- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2005

As Ronald Reagan used to say, it does no good to throw a drowning man a rope, make sure he has a tight grip, then drop your end — to go help someone else.

That principle applies with equal force in international relations. Troubling, therefore, are recent reports that the United States could walk away from a long-term commitment to South America called the “Andean Counterdrug Initiative”(ACI), also known as “Plan Colombia.”

By most objective measures, this stabilization effort has been a resounding success. Most notably, ACI lowered coca and heroin poppy cultivation more than 30 percent between early 2002 and early 2004 — and has kept an estimated 20,000 drug-funded terrorists off balance. Perhaps more importantly, ACI constitutes a primary engine of positive change — including economic growth — in a region buffeted by unwelcome forces, including divisive radical socialism, especially from Venezuela.

To date, ACI has cost $3.5 billion. In context, that is about 1 percent of the U.S. commitment to Iraq over a shorter period. As most know, ACI includes aggressive aerial eradication of most of Colombia’s drug crop, regional support for criminal justice and human-rights institutions, hands-on training and material for the Colombian National Police and counterdrug brigades, an infrastructure for sharing and using real-time counterterrorism and drug intelligence, wider maritime and airport security, educational efforts like “culture of lawfulness,” and regionwide alternative development programs taking root in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and elsewhere.

Conceived by a Republican Congress in the mid-1990s and endorsed by the Clinton administration in 1998, this coordinated approach aims to stabilize South America’s oldest democracy, lower drug production regionwide and put tens of thousands of terrorists on the defensive — and eventually out of business. Against a steady head wind, it is succeeding.

Beyond reducing the region’s drug cultivation — and cutting drug money to terrorists — ACI has given hope to people across the region. Not least, the plan has assisted Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, one of our staunchest allies, in turning his country around. A visit with President Bush last year highlighted their combined commitment. Said Mr. Uribe, “I have found in President Bush a huge level of understanding that we cannot leave this fight half-way. … Our main target is… to eliminate terrorism… to finish with that plague.”

For our investment, here is what ACI has so far delivered. All 1,058 Colombian municipalities now have a permanent law enforcement presence, for the first time in the nation’s history. Over the last three years, trained police and soldiers — including human rights training — have increased 16 percent and 31 percent, respectively. Over the same period, homicides and “incidents of terrorism” have each fallen more than 40 percent. Over the last four years, kidnappings have steadily fallen more than 50 percent. In 2003, more than 3,700 FARC terrorists, and more than 2,000 AUC terrorists either demobilized or were killed. In 2004, an added 4,000 FARC terrorists and more than 2,400 more AUC were either demobilized or killed.

At the same time, while Colombia’s drug crop cultivation has fallen a third over three years, the hectares planted in “alternative” or legal crops has skyrocketed. From 1,500 hectares of alternative development planting in 2001, the number jumped to 43, 951 in 2003. It climbed again in 2004, and was paralleled by a solid growth increase of Colombian citizens benefiting from infrastructure projects and public health care. Over the last four years, more than 2.3 million Colombians have gained access to public health care.

Nearby, poverty-stricken Bolivia saw a 25 percent increase in alternative development exports in 2003 to outside markets from the Chapare region — the former coca capital of the world — which provided a net increase in legitimate income of $25 million. Both Bolivia and Peru have made major strides against drug cultivation, despite internal pressures to slow down.

Finally, ACI and Colombia are proving the truth in what John Locke said 300 years ago: Stability — or a “social compact” built around democracy — encourages people to “mix their labor with the land,” invest and prosper.

Thus, ACI’s contributions to stability in Colombia, while imperfect and buffeted by the harsh winds of narcoterrorism and unruly neighbors, have helped produce a 3.8 percent growth in 2003 and 4.3 percent in 2004. The World Bank recently named Colombia a top area for foreign investment.

All this says one thing: ACI is a plan worth continuing, for our sake and the region’s. In time, we should see reductions in cocaine and heroin entering the U.S., as we did in the late 1980s. But even now, the investment is sound.

President Uribe’s courage, supported by ACI, provides a much-needed anchor on this churning sea. The last thing America should do is cut the line.

Robert Charles, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, 2003-2005, is president of the Charles Group, Gaithersburg, Md.

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