From Plan Colombia to Peace Colombia…will the US remove the FARC’s terrorism status?

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President Santos and President Obama hold meeting commemorating Plan Colombia.  Photo from OP Cancillería used by Finance Colombia

On Thursday President Obama and President Santos held a meeting at the White House, in commemoration of 15 years of bilateral cooperation through Plan Colombia.  As one of the meeting’s outcomes, President Obama announced that he will ask congress for $US 450 million in aid to help the Colombian government implement a final peace deal with the FARC.  Plan Colombia has notoriously been shrouded in controversy, however the new strategy ‘Peace Colombia’ will actually mark an further increase in funding.  From 2000-2015, the US provided Colombia $10 billion in funding under ‘Plan Colombia’ towards the country’s military and social programmes.  The new strategy, if approved, will provide about 25 percent more US funding compared to 2016 levels.

According to the White House, the Peace Colombia framework will build on existing efforts and scale up ‘catalytic support to help Colombia win the peace’.  The framework will focus future US assistance under three key pillars, theoretically re-tailoring funding to deal with a post-conflict environment.  These are-

  1. Consolidating and expanding progress on security and counternarcotics while reintegrating the FARC into society
  2. Expanding state presence and institutions to strengthen the rule of law and rural economies, especially in former conflict areas; and
  3. Promoting justice and other essential services for conflict victim

Furthermore, the Obama administration advised that it would also request funds in FY 2017 for other ongoing programmes that would contribute to Peace Colombia’s goals.  This included funding for humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations and, importantly, the Department of Defense’s counternarcotics programmes if enacted by Congress.  Given that these counternarcotics programmes are closely linked to counterinsurgency strategy and combined with the three points mentioned above, it becomes clear that near future US policy towards Colombia will continue to be substantially influenced by COIN rationale.

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SAN VICENTE, COLOMBIA: Two guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) stand guard on a highway next to a billboard with propaganda against the US-backed Colombia Plan in San Vicente, Colombia 30 January 2001. AFP PHOTO/Luis ACOSTA )

This then begs the question of how much Peace Colombia will truly differ to Plan Colombia.  Initially, Plan Colombia was also framed as a peace building initiative.  On January 11, 2000 the Clinton administration announced a $US 1.6 billion package to fund Plan Colombia, with roughly $1US billion of the total specifically designated for military and police aid.  The funding towards the military component of the strategy consisted principally of the supply of Huey and Black Hawk helicopters designated for anti narcotics operations, and the creation of two more military counternarcotics battalions.  This conveniently coincided with President Pastrana’s $US 7.5 billion plan to revive the Colombian economy, promote social development, eradicate illicit crops, and to continue stalled peace talks with the guerrillas at the time.  As a result, Plan Colombia was sold emphasising its political and social objectives, rather than its militaristic.

In an interview leading up to the meeting with Obama, Santos had asked that the US remove the FARC from its list of Foreign Designated Terrorist Organisations.  As quoted by the Guardian, Santos stated that-

‘If they sign it’s because we have a timetable for their disarmament and they have committed themselves to lay down their arms and make this transition to legal life. So I would say yes, I hope that they would be eliminated from the terror list’

Yet the US said on Thursday that it would be ‘premature’ and ‘inappropriate’ to take the FARC off the list before a final peace deal had been signed and implemented.  The FARC was placed on the US’s foreign terrorist organisation list in 1997 and the end of the Samper administration.  Whilst it is evident that the FARC has committed acts of terrorism, it wasn’t until the events of 9/11 that rhetoric of the FARC as ‘terrorists,’ rather than guerrillas, was significantly amplified within both Colombia and the US.  Given the nature of the ‘War in Terror’, it is really no surprise that the US Congress approved a $28 billion counterterrorism bill in July 2002 that included a further $35 million in supplemental aid for Colombia.  More importantly though, the new bill eliminated the conditions regarding the restrictions of US military aid to Colombian counternarcotics programmes solely.  This allowed the military aid that had constituted more than 70 percent in Plan Colombia counternarcotics funding since 2000 to be used towards COIN operations specifically.

There is no doubt that Colombia faces significant post-conflict challenges.  In terms of Peace Colombia, it is cautiously positive to see a commitment to funding that will be directed towards the implementation of a peace agreement after its signing.  However, in relation to how much it would significantly depart from the controversial Plan Colombia- it is still very much unclear given similar parallels between its objectives.  Whilst Santos has asked the US to remove the FARC from its designated terrorist organisations list, it is also unlikely that the US will do this in the near future until the outcomes of a successful peace deal implementation become more apparent.  Despite the AUC’s demobilisation between 2006-2008, it wasn’t until 2014 that it was delisted.  Moreover, peace talks with the ELN have not yet been finalised, which means that the future of the country’s second largest insurgency is not at all yet clear.  Terms of demobilisation have not been established, nor has potential entry into the country’s political arena.  Consequently, it is also likely to remain on the list.  More importantly than the label however, the designation of both the FARC and the ELN now justifies that amount of military aid that the US directs towards Colombia- particularly due to the lifting of restrictions on sole counternarcotics direction.  As a result it is unlikely that both the FARC and the ELN will be delisted until there is a substantial improvement in security, especially within the areas the insurgency’s maintain a significant degree of influence.  Despite the March 2016 peace deadline rapidly approaching, this increase in aid suggests an acceptance that Colombia faces many challenges yet to come in a post-conflict environment.

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