- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2002

U.S. military aid to Colombia will focus on the war against drugs and is not being expanded to take on leftist insurgency groups, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday.

The Bush administration policy toward the embattled Colombian government has come under new scrutiny as the president's new budget proposes nearly $100 million in new funds to help train Colombian units guarding a critical oil pipeline from rebel attacks.

The proposal, first reported Monday in The Washington Times, has raised alarms in Congress that the U.S. role, first conceived as helping contain Colombia's massive drug trade, has expanded to take on the armed rebels who provide a safe haven for the illicit drug industry.

"I think it's a close line," Mr. Powell said in testimony yesterday before the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.

"I don't think the [new U.S. assistance] is quite counterinsurgency, to the extent that [the Colombian government] is not using this investment and new capability to go running into the jungles looking for the insurgents, but essentially to protect" the pipeline, Mr. Powell said.

But Mr. Powell faced a number of pointed questions on Colombia at the hearing.

Rep. Sonny Callahan, Alabama Republican, said he planned to submit a bill to rescind some of the $1.3 billion originally offered under the Clinton administration's "Plan Colombia."

He cited the failure of the European Union and the Colombian government itself to supplement the U.S. contribution with promised development and economic aid.

"I am not at all satisfied with the direction that that war is taking there," Mr. Callahan said.

The European Union last year sharply scaled back a promised $300 million aid package, saying it feared the Plan Colombia blueprint would only lead to increased fighting.

Mr. Powell said he was disappointed "that the other contributing countries have not done what they were supposed to do."

"We are working with them, especially the Europeans, to live up to the commitments they made," he said.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, is the country's largest insurgency group. It has begun targeting critical infrastructure sites in Colombia's civil war, in particular a 480-mile oil pipeline.

Mr. Powell said the pipeline, which was out of commission for some 266 days last year because of rebel attacks, is critical to the country's economy and that protecting it was a crucial part of the drug war.

U.S. military training to protect the pipeline "affects and supports our counternarcotics efforts in many ways because it assists the government in funding its own [anti-drug] efforts," he said.

Mr. Powell also stressed that the administration plan does not foresee U.S. military forces participating directly in the ground war.

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