The Dismal Science

We’re Blowing It

A new paper suggests U.S. military aid does nothing to reduce drug production in Colombia.

Colombian soldiers

Last month, the U.S. military got some positive international P.R., as Marines landed in Haiti to provide food, supplies, and security for earthquake victims. That our other military aid efforts typically fail to garner such praise is hardly surprising given their focus on American interests around the globe. Drone attacks in Pakistan and bulldozing coca and poppy farms in Bolivia and Afghanistan may be critical to U.S. national security but are more controversial, particularly overseas. Proponents of military assistance argue that it can be good for people in recipient countries as well, pointing to the critical role of military aid in stabilizing nascent democracies (and market economies) by keeping the government—rather than vigilantes or rebels—firmly in control.

Yet a recent evaluation of military and anti-narcotics aid to Colombia argues that neither American nor Colombian interests were well served by U.S.-supplied training and arms. The authors find that rather than bringing stability, increases in military aid caused spikes in violence from Colombia’s infamous paramilitary organizations and had no impact whatsoever on coca production. Plan Colombia, it seems, may have served as little more than a conduit for channeling weapons to the destabilizing influences that it was meant to suppress.

Civil war and drug trafficking have long, intertwined histories in Colombia. The current conflict has its roots in a 1960s communist insurgency, which has evolved into a three-way fight involving communist guerrillas, the government, and right-wing paramilitary groups. These days, two guerrilla armies—the FARC and ELN—continue to operate in the countryside with the stated aim of overthrowing the government. The paramilitary organizations have their origins in the private armies formed by drug cartels and landowners in the 1980s to fight back against guerrilla shakedowns. Despite the paramilitary’s record of kidnapping, extortion, murder, and cocaine trafficking, the Colombian government subscribes to the belief that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Paramilitary groups were declared illegal in 1997, but the government continues to cooperate with them informally to fight insurgents, share intelligence and weapons, and sometimes even conducts joint operations.

Given the central role of the drug trade in financing both guerrilla and paramilitary operations, military and anti-narcotics support from the United States have been connected from the start, beginning not long after Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs in 1971. American-Colombian collaboration has seen its share of successes—Delta Force and Navy SEAL experts helped to hunt down and kill the original Medellin kingpin, Pablo Escobar. But throughout the 1990s, U.S. assistance grew dramatically, making Colombia the largest recipient of military aid outside of the Middle East and Afghanistan. Has the money been well-spent?

Assessing the impact of American aid dollars is complicated, to say the least, by the Colombian government’s connection to the paramilitary groups, and the paramilitary groups’ connection to drugs and violence. Whether more aid leads to less drugs and turmoil—or exactly the opposite—depends in part on how much of it gets channeled to the government’s paramilitary allies. Paramilitary groups may, for example, boost coca production to buy U.S. weapons to attack guerrillas, who in turn produce and sell more coca so they can fight back.

To see how all this actually plays out in the Colombian countryside, economists Oeindrila Dube and Suresh Naidu analyze how conflict and coca production were affected by the level of U.S. military aid during the years 1988-2005. They compare regions with Army bases (i.e. areas that receive U.S. military assistance) to regions without bases (i.e. areas that are relatively unaffected by U.S. aid). If, for example, coca cultivation plummets in regions receiving U.S. military assistance, but not in nonbase regions, then we can be reasonably sure that the change is due to military aid and not something else (like good weather for growing coca). To make sure that they’re measuring the impact of U.S. aid on conflict and drug production (not the impact of conflict and drug production on U.S. aid), the economists focus on changes in aid to Colombia that go hand-in-hand with changes in U.S. military aid to the rest of the world, thus reflecting broader American foreign policy objectives rather than reactions to Colombia-specific events.

Dube and Naidu’s analysis provides a dark view of U.S. involvement in Colombia and suggests that the $5 billion we’ve sent to the country in the past couple of decades hasn’t exactly been well-spent. When U.S. aid to Colombia increases, so do paramilitary attacks in areas with Army bases—but not in regions without bases, where the number of guerrilla attacks stays the same. Despite the explicit focus of aid on reducing drug production, the researchers found an actual decline in anti-narcotics operations by the Colombian military in response to greater U.S. aid, with coca production continuing unchanged. There’s also some evidence that U.S. dollars may have been channeled to paramilitaries to intimidate voters and keep its government allies in power. Greater U.S. aid is associated with a decline in voter turnout, concentrated in municipalities with Army bases. (A related study finds that paramilitary presence leads to the election of legislators sympathetic to their cause.)

There may be nothing wrong with using American money to pursue American interests, but we should make sure that that’s indeed what our aid dollars are doing. Which brings us back to Haiti. The country is getting a much-needed infusion of relief funds, but as some have noted, when the camera crews pack up and move on, public attention will likely wane. Haiti will then face the complicated task of building the institutions—absent even before the earthquake hit—that might allow it to develop a functional economy. Economist Paul Collier has argued that a military presence can be critical to maintain the peace and stability that’s required for investment and rebuilding to take place in nations torn apart by war and other turmoil. Haiti, with its legacy of weak, ineffective government, makes it a particularly promising candidate for such assistance. Even before the earthquake, Haiti was the beneficiary of outside intervention, with thousands of Brazilian peace-keepers stationed there. Haiti would surely benefit if these forces were augmented by a longer-term U.S. presence. Given the budget crunch in Washington, however, it seems unlikely that there will be extra foreign aid funds available. A dollar more of aid for Colombia is likely one less dollar available for keeping the peace in places like Haiti.