The war in Colombia isn't about drugs. It's about the annihilation of popular uprisings by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla groups, or Indian peasants fending off the ravages of oil companies, cattle barons and mining firms. A good old-fashioned counterinsurgency war, designed to clear the way for American corporations to set up shop in Colombia, with cocaine as the scare tactic.

Last year, the U.S. Air Force commissioned the Santa Monica-based RAND think tank to prepare a review of the situation in Colombia. In early June, RAND (progenitor of many a blood-sodden scenario in the Vietnam era) submitted its 130-page report, called "The Colombian Labyrinth: The Synergy of Drugs and Insurgency and Its Implications for Regional Stability." RAND's conclusion? The United States needs to step up its military involvement in Colombia and quit forfeiting options by limiting its operations to counter-narcotics raids. Along the way, the report makes a number of astonishing admissions about the paramilitaries and their links to the drug trade, about human rights abuses by the U.S.-trained Colombian military and about the irrationality of crop fumigation.

The RAND report addresses the horrifying level of "social intolerance killings," which, for men aged 14-44, reached a level of 394 deaths per 100,000 last year. In all, Colombia endures 30,000 annual murders -- double the number for the entire United States in 1998. Slightly more than 23,000 murders have been linked to "illegal armed organizations" since 1988. The implication is that the FARC guerrilla group is responsible for these killings, and one has to dig deep into the RAND analysis to discover otherwise. In fact, according to statistics compiled by the Colombian government, about 3,500 people were killed by the guerrillas, and 19,652 by paramilitaries and "private justice" groups working in concert with the Colombian military.

The overall commander of the 19 paramilitary "fronts" is a sadistic scoundrel named Carlos Castaño, who supervises a killing program right off the pages of the CIA's Phoenix Program's operations manual. The RAND report details how Castaño's forces routinely execute "suspected guerrilla sympathizers" in order "to instill fear and compel support among the local population." When that strategy fails to deliver, the AUC simply launches an all-out attack on the villages and slaughters the inhabitants. RAND dispassionately notes that the AUC justifies these atrocities, in language even Bob Kerrey might admire, as a legitimate way to "remove the guerrillas supply network."

Although 20 pages are devoted to discussion of the FARC's ties to the drug trade, the RAND report spends only a single paragraph on the links of the paramilitaries and the narco-traffickers. But this paragraph is as damning as it is brief. RAND grudgingly admits that Castaño's group derives "a considerable extent" of its income from the drug trade and notes that eight of the AUC's 19 death squads also serve as protection gangs for the cocaine industry.

Castaño himself has boasted to CNN's International Division of his relationship with the drug lords. He said that 70 percent of the funds for the AUC come from the drug trade, with the remaining 30 percent, the RAND report notes in a stark parenthesis, "coming largely from extortion." The Colombian government under Andres Pastrana (though not the Colombian generals) takes the public position that the paramilitaries are at least as big of a threat as the FARC and the ELN, and is moving, rhetorically, at least, to suppress them. RAND condemns this approach as "unwise and shortsighted." Better, RAND concludes, to mimic the Peruvian or Guatemalan counterinsurgency models and fashion the death squads into "a supervised network of self-defense organizations."

RAND calmly ridicules the requirement for human rights training and monitoring, which is attached to the U.S. aid package. "There is a question of the practical limitations on the Colombian government's ability to prevent human rights violations in the context of an armed insurrection," the RAND analysts comfortably contend. To buttress this assessment, RAND points to the United States' experience in Vietnam, arguing that the slaughter of civilians is simply a cost of doing business during wartime and that "even with disciplined troops, the chain of command will ultimately break down at times under the stress of combat."

Of course, most of the U.S. massacres in Vietnam were the result of troops carrying out official policy, such as Phoenix missions, and not the actions of crazed grunts going on killing sprees. The same is true in Colombia, where, in the past two years alone, 477 police and military officers have been found guilty of human rights abuses by civilian courts. RAND concludes that the only solution is the elimination of the threat to the "stability" of the region posed by the FARC and the ELN. The report also suggests that if the United States doesn't intervene the Colombian situation "will metastasize into a wider regional upheaval." It is up to the United

States to act as the "deus ex machina" in this conflict. Aside from stepping up direct military aid to Colombia, RAND urges the Pentagon to expand the U.S. military presence in the bordering nations as well, including "helping Panama fill the security vacuum in its southern provinces."

Remember that the firm of Cheney, Powell and Rumsfeld has lately reassembled the old gang that directed such mayhem and misery in Latin America during the 1980s: John Negroponte, Otto Reich and Elliott Abrams. Marcella approvingly invokes the Thatcherite English theorist John Dunn: "there cannot be political control without the without the capacity to coerce."

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.