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Colombia: Another Vietnam?

Attacking narcotics at their origin has been a tactic in the US "war against drugs" ever since its inception in the 1980s. But the US is losing in its most important battlefront: the rural areas of Colombia that produce cocaine and heroin.

True, spraying has taken vast acres out of production. But farmers just relocate, often with the protection of Colombia's leftist guerrillas. The guerrillas earn some $600 million a year "taxing" drug production and guarding cartel labs and airstrips.

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As Colombia's war turns nasty, can Washington separate fighting drug traffickers from fighting an insurgency against a weak government?

The prospect of the United States being sucked into another civil war raises red flags. Memories of Washington's controversial role in Central America's conflicts during the cold war resurface. A Vietnam-like quagmire could loom if missteps are made.

Increased aid to Colombia's Army, as distinct from the police forces that do most antinarcotics work, would raise an outcry, given the Army's ties to vicious paramilitary forces.

Yet the US clearly has an interest in helping Colombia settle its civil conflict, curb drug production, and preserve its frail democracy. A continued slide toward lawlessness will only increase the drug flows northward.

A breakdown of civic order, exemplified by frequent kidnappings by both paramilitaries and guerrillas, is teaming with a diving economy to drive Colombians from their country. In the first four months of this year, an estimated 65,000 fled, and the ultimate destination for many, of course, is the US border.

Under these circumstances, US aid to Colombian security forces should increase, but the focus should stay on narcotics. One innovative step is the recent creation of a small, elite Army unit, with US-provided training and equipment, devoted to antidrug work. If the unit strengthens the offensive against drug producers, good. But any pressure on the guerrillas should be indirect. We don't want another incident like that in Somalia where US soldiers were killed in 1993 after overreaching their mission.

Attacks by the two main guerrilla armies have intensified of late, even as President Andrs Pastrana has tried to open negotiations with the larger of the two. The guerrillas' ample drug income and the government's tactic of virtually ceding them a chunk of the countryside give them little incentive to talk. A more effective antinarcotics campaign, threatening their financial lifeline, could change that.

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As Washington rethinks its actions toward Colombia, it shouldn't neglect that other front in the antidrug war: reducing the demand for illicit drugs at home. A greater investment in drug education, antidrug advertising, and treatment in US communities could have a payoff as far away as Bogot.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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