The Right Priorities?

The first time Colin Powell was scheduled to visit Bogota as U.S. secretary of State was on September 11, 2001. It took more than a year to reschedule his trip to the Colombian capital to see for himself what was once the biggest battleground in what the Bush administration sees as a different type of war on terror: narcoterror.Of course, that conflict has changed fundamentally in the last 15 months--which is precisely why Powell took so long to arrive in Bogota. But where does Colombia's long-running battle against drug-trafficking and antigovernment groups now fit into the global terror war?

"The President, since 9-11, has increased the attention we have given to terrorism of all forms," Powell told reporters as he flew from Washington this week, "even if they may not be all in the form of Al Qaeda. We can see that these connections start to take place, organizations start to deal with each other, work with each other."

Powell was talking about a new breed of international terrorist, relying on networks stretching halfway round the world from Latin America to Europe. But what he saw in Bogota could have been a blast from the past: Huey II helicopters dating back to his formative years in Vietnam, used by a police group known as "Las Junglas."

Armed with machine guns firing up to 2,000 rounds a minute, the Jungle Boys fly into the heart of coca-growing regions to shoot up cocaine laboratories. This year, they destroyed 60 such labs--valued at around $500,000 each--that turn coca leaves into the street drug that has devastated American cities.

Powell, defending Washington's military assistance for this battle, brushed the Vietnam comparisons aside. "We should not romanticize these groups as charming freedom fighters," he warned. "They are terrorists." Besides, with just a few dozen U.S. military personnel on the ground, there was no chance of another American quagmire--"even though the helicopters are remarkably familiar," he said before heading back to the U.S. capital.

Still, that kind of jungle warfare does not come cheap, and the quagmire is sucking in far more money than manpower. Colombia is in line to receive $537 million in U.S. funds over the next year to fight the so-called narcoterrorists who have reduced Colombia's countryside to a feudal state of impoverished farmers and roadside bandits.

Colombia today is a window on the bigger war on terror, showing just how expensive and frustrating that global struggle may yet become. Almost a year after the military victory in Afghanistan, it also shows how the fight against Al Qaeda could still be at one of its earliest stages.

Take a look at the numbers. Four years ago, Al Qaeda launched a murderous attack on two U.S. embassies in East Africa, killing 231 people and wounding more than 5,000. Since then, the United States has spent just $3.1 million to fund counterterrorist training in Kenya, where Nairobi was the site of the bloodiest bombing.

Another $750,000 in U.S. funds arrived to tighten Kenya's airport security just two weeks before Al Qaeda--or a group that sympathizes with it--fired a surface-to-air missile at an Israeli jetliner at Mombasa airport and bombed Israeli tourists at a nearby resort.

By any measure, Al Qaeda and its allies appear alive and well in East Africa and are capable of striking U.S. targets--as well as American allies--close to the Middle East and Persian Gulf. The attacks appeared to be timed to undermine the Bush administration's intensive efforts to win Arab support in disarming Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

In contrast to Kenya's $3.1 million, Colombia has received more than $2 billion since 1998 to fight its combined wars against drugs, leftist guerrillas and rightist paramilitary groups.

That gap could be explained simply because of the scale of Colombia's battles. Or it could be justified because of Americans' huge role in buying the cocaine grown there. Yet the vast funding difference between Kenya and Colombia also underscores how far the administration still has to travel in confronting its new enemies in a global war--particularly in regions it has previously overlooked.

What can money buy in the war on terror? The Colombian experience suggests that the war on Al Qaeda will be far more costly than anyone guessed after the rapid victory in Afghanistan.

The best measure of success in Colombia is the amount of coca crops destroyed by U.S.-piloted crop dusters flying at tree-top height. The administration believes it has sprayed around 321,000 of the 353,000 acres (or more than 90 percent) of the coca plants in Colombia this year. President Alvaro Uribe Velez, the new Colombian leader, is determined to respray those crops again next year to drive the farmers out of business.

However, U.S. officials admit they may just be driving the problem from one Colombian region, or one Latin American country, to another. Even Powell suggests that after spending $2 billion, there is a long way to go before they actually reduce the amount of land devoted to coca farming.

"I would not say that in any place we have ever reached the point where eradication has outstripped the production rate," says Powell. "That would be a huge achievement. I'd like to see it happen because then it would be reflected immediately on the streets of America and elsewhere in the world."

That long, slow haul is no reason to reduce Colombia's huge aid package. But it may be a good reason for boosting antiterror spending in African countries, where the crop is not drugs, but new recruits for Al Qaeda.

The Right Priorities? | News