The Foreign Service Journal - January/February 2018

52 JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2018 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL to recruit and train new fighters, including thousands of child soldiers, who swelled their numbers to about 20,000. The Colom- bian state was failing from its borders inward. This was bad enough, but what left us speechless as we waited for takeoff were our briefings at the Colombian Ministry of Defense. After the perfunctory slide shows by the police and army chiefs—“Don’t worry, we’ve got this now”—we sat down with two U.S. special forces officers assigned to the ministry to put together all-source target packages for Colombian ops. We’d sat through a lot of these, but the briefings were particularly impressive, cover- ing everything the Colombians would need to have and do to get the job done. It was all there, except offering to tie their shoes for them. Then came the obvious question: Howmany of these target packages have you put together, and howmany have they acted on?The junior of the two said that about two dozen had been passed to them. The senior officer sheepishly answered that the Colombians had acted upon two in the last year. He then went into why: there is little sharing or coordination among the many intelligence agencies and their operational components; they couldn’t get an airlift when needed; there is intense infighting between the police and army over who would lead; and so on. Back on the plane, I turned to Phil, “We’ve got to do something, and it has to be big.” “Yeah,” he said, “but this is going to be hard.” He knew this better than anybody because his daily grind was to reply to the mountains of outrage leveled at State by Congress, the press, human rights groups and those within the Clinton administration who were justly incensed over the abuses by many in the Colombian army. Far worse, the army was turning a blind eye to the horrendous abuses of the paramilitaries, private armies supported by rural elites and ranchers. And, as Phil reminded me, getting an appropriation for this “big” package would take place in the midst of a presidential impeachment effort. Yes, all that was true, but the situation was dire; our current assistance was hopelessly conditioned and fragmented. And there were key players in Congress who could be counted on. So we went to work. I reached for a pen, and Phil searched for paper. When he couldn’t find any, he reached into the seatback and pulled out the white barf bag. Good enough. Phil had been my deputy chief of mission in El Salvador when our mission assistance was designed to support the peace accord, to reform or replace much of the government and the armed forces, and to provide the essential carrots and sticks for the guer- rillas to disarm and demobilize. In El Salvador, the basic elements to assist in creating an enduring government presence beyond the capital (e.g., new police force, rural courts, infrastructure develop- ment, job creation and training, village banking, farmland, politi- cal party preparation) were all advanced under a peace agree- ment. In Colombia, their actions and our assistance had to get the guerrillas to the negotiating table, a very different panorama. By touchdown in Miami we had a set of critical components for the big package. It contained all of the above and more (an all-service intelligence fusion center and a coca and poppy substitution plan), but it was also front-loaded with equipment and training for the military and police. We were mindful that security had to be the umbrella under which social, educational and health benefits would flow to war-weary rural dwellers. At Colombian urging, the $1.2 billion initial budget request was dubbed Plan Colombia. We then set out to get the Europeans to pony up. Some 16 years and $12 billion later, the FARC signed a peace agreement with the government and the smaller ELN has begun talks. From the start, the Colombians owned Plan Colom- bia, raising more than twice our contribution through “security taxes.”The vision and statesmanship of its elected leaders made the difference. The strategy’s success has made it a template for counterinsur- gency worldwide. Colombian security and development special- ists are found in Mexico, Central America and South America, and they have lent their expertise in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. Rather than becoming a failed state next to the currently failing Venezuela, Colombia is at peace. Its people are at home working, and foreign investment is increasing at a brisk 15 percent per year. In August 2017, demand was four times higher than the offering of BBB-rated government bonds. Plan Colombia’s success was the result of tireless efforts on the part of Under Secretary for Political AffairsThomas Pickering and so many others at State; strong bonds of trust between our two countries; and superb bipartisanship through 16 years of Republi- can and Democratic administrations. But, more than anything, it was the courage of everyday Colombians, in uniform and out, who put their lives on the line for the sake of their homeland that made the 1999 tipping point a success. It didn’t come either cheap or quick, but the policy worked. n During a 24-year Foreign Service career, Peter Romero served as ambassador to Ecuador, as chargé d ’ affairs in San Salvador and as assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs under Pres- idents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He is credited with conceiving of Plan Colombia and was instrumental in convincing Congress to fund it. He currently co-produces a podcast, “American Diplomat.”