U.S. puts Colombia military role in context of global terror fight

Broader use of troops, funding considered

March 03, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration hopes to use concern over terrorism to build support in Congress for direct aid to the Colombian government to fight leftist rebels, officials say.

American policy-makers have not decided how deeply they want to plunge into Colombia's fight against the country's main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym, FARC. The American commitment has been to share intelligence and to rush spare parts to Colombia.

President Bush said last week that the United States would continue to comply with laws restricting American military involvement in Colombia to the war on drugs.

But the officials are beginning to portray the Colombian government's struggle as part of the broader, worldwide fight against terrorists, and they say it deserves a military support program.

Congress had specifically barred support for helping the Colombian government put down the rebels when it approved more than $1 billion in mostly military aid to Colombia as part of an anti-drug program. Lawmakers have contended that the guerrilla war is unwinnable and that the Colombian military is weak and corrupt.

But opposition may be softening, and some critics of the Colombian army now say it is time to consider counterinsurgency support.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who has long pressured the Colombian military to curb abuses, called for a "top-to-bottom review" of a drug-focused policy, which he said had failed.

As part of that review, Leahy said Congress should consider sending in American combat troops. Fewer than 400 American military trainers are involved in Colombian anti-drug operations.

One senior official said: "People are interested in considering a move from counternarcotics to counterterrorism, rather than counterinsurgency. What people are thinking is Colombia is under threat from terrorism."

The official conceded that the distinction was largely "just a change in words," but he said it could have an important role in public perceptions as the United States considered its options.

He said few members from either party have raised objections as the administration has started to help Colombia fight the rebels.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell; Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser; and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met Tuesday to discuss a request by President Andres Pastrana for military help. Powell and Rice urged a cautious approach, aides said.

Officials said the administration would probably not undertake a major policy change on Colombia until after its presidential elections May 26. But some see signs of a shift with Bush's request for $98 million to help the Colombian Army protect a vital oil pipeline against repeated sabotage.

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