- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

MIAMI - U.S. rules of engagement in Colombia are being called into question after U.S. soldiers accompanied their Colombian counterparts on a raid on a rebel stronghold, where three American civilians were being held as hostages.

The Colombian newspaper El Tiempo this month disclosed the operation, in which U.S. and Colombian forces entered a jungle base where rebels were holding civilian military contractors Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes and Keith Stansell all captured when their surveillance plane went down in February 2004.

Many of the leftist rebels fled into the jungle, but two were captured and questioned about the health and well-being of the American contractors, according to El Tiempo. The January attack was staged in an area where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has operated with relative impunity for more than 40 years.

U.S. Embassy officials in Bogota confirmed that U.S. troops participated in the operation, but otherwise refused to comment on the incident, which pushed the limits of U.S. rules prohibiting American military personnel in Colombia from engaging in combat with any indigenous forces.

Officials with the U.S. Southern Command have said even less, refusing to confirm that the operation took place, although a military spokesman did tell The Washington Times that the recovery of the hostages “is one of the highest priorities of Southcom.”

The rules of engagement do permit U.S. forces to act as advisers to Colombian troops, a definition that allows some leeway for events like the January operation.

“I would hope are pushing the outer envelope because the rules of engagement are so restrictive that they end up putting our people in danger,” said Mike Waller, vice president at the Center for Security Policy in Washington and a professor of international communication at the Institute of World Politics.

A senior staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee said the restrictions on combat by U.S. forces in Colombia do not apply to search-and-rescue operations.

“It is completely legal for forces to conduct any raid that is necessary to free the hostages,” said the staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The staffer noted, however, that rescue attempts are rare because hostages are often killed after a failed rescue attempt.

“We are very cautious about attempting something like that,” said the staffer.

John E. Pike, director and founder of Globalsecurity.org, said the raid has prompted some to question whether the United States was gradually moving beyond its advisory role in Colombia and toward greater involvement in the decades-old war.

“Those concerned about whether the United States is finding itself on a slippery slope in Colombia are expressing concerns” about the raid, he said.

Comparing U.S. involvement in Colombia to early U.S. policy on Vietnam, where American forces first entered Southeast Asia as advisers, he said the chances of the United States engaging in a prolonged Vietnam-style conflict in Colombia are slimmer now than five years ago.

In 2002, the United States was still a year away from committing nearly 150,000 troops to Iraq, and some considered FARC and other leftist rebel groups as terrorist organizations on par with al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Leftist rebels, as well as Colombia’s right-wing paramilitaries, produce most of the cocaine consumed in the United States and use the revenues to fund their war, reason enough for some administration officials to want to include the rebels on their global most-wanted list.

But concerns about Colombian rebels have waned since then, said Mr. Pike. “We’ve got our hands so full in Iraq and Afghanistan, that I don’t think that people are that worried about Colombia anymore,” he said.

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