Pubdate: Sun, 07 Jan 2001
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Contact:  PO Box 496, London E1 9XW, United Kingdom
Fax: +44-(0)20-782 5658
Author: Tom Rhodes, New York


Amid fears that the United States may be dragged into a Vietnam-style war 
in Colombia, president-elect George W Bush is to order intelligence 
agencies to review America's role in the region with the aim of preventing 

Bill Clinton committed American forces last year to training Colombian army 
battalions to fight the heavily armed rebel and paramilitary groups that 
protect the country's cash-rich coca crops and drug cartels. The aim was to 
stem the flow of cocaine into the United States.

However, advisers to the new administration have told The Sunday Times that 
Bush will ask the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to recommend more 
effective deployment of resources to Colombia.

"The incoming leadership will be calling for a clear re-assessment of its 
Colombian strategy," said Georges Fauriol, a Bush adviser and director of 
the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It will 
mean input from all the intelligence agencies."

Disagreement over America's intervention threatens to undermine the 
president-elect almost as soon as he enters the White House next week. The 
new administration's decisions on strategy in Colombia and over missile 
defence will set the tone of its foreign policy.

Senior Republicans are divided over Colombia. Some say that Bush should 
embrace a more aggressive stand than Clinton's against guerrillas and drug 
traffickers. Others believe Washington is being drawn into a potential 
quagmire and hope that Bush will be influenced by General Colin Powell, his 
secretary of state, who is thought to have strong reservations about 
risking American lives.

"Bush will spend at least three months re-evaluating the whole thing," said 
Roger Fontaine, a Colombian specialist under President Ronald Reagan. 
"There is growing scepticism about US involvement in Colombia - it's a 
death trap."

Although some Republicans and Democrats say cash to fight the drug trade 
would be better spent on countering addiction at home, Bush is committed to 
Plan Colombia, for which Congress approved $1.6 billion in American funds 
last year.

The plan, costing $7.5 billion and funded largely by Colombia itself, aims 
to restore democratic order, fight trafficking and end the country's 
36-year civil war, which has claimed 35,000 victims in the past decade alone.

Most of the American funds have been channelled into training and equipping 
three Colombian military battalions, and providing 60 Black Hawk 
helicopters and Huey-2 gunships - earlier versions of which flew above the 
jungles of Vietnam.

While the terms laid down by Congress permit no more than 500 US personnel 
to be assigned at any time to assist the government of President Andres 
Pastrana, echoes of southeast Asia reverberate.

America is even developing a toxic herbicide nicknamed "Agent Green", a 
reference to the Agent Orange defoliant that maimed civilians as well as 
Vietcong and American soldiers in Vietnam.

Two of the battalions trained by US marines are already starting a push 
into the southern province of Putomayo, which supplies about 40% of the 
cocaine sold in America. The battalions will encounter resistance from 
left-wing guerrillas and ultra right-wing paramilitary groups.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), the country's most 
powerful guerrilla group, has been rallying supporters to fight any attempt 
to clamp down on the drug trade, from which it is believed to make $500m 
(UKP 330m) a year.

"This has the potential to become a disaster," said William Ratliff, an 
adviser from the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University in 
California. "Some of those American advisers are going to die - the 
guerrillas are going to shoot down those choppers, perhaps with some of our 
men in them - and we're going to have body bags coming home."

In October the Farc shot down a US-supplied army helicopter. Survivors 
among the 22 Colombian soldiers on board were massacred.

Fears of greater American involvement have been heightened by comments from 
Robert Zoellick, a senior Bush adviser who may be appointed as chief trade 
representative. In recently released remarks made in New York before the 
presidential election, Zoellick implied that the new administration was 
prepared for an even bigger commitment to Colombia.

"If the Colombian people have the political will to take their country back 
from killers and drug lords," he said, "then the US should offer serious, 
sustained and timely financial, material and intelligence support."

Zoellick is among a group of Bush aides who believe that the current policy 
is too soft on the guerrillas. "We cannot continue to make a false 
distinction between counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics efforts," he 
said. "The narco-traffickers and guerrillas compose one dangerous network."

However, several influential Republicans in Congress have started to 
question why American money is being given to an army renowned for running 
paramilitary units and with links to the drug cartels, instead of a 
civilian police force they believe could tackle the problem more 
effectively if equipped to do so.

Benjamin Gilman, a congressman for New York and chairman of the House of 
Representatives' committee on international relations, and Dan Burton, a 
powerful Indiana Republican, have called for a "major mid-course 
correction" to channel funds to civilian forces unconnected to the cartels.

"If we fail early on with Plan Colombia, as I fear, we could lose the 
support of the American people for our efforts to fight illicit narcotics 
abroad," said Gilman.

Bush's promise to fight drugs will require him to take action soon. But 
until he has read reports from the CIA and other intelligence agencies, he 
has fixed only one strategy - to share the burden imposed by Colombia with 
Europe and Japan, which are also heavily exposed to drug trafficking.

A group of black Democrats walked out of a joint session of Congress to 
ratify the US election result after the failure of their protest against 
the certification of Florida's 25 electoral college votes.

The 16 members of the House of Representatives objected to the halting of 
vote recounts in the state, but Al Gore, in his position as president of 
the Senate, declined to consider the protests because no senators had 
supported them.
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