Colombian Aid Limits Reviewed
Pastrana, Bush Ask a Skeptical Congress to Lift Restrictions
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Another difficult and controversial foreign policy issue is about to
crowd onto President Bush's already overflowing plate, as
Congress takes up his plan for a major expansion of U.S. involvement in Colombia's guerrilla war.
Hearings scheduled to stretch into next month began last week on the
proposal to stop restricting U.S. military aid to
Colombia's fight against cocaine and heroin production and export.
The restrictions were designed to keep the United States from becoming
directly involved in South America's oldest guerrilla
conflict. But the Bush administration maintains that left- and right-wing insurgents fighting the Colombian government and each
other are both drug traffickers and terrorists whose activities threaten not only Colombia but the stability and security of Latin
America and the United States.
Colombian President Andres Pastrana arrives in Washington today for
a four-day visit to help lobby for the plan, which would
also waive a number of human rights provisions and other restrictions Congress has attached to Colombia aid.
With little to show for nearly $2 billion already spent fighting Colombia's
drug war since 2000, however, Bush and Pastrana
face an uphill task. Skeptical legislators have indicated they want a better explanation of past failures and a far more detailed
description of the new policy than has been provided.
"You're asking for an unprecedented level of decision-making power over
policy in Colombia -- with no specifics," Rep. Jim
Kolbe (R-Ariz.) told Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman at a House appropriations subcommittee hearing last week. "I
don't feel I know any more about what U.S. policy in Colombia is than I did before."
Language authorizing the policy change is contained in one sentence,
deep inside the voluminous White House request for $27
billion in emergency anti-terrorism aid sent to Congress last month. Superseding all existing restrictions, it says that all previously
approved and future aid "shall be available to support a unified campaign against narcotics trafficking, terrorist activities, and
other threats to [Colombia's] national security."
The administration has said it will not send U.S. combat troops to Colombia,
nor extend the U.S. military mission beyond
training and supplying military equipment. But there would be no restrictions on Colombia's use of U.S. equipment and
The new request explicitly retains Congress's 400-person cap on the
number of U.S. military personnel in Colombia, and
observance of a worldwide requirement for human rights vetting of any foreign troops trained by U.S. forces.
Grossman explained that the "new authority would allow us to address
the problem of terrorism in Colombia as vigorously as
we currently address narcotics, and help the government of Colombia address the heightened terrorist risk that resulted" from
the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The change, he said, would also help Colombia deal with the collapse of peace talks last month
between Pastrana and the largest rebel group, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The State Department lists both FARC and the United Self-Defense Forces,
a paramilitary group of equal size and viciousness,
as "foreign terrorist organizations," along with a smaller leftist guerrilla group. All are financed principally by the illegal drug
business that supplies nearly all of the cocaine that enters the United States, and much of the heroin. The three groups regularly
attack civilians in addition to their battles with the Colombian army and each other.
FARC, in particular, has escalated attacks against Colombia's national
infrastructure since February, when Pastrana ended
three years of sputtering peace talks following a spate of kidnappings of public officials.
The proposed change in ground rules for Colombian aid marks the first
time since Sept. 11 that the administration has
suggested that domestic insurgents in another country pose a terrorist threat even if they have not directly targeted the United
States and have no known connection to any group that has.
With virtually no progress in the drug fight, some in Congress have
suggested the administration is creating a terrorist danger in
Colombia to justify throwing good money after bad, and in the process risking a Vietnam-type quagmire.
Worse than a "slippery slope . . . I think we're approaching a cliff,"
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) told Assistant Secretary of State
Otto J. Reich at a House International Relations subcommittee hearing last week.
Administration officials say that the infusion of drug money into FARC
and AUC has led to their rapid growth and inserted a
new element into the long history of Colombian insurgency. The drug and terror wars are now so intertwined, they argue, that
neither can be won without U.S. involvement in both.
Beyond the firewall restricting the use of U.S.-trained troops and U.S-provided
equipment to counter-narcotics missions, more
specific limits on Colombia assistance would also be waived under the new policy.
Congress has refused to release any military-related funds in a $300
million Colombia aid package it appropriated for 2002
until the administration can certify that the Colombian army has ended collusion with the AUC, suspended and prosecuted
senior officers credibly alleged to have been involved in human rights violations and moved to arrest AUC leaders. The leftist
FARC and the right wing AUC are officially equal enemies, but both the Colombian and U.S. governments display far more
interest in combating the former than the latter.
Money to continue a U.S.-paid aerial fumigation program has been withheld
pending proof that the herbicide being sprayed on
drug crops is nontoxic and safely used. Neither the military certification nor the herbicide information has been provided.
In February, the Senate prohibited spending any of the new 2002 money
for any purpose, until the administration provides a
more detailed outline of its strategy.
According to senior Colombian and U.S. officials, the cutoff is beginning
to pinch. "We're scraping bits and pieces" left in
accounts from earlier years to keep the military and spraying programs going, an administration official said. But "we're at a
precipice in terms of where there begins to be an impact."
While arguing there has been modest progress in all areas of U.S. effort
in Colombia, the administration agrees it has been
insufficient. Army collusion with AUC, which the State Department's human rights reporting holds responsible for civilian
massacres and brutality as well as drug trafficking, has continued, while there have been few advances in the war that both are
fighting against FARC.
Members of Congress also have asked why the administration proposes
spending more money to defend Colombia, including
more than $500 million requested for 2003, when Colombia itself is spending less.
Although Pastrana increased defense spending in 1998, his first year
in office, it has declined as a percentage of gross domestic
product every year since then. Colombia now spends slightly less than 2 percent of its GDP on the army, and 3.3 percent for all
security forces combined.
"I'm not at all satisfied with the commitments" Colombia has made, Rep.
Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.) told administration officials.
"We're talking about a lot of money going into a very small area that can show me zero progress."