Colombia Seeks More U.S. Aid for a Broader War
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia, Feb. 23 -- President Andres Pastrana
flew into this former rebel haven under heavy security today, as his senior
commanders sought to follow up their largely unopposed seizure of rebel-held towns with broad strategic attacks that would mark a turning point in Colombia's
Pastrana told about 1,000 people gathered in the town square that the
rebels had ruined peace talks and would now be treated as terrorists. "And
in that, the world
supports us," he declared. Army sharpshooters kept watch from balconies and a church steeple during his speech.
The visit was a bitter counterpoint to Pastrana's trip here in December
1998, when he gave the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC
as the guerrillas
are known, control of a 16,000-square-mile region as an incentive to begin talks to end Colombia's civil war.
Those talks ended Wednesday, when Pastrana ordered his military to retake the zone.
The United States and other governments have praised his decision.
Now Pastrana is hoping that praise will translate into additional military
and intelligence assistance as his imperfect peace process likely will
give way to a broader
insurgency against which his armed forces have never excelled.
As part of a renewed lobbying campaign for additional U.S. assistance
to press his fight beyond the former haven, Pastrana has talked with Secretary
of State Colin
L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld about allowing the military component of a $1.3 billion U.S. aid package to be used directly against the
guerrillas. Under current rules, the aid can be used only in anti-drug operations.
On Friday, in a gesture of support, U.S. officials announced that they
would begin a broader intelligence-sharing plan with the government and
expedite the shipment
of replacement parts for the roughly 50 UH-60 Black Hawk and UH-1H Huey transport helicopters arriving as part of the aid package.
The United States has already begun providing satellite photography of the zone, according to a senior Colombian army officer.
Two senior U.S. military officers accompanied Pastrana on his visit here today.
"This is no mission, we're just here visiting," said Col. William Graves,
commander of the U.S. Military Group in Bogota, adding that he was invited
by the Colombian
army. "We're just here seeing what's going on."
Pastrana's request comes as Congress is deciding whether Colombia's
military has made sufficient strides in improving its human rights record
to warrant continuing
International human rights groups have urged Congress to "decertify"
Colombia because of the military's continuing ties to a brutal paramilitary
force that has
repeatedly killed civilians in reprisal operations.
Decertification would suspend U.S. military aid and leave Pastrana largely
alone to face a guerrilla force that has grown to 18,000 people since it
took to the field in
As Pastrana arrived here, stepping off a helicopter in a soccer field,
his armed forces continued air and ground operations in this inhospitable
region of jungle-covered
mountains and pastures that has been under de facto guerrilla control for decades.
The initial days of the campaign have gone largely as planned, officials
said, with warplanes striking FARC air strips, roads and camps, followed
deployments into the enclave.
The strength of the ground force today surpassed 2,500 soldiers and is likely to grow to 13,000 in the weeks ahead.
Only three army casualties have been reported so far. Seasoned in ambush,
sabotage and other guerrilla tactics, the FARC has withdrawn from the zone's
towns, redeploying roughly 5,000 rebels into surrounding hills where they enjoy strategic and popular advantage over a government that has been absent for decades.
About an hour from this town of 25,000 residents, the largest in the zone, FARC guerrillas have dug in near Los Pozos and other villages, awaiting the army's arrival.
Throughout the region, where the FARC has built roads, bridges and other
infrastructure in recent years, the guerrillas have evacuated large camps
and broken into
The rebels have also launched attacks outside the enclave, taxing an
over-stretched army and making it difficult for Pastrana to sustain a prolonged
soldiers to this campaign.
While the performance of Colombia's armed forces has improved in recent
years with U.S. help, military analysts and diplomats here say it is still
not capable of
defeating the FARC.
Some analysts here believe that as many as 400 transport helicopters
would be needed to effectively pursue a guerrilla force that has a presence
in every Colombian
province and most major cities.
U.S. officials acknowledge that the government would likely have to
double the size of its 140,000-member military to control the entire country,
an increase that
would be prohibitively expensive.
"Given the number of men, the number of officers and its budget, the
Colombian army is one of the most mediocre in the history of Latin America,"
said a diplomat
involved in peace efforts here. "This is an army that has lost half of the country to guerrillas. The U.S. has made it better -- improving night operations, mobility -- but
it still has a ways to go."
During a crisis last month that brought Pastrana close to declaring
an end to the safe haven, senior military commanders discussed plans to
surround the zone and
pursue the guerrillas inside.
The strategy suggested they now believe that this could be a decisive moment in the nearly 40 years of war.
Today, several hundred more infantry troops arrived in the center of
this city, 185 miles south of the capital, Bogota. So far, very few operations
have taken place
outside the towns, military officials acknowledge, although some may be in the planning.
For now, the FARC remains in command of essentially the same rural territory it held before the safe haven was created.
But it is now in a stronger military and financial position, after using
the zone's protection for three years to stage military strikes, train
recruits and receive new training
from foreign groups.
The cultivation of coca, the key ingredient in cocaine that the FARC
"taxes" in exchange for protection, has also increased, bringing in new
money to support FARC
Colombian military officers say they won't be deterred. "First, we're
focusing on bringing back state security in these cities -- the judges,
the police," an army officer
said. "And what we need most is the intelligence help. These are small groups [of guerrillas] now, and it has become much more difficult. But we intend to go after