselves off as paramilitaries”.
It was true that presidents Ernesto Sampre, Andres Pastrana and Alvaro Uribe moved to suspend or close down particular units, such as the army’s notorious twentieth brigade, yet officers were rarely, if ever, prosecuted. Occasionally there was a dismissal. General Charles Wilhelm, head of US Southern Command, told a committee of the US Congress that criticism of military abuses was “unfair”.
Then George W. Bush became president. Washington upped its aid to the Colombian military, supposedly for combating the drug menace, but in practice aimed disproportionately at the left-wing guerrillas. Colombia became the third largest recipient of US aid after Israel and Egypt.
Now we have a peace accord, more thanks to the weariness of endless combat than to anything else. We didn’t have a US/Nato invasion (even though human rights abuses were accepted). Can’t we deal with future troubles the same way?
Copyright: Jonathan Power