Sliding into Colombia's morass.

American presence in Colombia is becoming a classic case of "mission creep" - getting involved in a foreign venture whose scope and cost keep growing, each escalation justified by the failure of the previous one.

The only way to break this spiral is to re-examine the rationale for the intervention, the results and - most important - determine an end point. When is it time for the U.S. to pull out, either because the mission has succeeded, or the cost has outstripped any possible benefit?

Last weekend, Congress quietly doubled to 800 the number of American troops allowed to operate in Colombia, and it also increased the number of U.S. civilian contractors allowed to work there to 600 from 400. Many of the civilian contractors are involved in quasi-military activities such as surveillance and intelligence analysis.

U.S. involvement in Colombia's war against narcotraffickers jumped sharply in 2000 with the launch of Plan Colombia. So far the U.S. has invested $3.3 billion, mostly for military aid.

Originally, the plan was targeted exclusively at the drug cartels in an attempt to reduce the flow of illicit drugs to the U.S.

But in Colombia's civil war it's impossible to neatly isolate narcotraffickers. There are drug growers and producers, but also two guerrilla groups fighting the government and a paramilitary army fighting the guerrillas.

They all profit from the production and shipment of narcotics to the U.S.

In 2002, distinctions between the fight against the drug traffickers and the anti-government guerrillas began to blur as the Bush administration lifted restrictions on the role of American troops. So the anti-drug campaign evolved into a counterinsurgency effort against guerrillas fighting the government. The scope of the U.S. mission grew further when, in 2003, the Bush administration officially designated the guerrillas and paramilitary groups as terrorist organizations, on par with Al Qaeda or the Taliban - an analogy that rings false.

So far these policy acrobatics have not made a dent on the original problem - stanching the flow of illegal narcotics to the U.S. After a recent visit to Colombia, John Walters, head of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, admitted these efforts have not reduced the availability of drugs on American streets. Inside Colombia, the cultivation of coca has just moved from one place to another.

It is deeply troubling to see Congress reflexively increase the U.S. military involvement in Colombia, as it did this weekend.

American policy in Colombia is not working. This nation needs to rethink its involvement in Colombia's civil war, rather than pouring more money and personnel into a failing enterprise.

[Source: The Chicago Tribune, Usa, 12Oct04]

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