U.S. Reassesses Colombia Aid
Anti-Drug Efforts Studied as Powell Visits Bogota
By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday; Page A01
As Secretary of State Colin L. Powell leaves today for South America,
U.S. officials are considering how to expand their training of Colombian
security forces with
the battle against cocaine cultivation and trafficking spreading from southern Colombia to other parts of the country, administration officials said.
Among the options under consideration is training a new Colombian anti-narcotics
battalion beyond the three that already have received instruction under
$1.3 billion U.S. aid package, a senior administration official said.
Another alternative would be training an existing military battalion
in fighting drug trafficking, but the official said support for that option
could be tempered by U.S.
concerns about the human rights record of regular Colombian army forces.
Administration officials stressed that the training would support only
the "existing mission" of combating the drug trade, and not be designed
to bolster the Colombian
government's long-running war against leftist rebels.
A final call about whether to step up U.S. military training would likely
be made over the next four to six months, with an eye toward winning congressional
for the funding for fiscal 2003.
"We have certainly been talking to the government of Colombia about it, but no decision has been made," a senior State Department official said.
This consideration comes as some top Pentagon officials are apprehensive that the United States could be drawn deeper into Colombia's 37-year-old civil war.
The drug trade provides enormous profits to the guerrillas and right-wing
paramilitary groups fighting in the conflict. Officials outside the Pentagon
said they were
confident their counterparts in the Defense Department would feel more comfortable as they became more familiar with the counter-narcotics program.
The concerns are "raised by civilian guys in the Pentagon who are new
on the job, who are getting their feet on the ground," a State Department
official said. "Once
they go to Colombia and see how it's done, they'll feel better about it."
He and other U.S. officials emphasize that the current aid package,
composed primarily of transport helicopters and military trainers for the
security forces, is aimed
at uprooting drug trafficking in Colombia. The country accounts for up to 90 percent of the world's cocaine.
Powell's trip to Colombia will follow an overnight visit to Peru for
a meeting of the Organization of American States. His trip comes as the
Bush administration has
been reviewing U.S. policy toward Colombia, where President Andres Pastrana's peace effort is flagging in the face of a well-funded rebel insurgency.
The anxiety felt in some parts of the U.S. government was reflected
by Peter W. Rodman, assistant defense secretary for international security
affairs, who told
reporters late last month that the administration was facing "some agonizing decisions" about its Colombia strategy.
"Are we getting deeper into a conflict or not?. . . . What is at stake?" Rodman said. "I think we as a country are not quite sure where we are heading."
He added it was natural that the Bush administration would want to reassess
whether the goal of American involvement is solely to curb narcotics or
also to help
ensure the survival of the Colombian government.
"I think any new administration would have come in and looked and said, 'Where are we heading there, given the military engagement?' "
In his talks with Pastrana, Powell will make clear the Bush administration
remains committed to the policy initiated last year by President Bill Clinton,
said. The $1.3 billion U.S. aid package formed part of Pastrana's Plan Colombia, which combines an anti-narcotics campaign with development projects.
"He will tell Pastrana that we support the peace process, that we support
Pastrana and that the peace process is a big element both in Pastrana's
ability to continue
with Plan Colombia and for our ability to support Plan Colombia," another senior State Department official said.
U.S. officials said that in Colombia and Peru, Powell will signal the
administration's intention to resume anti-drug air patrols, which were
suspended in April after an
American missionary plane was mistakenly identified by a CIA surveillance plane as a narcotics flight and shot down by a Peruvian jet. Peruvian and Colombian
leaders have been pressing for the patrols to resume.
But the conditions for restarting the air interdiction program have
yet to be set, and no official announcement is expected during Powell's
visit, officials said. The
Senate intelligence committee is scheduled this week to review a report on the downing of the plane, in which two people were killed.
Powell's trip to Bogota, which is expected to include meetings with
Pastrana, military officials, leading political figures and human rights
groups, comes at a time of
mounting uncertainty about the peace process.
Officials in Colombia and the United States have grown increasingly
uncomfortable with the despeje, the Switzerland-size swath of southern
Colombia turned over
by Pastrana to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) three years ago as a safe haven for peace talks. Administration officials have accused the
FARC rebels in recent weeks of misusing the territory -- for instance, by receiving training in bomb-making, holding kidnapping victims and trading in drugs.
Although administration officials said they privately discussed Pastrana's
negotiating tactics with him, they said it remains his call whether to
renew the despeje by
Oct. 6, the government-imposed deadline for deciding its disposition. "This is a Pastrana decision," a senior administration official said. "We're not going to
Indeed, Pastrana's peace endeavor could be entering its twilight, since
his term will end next year and the candidates running to replace him have
handling of negotiations.
At the same time, the ultimate impact of Plan Colombia remains unclear.
The United States is just beginning to deliver the 16 Blackhawk transport
form the centerpiece of American aid. The first three were provided last month -- two for the police and one for the army -- and another three for the army should
arrive this week, administration officials said.
The balance, all bound for the army, should be delivered by the end of the year, officials said.
The United States has already supplied 15 aging Huey helicopters. An additional 25 newly refurbished Hueys should be delivered through next year, officials said.
To assist the aerial spraying of drug crops, the administration has
promised to augment Colombia's fleet of sprayer airplanes. But the U.S.
delivery has fallen behind
because the company contracted to supply the planes has gone bankrupt, U.S. officials said.
Administration officials acknowledge that other elements of Plan Colombia,
including support for farmers to substitute crops for coca and for improvements
Colombian judicial system, remain in the early stages.
As the crackdown on coca cultivation in southern Colombia has progressed,
particularly in Putumayo province, the drug business has rapidly spread
elsewhere in the
country. Congress is reviewing an administration request for another $882 million in the coming year to address the spillover of drug activity across the Andean
region and beyond.
A little less than half the funds would go to Colombia, with the remainder
designated for six other Latin American countries. The initiative would
finance social and
economic development, as well as law enforcement and security assistance.
The administration is also asking Congress to adjust a limit on Americans
working in Colombia as part of the anti-drug effort, which caps U.S. military
500 and contract employees at 300. Bush officials have agreed to maintain the overall limit of 800, but they say the number of contract employees will have to
exceed 300 once Plan Colombia fully ramps up.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company