Escalation in Colombia

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Feb 23 08:23:01 MST 2002

Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2002

U.S. Debating Wider Assault on Colombia Rebels
By PAUL RICHTER, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Alarmed by signs of weapons traffic between Colombian
rebels and the Middle East, the Bush administration is weighing a
proposal to declare the destruction of leftist guerrillas in the
South American country an explicit goal of U.S. policy.

Some senior officials are also pushing for the administration to
assert, for the first time, that the Colombian rebels are a specific
target of the worldwide U.S. war on terrorism, administration
officials said.

Such declarations would mark a significant toughening of U.S. policy
and pose an important test of how much leeway Congress will grant
President Bush to expand military operations around the world in the
post-Sept. 11 era.

For six years, Congress has strictly limited the U.S. military
mission in Colombia, fearing that if the anti-drug campaign escalated
to a broader fight against insurgents, the United States could sink
into a costly quagmire with echoes of Vietnam.

Under federal law and presidential directive, U.S. military
assistance in the country's 38-year-old conflict has been generally
limited to support for the Colombian government's counter-narcotics
activities. The 250 U.S. troops there are barred from a combat role.

Yet as rebels have stepped up attacks in recent months,
administration officials have come to the view that only sharply
increased military pressure--with U.S. backing--can force the large
and well-financed rebel forces to the negotiating table. This week,
Colombian President Andres Pastrana broke off talks with the
guerrillas, and the Colombian army moved Friday to take over a zone
ceded to the rebels three years ago.

The administration officials argue that the United States should seek
to foster Colombian democracy and that the collapse of the Colombian
government would risk violence and turmoil throughout a strategic,
oil-producing corner of the hemisphere.

Seeking to underscore the security risks posed by the rebels,
officials pointed this week to classified reports indicating that
crudely manufactured mortars used in Libya have been found in the
hands of Colombian rebels.

These weapons, made out of natural-gas canisters, fire conventional
shells but have also been used to bombard targets with unconventional
materials, including excrement. Used that way, they can spread
contagion, and become a kind of cheap and frightening biological
weapon, according to U.S. officials.

The rebels are among the largest and best-funded insurgent groups in
the world. They earn hundreds of millions of dollars from drug
traffic as well as kidnapping and extortion operations.

Michael Shifter, an expert on Colombia at the Inter-American Dialogue
research organization in Washington, said it would be a "radical
departure" for the administration to commit itself to destroying the
rebel organization, or even to making it an official target of the
war on terrorism.

He noted that Bush had excluded the Colombian insurgents last fall
when he defined the war's object as terrorist groups with "global

Declaring the rebels part of the broader terrorism war would probably
bring still more money and resources to the battle and give the
problem more high-level attention in Washington. It would reflect the
administration's view that the insurgents are a threat beyond
Colombia's borders and could spread instability to neighboring
Venezuela, a major oil producer, Bolivia, Ecuador and Panama.

It would also make the U.S.-led war on terrorism appear broader than
a campaign against only Islamic militants.

Shifter said there have been past reports of contacts and arms
traffic between the Colombian rebels and Middle Eastern groups,
although none, as far as he knew, came from official sources. He said
he had been skeptical of the reports because the rebels are
"provincials" without wide contacts abroad. Yet he added, "I wouldn't
be shocked" if the reports were true.

Last year, several suspected Irish Republican Army militants were
arrested in Colombia and charged with helping the guerrillas there.

The Bush administration has been searching for a tougher line on
Colombia, and an intense internal debate rages over how far the
administration should go in reshaping what has been a strictly
anti-narcotics campaign.

This month, the administration formally requested as part of its 2003
budget $98 million to train a new Colombian brigade to protect the
Cano Limon oil pipeline, which is operated by Occidental Petroleum of
Los Angeles. U.S. officials are also seeking permission to give the
Colombian government new intelligence information to help it locate
rebel forces, as well as additional spare parts for its military.

But U.S. defense officials said this week that they expect the
military mission to be expanded far beyond protecting a single

They predicted that the new brigade will protect other parts of the
infrastructure that have been a target of rebel attacks, including
roads, bridges and electric power installations. The overriding
purpose is to protect or reclaim territory so that the Colombian
government can assert its sovereignty, one defense official said.

And although U.S. troops are barred from combat, defense officials
believe that American advisors will be allowed for the first time to
accompany Colombian troops in firefights to help guide their
activities, defense officials said. Despite their increased
proficiency, the Colombian troops "lack self-confidence," said a
defense official who requested anonymity.

In the debate over the policy, the State Department and National
Security Council are urging a cautious approach, while the Pentagon
is arguing for a more assertive stance.

A senior State Department official said in an interview that the
request for aid to protect the pipeline marked a "big step forward."
Yet the official sought to make clear that, from the department's
point of view, the mission should still be strictly limited.

"We don't want to make too big a deal of this," the official said.

In testimony this month, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell struck
the same note, saying the new military mission would be a "passive"
one, in which the U.S. forces would try to deter attacks but not
search the jungle for the enemy.

Congressional critics of U.S. involvement in the conflict have
succeeded in restricting the American mission, beginning, notably,
with an amendment proposed by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) in 1996.

But critics and supporters alike acknowledge that a tougher U.S.
approach has won converts in light of the Sept. 11 attacks and the
changing attitude of Colombians toward the war. As the rebels have
carried out a string of kidnappings and bombings that have hurt
civilians and soldiers alike, more Colombians have urged a harder

Administration officials say they intend to fashion their new policy
in consultation with lawmakers and believe that they can build wide
support on Capitol Hill if they have a chance to present their views.

"There has not been a real discussion on Capitol Hill on Colombia for
three years," said Roger Pardo-Maurer IV, the Pentagon's top official
in Western Hemisphere affairs.

Administration officials say they don't believe that the Colombian
army can end the war with a military victory. But increased military
force can build the pressure on the rebels, convincing them to
negotiate, they say.

So far, the rebels have not been serious about peace talks because
they don't believe that they are truly threatened by the government,
U.S. officials say.

Pardo-Maurer said a well-known rebel leader from the Central American
wars of the 1980s acknowledged that the decision to negotiate is all
about calculations of the balance of power. He said that onetime
Salvadoran guerrilla leader Joaquin Villalobos believed that
cease-fires came about "not through trust, but through a correlation
of forces."

Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 02/23/2002

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