The Bush administration is debating whether to ask Congress to expand the drug war in Colombia by letting U.S.-financed anti-narcotics brigades attack rebel forces.
The argument to widen operations of American-created units, who are now restricted to anti-drug operations, is bolstered by a recent U.S. intelligence report, say senior Bush administration officials.
The report says that leaders of Colombia’s largest guerrilla force reached a consensus at a summit last month to aggressively seek the overthrow of the country’s democratically elected government.
Days later, on Jan. 20, leaders of the group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by the Spanish initials FARC), signed a deal with the government of President Andres Pastrana to continue to seek peace in a long civil war. FARC is a U.S.-designated terrorist group that reaps hundreds of millions of dollars each year from Colombia’s massive network of coca labs and cocaine-processing centers.
Senior Bush administration officials said in interviews that the confirmed intelligence report shows what was already suspected: The communist-inspired FARC is just buying time through unproductive peace talks while it mounts attacks and expands its highly lucrative cocaine operations.
“The point of all this is they are not negotiating in good faith,” said an administration official. “FARC is following a policy of fight, fight, talk, talk.”
The intelligence report comes at a pivotal moment for Colombian-U.S. relations and for America’s war on drugs.
The Bush administration last week asked Congress to finance a second anti-narcotics brigade of Colombian soldiers to find and destroy coca fields, laboratories and the processing of the final product cocaine.
In a sharp departure from the Clinton administration policy, the Bush team also wants Congress to fund a new concept: protecting an oft-targeted oil pipeline critical to Colombia’s economy and defending power-generation facilities.
The United States would finance the two Colombian brigades and provide Green Berets to train them with $731 million requested by President Bush in his fiscal 2003 budget.
Equipping a brigade to protect vital infrastruture would take the State Department program from purely anti-narcotic to an anti-insurgency operation. Some key lawmakers, such as Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, oppose U.S. funding for Colombia’s anti-rebel campaign.
Still, some Bush administration officials are advocating taking the fight and U.S. involvement even further.
They want the brigades authorized to attack FARC units if intelligence shows they are about to attack a village or other target.
“We want new rules,” said one senior policy-maker, who spoke on the condition he not be identified. “We want more latitude for anti-narcotics brigades.”
Under current policy, the United States is limited to providing equipment such as Black Hawk helicopters, training and intelligence strictly for the purpose of attacking drug operations.
The United States is limited to 400 GIs and 400 private contractors.
But some Bush officials contend the policy is ineffective. It has done little, they say, to dent Colombia’s status as the No. 1 cocaine supplier to the United States.
They say the drug source will never dry up until FARC itself is defeated.
That means, they say, an end to Mr. Pastrana’s three-year policy of granting the rebels a huge safe-zone in southern Colombia, and letting U.S.-backed anti-drug units attack FARC directly.
What the local army badly needs, U.S. officials say, are helicopters that can provide the mobility to transport local forces quickly to intercept advancing rebels.
Mr. Bush’s 2003 budget hints at a broader, though undefined, role in Colombia. It states, “In 2003, the budget will extend the reach of counter-narcotics brigades in southern Colombia while beginning training of new units to protect the country’s economic lifeline, an oil pipeline.”
As a backdrop, officials say, there is a tense debate within the administration on the effectiveness of spraying coca fields with herbicide and destroying laboratories.
The State Department is due to release an annual coca cultivation report as early as next month. The department claims the harvest in Colombia decreased, but the CIA concludes the crop actually showed a big increase over 2000’s 336,400 cultivated acres, government sources say.
Even the president’s own budget sent to Congress a week ago only boasts of only “modest results” in reducing coca output to date.
Mr. Pastrana granted FARC a Switzerland-size safe haven after taking office in 1998 and beginning peace talks. Since then, U.S. officials say, FARC has been free to increase its hold on the drug trade, use the safe zone as a base to mount attacks on Colombian authorities, stage kidnappings and increase its strength from about 10,000 fighters to nearly 17,000.
“What they are trying to do is show Colombia they can carry the war to the cities,” said one Bush administration official.
Colombia holds elections in May to choose Mr. Pastrana’s successor.
Colombia has been wracked by a long civil war. FARC began as a Marxist guerrilla group, then reinvented itself as part-insurgents and part-drug traffickers, filling a void left when a joint U.S.-Colombia campaign smashed the powerful cocaine cartels.
A much smaller left-wing group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), also operates in Colombia, as do right-wing paramilitary groups accused of massacring civilians and being involved in the drug trade.