In their customary fashion, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak have confused counterproductive repression with tough-mindedness {"The War in the Andes," op-ed, June 22}. A genuinely "no-nonsense" policy to reduce U.S. cocaine abuse and the violence of drug trafficking has no place for forced coca eradication.

Contrary to the National Defense Council Foundation report that Evans and Novak cited so approvingly, drug abuse is essentially a public health problem, symptomatic of social and economic crises in the United States itself. National security is therefore an inappropriate framework for reducing drug abuse, while supply-side policy is not only expensive but ineffective.

Expanding coca production is a question of poverty, not preference. No amount or variety of repression, from herbicidal magic bullets to real bullets, can alter the economic rationale for coca production. The ultimate argument against forced eradication is thus political, not ecological. Were Spike to prove 100 percent effective against coca and 100 percent innocuous otherwise, its application would still be futile; growers would relocate and/or join the Shining Path insurgents active in the coca-growing zone.

In describing U.S. policy as "emphasizing education and domestic interdiction," Evans and Novak are ill-informed. The budget is clear enough: 71 percent goes to supply-control; what remains is dedicated primarily to law enforcement and prisons in the United States. The Bush administration seems content to let the vaunted "thousand points of light" take care of treatment and education.

But federal money ($125 million in FY '90) can buy training and weapons for the Andean militaries. There is an eerie familiarity to the contention that U.S. involvement will somehow moderate the security forces of Peru and Colombia, whose atrocities are documented in the State Department's own reports.

Melvyn Levitsky of the State Department finds "militarization" to be a distasteful description of U.S. drug policy in the Andes. Unfortunately, "militarization" describes quite accurately a policy that buttresses the Andean militaries with aid that the civilian governments have not requested while conditioning the economic aid that they have requested upon acceptance of our military priorities.

-- John M. Walsh

The writer is an assistant associate with the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights organization.