- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

Guerrillas in Colombia have finally goaded President Andres Pastrana into launching the all-out war they have waited so impatiently for. Mr. Pastrana had been determined to negotiate a peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country's most powerful guerrilla group. Despite its escalating provocations, Mr. Pastrana had thus far refused to wage war. FARC, in turn, exploited his commitment to peace by weakening the state through violence and becoming stronger financially and thus militarily by deepening its involvement in the drug trade. But FARC's belligerence has now become unequivocally clear to Mr. Pastrana.

Last month, the Colombian president threatened to reclaim a demilitarized zone that the government had ceded to FARC in 1998 as a gesture of goodwill for peace talks. Although FARC had walked out of peace talks last year, in January, under Mr. Pastrana's threat of military attack, it committed to a timetable for a cease-fire and pledged to halt kidnapping and extortion operations. FARC has repeatedly violated both the letter and spirit of that agreement by launching murderous attacks on police stations, civilians and key infrastructure. Last week, the group hijacked a commercial aircraft and kidnapped a senior senator on board. Within hours, Mr. Pastrana ordered the aerial bombing of FARC's demilitarized zone. Later that same week, FARC kidnapped a pro-peace presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt.

It isn't too difficult to understand why FARC broke with its past strategy of launching more low-profile terrorist attacks and continuing to string Mr. Pastrana along. Clearly, FARC has decided that it would benefit from a war. It may also be quite confident it can humiliate the military before the May elections, undermining the widespread support for the leading presidential candidate, Alvaro Uribe, who has vowed to fight guerrilla groups aggressively.

Considering the fact that Colombia is the oldest democracy in Latin American, the Bush administration must take all of FARC's recent dastardly deeds seriously and act accordingly both for U.S. national security and to help the Colombian government better protect its citizens. It could, for instance, reform its aid to Colombia to form a comprehensive package designed to help the state effectively bolster national security. Washington could also urge Colombia to move toward judicial reform.

Furthermore, amid the global war on terrorism, the Bush and Pastrana administrations must lean hard on European governments to effectively recognize FARC as the terrorist group that it has consistently proven to be. Europe's deference towards FARC has allowed the group to win key public relations victories that help to strengthen it militarily. Since it has become clear that FARC isn't willing to reach a negotiated settlement, Europe must be careful not to give the terrorist organization any advantage that might prolong a war and cost civilian lives. If FARC is to finally get its war, the Colombian government must be given a fighting chance.

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