One day in the late summer of 1999 I received an unexpected call from Sandy Berger. I was Undersecretary of State at the time; he was President Clinton’s National Security Advisor. He said, in effect: Things are getting worse in Colombia. Would I agree to head an NSC Executive Committee to pull together the U.S. government and see what we could do about it? That was the beginning of a U.S. policy action, reckoned broadly successful by most, that continues today: Plan Colombia.
In its simplest terms, Plan Colombia sought to help a country, previously a relative success story in political and economic terms, that teetered on the verge of becoming one of the world’s largest failed states after several decades of terror, civil war, illicit drug cultivation and smuggling and governmental decline. Berger did not need to explain the stakes: Colombia as a failed state would harm American interests and those of its neighbors on many levels. Nor did he need to explain the politics of the prospective effort. While the U.S. government took a broad strategic view of Colombia’s role in the Western Hemisphere, congressional support for an active policy hinged on the drug issue—Colombia was then one the biggest producers of cocaine in the world. We understood that the drug problem and Colombia’s internal decay were intimately connected, but also that the former did not entirely subsume the latter. We were also aware that, particularly among Democrats, there was a deep aversion to involvement in anything resembling a jungle insurgency. So we were mindful in shaping the policy that support for its drug-related aspects would have to be leveraged to accomplish more than met the Hill’s eye.
From the very beginning, we recognized two interconnected questions that had to be answered quickly if we were going to stop Colombia’s decline. The most important was, “What was Colombia prepared to do?” We knew from experience that without a willing and competent local ally, all bets were off. The second was, “In what way could the United States organize itself to help Colombia reform and rebound successfully?”
On the first question we had some new hope; Andrés Pastrana had just been elected President of the country. A scion of Colombia’s Conservative Party political class—his father had been President in the early 1970s—Pastrana seemed an advance over his scandal-tainted predecessor, Ernesto Samper. We thought that Pastrana, having once been kidnapped by the Medellín drug cartel, might prove to be a man whose commitment to the future was firm and unquestionable.
Peter Romero and Rand Beers, respectively the Assistant Secretaries of State for Inter-American (later Western Hemisphere) Affairs and Narcotics and Crime, suggested we visit Pastrana and his new team in Bogotá, review their plans and see where to go from there. I suggested that we needed a plan of our own in mind before our flight went wheels-up, and together we conceived a joint plan based partly on what we knew the Colombian government was already doing, and partly on how we could help them improve and strengthen that effort.
During that planning process it was clear that appropriate U.S. assistance could take many, diverse forms. Beyond certain military assets, our plan involved aspects of economic development, police and judicial reform, administration and management support, and more. It was very fortunate, therefore, that we organized the effort the way we did. We used the NSC’s imprimatur and the Executive Committee (ExCom) designation not only to impart urgency to our effort, but also to pull together all of the necessary U.S. government players in a series of meetings to align and coordinate our work. Eventually the same group oversaw the budget submissions for congressional funding to ensure the long-term implementation of the effort.
It quite soon became clear that Plan Colombia’s special organization and its positioning within the U.S. foreign policy apparatus were keys to its success. In hindsight, much of what we did seems obvious and even routine, but it was not so at the time. There were only a few precedents for developing a whole-of-government task force to address a key issue. In October 1962, to deal with the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy used a short-term, short-lived ExCom, a flexible arrangement where he could bring in all the relevant players around the cabinet table in secrecy and with the sense of urgency that the situation required. In later years, State Department leaders had from time to time used a similar approach in an effort to pull the Department and occasionally other departmental actors together to deal with issues such as Bosnia and Kosovo. But traditionally, interagency efforts remained under the watchful eye of the National Security Advisor and his staff. The NSC preferred to maintain control over the policymaking process, especially in dealing with important problems facing the U.S. government, and to coordinate line agencies from near the White House. What made Plan Colombia interesting and different was that, while it was set up as an interagency project, its leadership was lodged in the Department of State.
This arrangement was fortunate for another reason as well. NSC-managed issues tend to be those that flare up and settle back in a relatively short period. The NSC was never meant to be the main vehicle of policy coordination—and more importantly implementation—for protracted efforts. Even at its largest, it is too small for such tasks. Yet it was clear from the earliest period of addressing the problem in Colombia that we needed to contemplate more than just the creation of a new policy in support of Colombia. Rather, since the task was long-term and iterative in nature, and might engage the United States and Colombia together over the life of several U.S. and Colombian Administrations, it was necessary to institutionalize the policy. Thus, each participating U.S. agency provided its own support structure, and the State Department’s Bureau of Inter-American Affairs was able to staff and support the work of the ExCom itself as needed. In that way, the ExCom structure lent itself to longer-term commitments of people and energy, as opposed to the typical interagency effort in which staff are lent, or seconded, to interagency projects managed by a lead agency, but without dedicated support staff, budget lines or first-priority determination.
Much of the challenge was operational: First, how do we implement on a government-wide basis all the aspects of support required from the United States to help get Colombia back on its feet? Second, how do we match up that U.S. effort with the full engagement of the Colombian government? Pulling together cooperative action in both policymaking and implementation and across the U.S. and Colombian governments, in traditional security, diplomatic areas and well beyond, made the ExCom framework ideal for addressing the multiple, overlapping tasks and problems.
I expected to encounter a significant amount of interagency competition and turf fighting among the Americans when I began. Similarly, I thought that competition might be mirror-imaged among the Colombians. Neither problem ever arose. To my surprise and delight, our early and continuing meetings were harmonious and cooperative, both inside the U.S. government and with the Colombians.
Several factors accounted for this. First, the Americans were aware of the fact that Colombia had been for some time on a long downhill trajectory and that, by itself, no U.S. department or agency had the capacity to help reverse this. The fact the NSC decided to set up and back a cooperative effort buoyed the spirits of most of the U.S. officials who had been following Colombia for years and who had often been frustrated by the lack of a cohesive approach. No one likes to fail, and so officials greeted the prospect of a policy that might actually succeed positively, even with a degree of statesman-like enthusiasm.
Second, we decided early on that we would seek resources for Plan Colombia through a supplemental appropriation. That put us more at the mercy of Congress, but it meant, more importantly, that no department or agency would be asked to transfer its own funds, already committed in its budgeting process to other objectives, to support new programs or those of another agency. By choosing the supplemental route, we avoided having to deal with a major source of interagency controversy and conflict inside the U.S. government: Whose funds and for what purposes?
Third, we also guarded against mission- and organization-creep by making sure that those engaged in the plan could share burdens appropriately. Because the strategy was based on building upon existing programs in Colombia, the Colombians were comfortable working with the United States to construct a unified plan whose key activities had already been or were about to be put in place. Colombia was, of course, pleased that the Colossus to the North was willing to join in its fight, but the fact that the first draft of the joint plan was produced in Colombia by Colombians facilitated their buy-in. That buy-in, that sense of ownership, is what led, despite the efforts of many to minimize the Colombian contribution, to their carrying the major share of the funding, doing the main analytical work, and absorbing a big share of the costs of implementation. That is what helped us keep Plan Colombia on track and relevant, and keep it from getting either too big or too small as time passed. Indeed, by reinvigorating our human capital, staying out of budget wars and keeping our eye on the right balance of effort, the process worked well enough that recent studies looking at ways to make the U.S. government more effective in its internal coordination, particularly in overseas contingency operations, have drawn on elements of Plan Colombia as a whole-of-government, expert-driven task force to address similar issues.
Having organized ourselves appropriately, our first visit to Colombia took place in the autumn of 1999. The U.S. team, in addition to State and the NSC, included the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy led by Gen. (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey; the Defense Department’s Latin American and Special Operations Divisions; the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Unified (now Combatant) Commander in the Hemisphere—CINCSOUTH; the Agency for International Development; the Department of Justice and other relevant domestic departments and agencies. The Intelligence Community and the CIA provided support and analysis.
We established regular and close contact with the highly skilled and very able Colombian Ambassador in Washington, Luis Alberto Moreno. Over the course of several years he made countless significant contributions to the effort, including keeping us in close touch with his own President and government and doing an outstanding job convincing the U.S. House and Senate of the need to fund the first and then successive annual tranches of assistance to Colombia under the plan. Moreno’s skills were so manifest that when Álvaro Uribe succeeded Pastrana as President in 2005, he kept Moreno as his Ambassador in Washington. Similarly, U.S. Ambassador Curt Kamen and his successors in Bogotá, Ann Patterson, Bill Woodward and Bill Brownfield, also provided ideas, comments, support and first-class integrated implementation of a complex, dynamic and unfolding process.
The first visit to Colombia included representatives of our key players. President Pastrana received us warmly and set up an initial meeting with his relevant cabinet officers and other leaders. We reviewed the major activities then underway in Colombia and discussed possible new and additional actions. Most importantly, as already noted, we proposed the idea of an overall Colombia-constructed plan to link these activities together, set a strategic course, plan operational programs, and establish goals, timelines and funding commitments for Colombia, the United States and others who might later be persuaded to assist.
We reviewed and approved the key ideas. First, we agreed that this would be a Colombian plan, prepared in Colombia and presented by Colombia, with close U.S. assistance with planning and implementation. Second, the central focus of the plan would be to reduce the cultivation and export of drugs, with serious attention paid to rectifying the hostile security environment, which favored and protected the drug culture being exploited by left- and right-wing extremists alike. Third, the plan would simultaneously attend to social and economic development, legal and judicial reform, and serious efforts to clean up corruption, much of it drug-money related, within the Colombian government. President Pastrana agreed to appoint a leader to prepare the plan, and assign cabinet and other officers to ensure that the process proceeded expeditiously. Notably, he took on a personal oversight role.
Alongside the plan, although not officially part of it, President Pastrana continued his effort to negotiate a political settlement, first, with the two largest left-oriented armed groups, the Fuerza Armada Revolcuionaria de Colombia (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), and later with the right-wing paramilitaries, including the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC).
We also agreed that meetings would take place, initially on a monthly basis, in Colombia, that would bring the Colombian and U.S. teams together regularly to discuss progress, problems and ways forward in both standing up the plan, and, later, implementing it. President Pastrana provided his time, leadership, ideas and political commitment to this process. Within months, Plan Colombia was set to writing first in Spanish and then in English. Colombia agreed to fund roughly two-thirds of the financial requirements from its own budget and asked the United States and others to pick up the rest. The United States said “yes”, and we submitted a $1.3 billion budget proposal to the Congress, which passed in 2000, the last year of the Clinton Administration.
The basic tenets of U.S. policy, incorporated in the original plan, continued uninterrupted through various changes required by the implementation process. We supported:
intensified counter-narcotics efforts;
ending the threats to Colombian democracy posed by narcotics trafficking and insurgency;
efforts by the Colombian government to strengthen its democratic institutions;
promotion of respect for human rights and the rule of law;
addressing immediate humanitarian needs.
While the first Plan Colombia formally ended in 2005, follow-on plans kicked in based on the same goals as the original. So how have we done, after nearly a decade of effort?
Not so bad, really, and the key to whatever successes the U.S. effort had in helping the Colombians lay in our ability to adapt to changing circumstances. I have no doubt that the ExCom organization of the plan helped us to do that. Early on, Congressmen and others criticized the plan for providing too much money to the Colombian military. It was true that the bulk of the initial expenditure was for about seventy helicopters required to ensure mobility for the forces that would provide security for coca and opium poppy eradication efforts. It was also true that social and economic projects required more time and organization to become operational largely from a standing start. There was intense concern in the early days, especially among Democrats with long memories of Vietnam, that the program should not become a Vietnam-like counterinsurgency effort. The focus, they said, should remain on drug trade eradication and interdiction and the attendant social, economic and legal challenges. We should not, they insisted, get in the middle of a rural civil war.
Nevertheless, by the time President Uribe assumed office in 2002, it was clear even to most critics that a focus exclusively on counternarcotics was too limited. The Colombians, with our help, would never be able to lick the drug problem without dealing with the political muscle that depended on it and supported it. Still, in order to keep the plan moving ahead, we accepted congressional strictures regarding this limitation. These turned out to be temporary, however. By 2003, the Bush Administration proposed to Congress that support be provided to Colombia to protect the important Cano-Limon petroleum pipeline from FARC and ELN attacks. This occurred, of course, in the wake of 9/11, and in the 2003 budget Congress provided expanded authority to allow counter-narcotics funding to be used in a unified campaign against narcotics trafficking and foreign terrorist organizations. This provision did not allow the use of counter-narcotics-dedicated helicopters to be turned over to counter-terrorism activities as the Colombian Army had hoped. Counter-narcotics remained the primary focus of U.S. programs.
Most important, however, it follows from the original decision that Plan Colombia be a Colombian effort first and foremost that the United States would have to adapt to changing conditions inside the country. Thus, when President Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy provided for citizen safety and increased state presence in the countryside, we adapted to that initiative. That effort involved increased aerial spraying of narcotics and more active military engagement under “Plan Patriota”, the Colombian Army’s strategic program for taking the fight to the FARC. Over time, the number of U.S.-trained Colombian army and police units increased dramatically. Our contribution included support not only to the military side of the effort, but also to strict human rights standards that greatly improved the ability of the Colombian army to win hearts and minds. It also improved transparency to those opposed to the plan on the Hill and in the NGO community, and made it harder for them to attack the plan’s funding.
Above all, we had to adapt Plan Colombia to the transition from Andrés Pastrana to Álvaro Uribe, men of very different mien. Pastrana was more Latin, more social, more engaged and seemingly more up to enjoying life as it came at him than Uribe. His popularity and political majority were closer-run things than his successor’s, however, and so there were more limits to what he could do as a result. Uribe gives the impression of being more tightly wound, more business-like, even a little bit more Anglo-Saxon in his quiet demeanor. He is certainly more focused and intense than his predecessor, with little time for humor and the enjoyment of life. He obviously calculates his moves and running room carefully, but as leader of a novel coalition in Colombia politics, Uribe has developed and exploited more policy leeway than Pastrana.
In retrospect, both men were, in their own way, necessary to the success of Plan Colombia. Without Pastrana there could be no beginning; without Uribe, no successful follow-on. Without Uribe to lead and build as a successor, Pastrana’s administration would have become a dead end. Without Pastrana’s misconceived yet ultimately useful opening to the FARC, Uribe could not have mounted the strategy he did. When Pastrana attempted to negotiate both with the armed insurgencies on the Left and the Right, he had little success. He certainly cannot be faulted for being too rigid: Before Plan Colombia had developed, Pastrana, in part as a negotiating inducement to the FARC, granted it a large tract of territory in south-central Colombia in the province of Meta as a despeje, a guerilla-controlled zone uncontested by the government and military. But the people of Colombia accurately ascribed Pastrana’s failure to the rigidity of the FARC. That allowed Uribe to set aside negotiations with the Left, and gained him important support for ending the despeje and forcing out or eliminating the guerillas.
Over time, too, Uribe has moved to tame the right-wing AUC and to discover, investigate and prosecute significant numbers of military officers and ordinary soldiers, high and low, who continued to cooperate with the paramilitaries and their outlaw successors in the country. The result of all this, as Scott Wilson put it this past April, is a major change:
At the time (1998–99), only the capital, Bogotá, was spared the horrors of a war marked by massacres with machetes, machine guns and even stones that made it one of the most gruesome conflicts I’ve witnessed. Today, assisted by billions of dollars of U.S. military and development aid, the Colombian government has pushed a Marxist insurgency deep into the jungles where it was born four decades ago.
Indeed, it is fair to say that the conflict in Colombia has moved from that of a political effort by the extreme Right and Left, supported by drug income, to counter each other and seize control of the country or significant parts of it, to one in which criminal gangs control the drug trade for private purposes, political inspiration having largely disappeared from the scene. The drug runners are low-life businessmen, not revolutionaries, and everyone knows it. Few if any areas are really denied to the government now, and for the first time in Colombian history police stations have been established in all of its 1,099 municipalities.
Progress on the drug front is more ambiguous but still real. In June 2009, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that coca cultivation in Colombia fell 28 percent to 430 metric tons—the largest drop in the decade since the plan has been in effect—with 20,000 fewer farmers planting coca. But there is continuing concern in the United States that the shortfall coming out of Colombia is being made up from Bolivia and Peru such that the overall flow of drugs from Andean region is not very much changed. Similarly, we are finding that aerial spraying to destroy drug cultivation has become a losing tactic. The guerillas have moved further into the jungle and divided up cultivation into small parcels. Now ground-based eradication accounts for 90 percent of the effort. It is tougher, and takes more people and larger security forces on the ground, but recent figures show it is beginning to pay off.
As to the soft side of Plan Colombia, progress has been harder to come by and also harder to measure. Problems of poverty and social underdevelopment remain widespread, despite a strong commitment to social and economic reform. Efforts in these areas have been “heavy lifting” for Colombians, and the U.S. ability to help has also been limited. As we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world, we are not well equipped with doctrine, experience, training and organization to deal with these issues. We are seemingly condemned to repeat our process of discovery with every conflict we fight.
Plan Colombia and its successor strategies went from shoring up a failing state and attacking the narcotics issue to more integrated counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency efforts as we became capable of addressing the intertwined nature of the two. In other words, we learned. I am convinced that the structure of Plan Colombia made learning easier, and helped us achieve the imperfect but much improved situation that exists today. This seems to suggest that the way in which American foreign policy is derived and conducted cannot be so easily separated from its goals. This is as true today about Iraq and Afghanistan as it was a decade or two ago about El Salvador and Colombia. We must continue to keep purpose and process together in mind as we confront problems whose solutions lie outside any single agency or department of the U.S. government.