Pubdate: Fri, 08 Mar 2002
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2002 Austin American-Statesman
Author: Mike Williams
Bookmark: (Colombia)


BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia's long-simmering war has entered a new 
phase that threatens to escalate quickly and could spread from the 
rural countryside to large cities, stepping up the pressure for more 
U.S. aid, analysts say.

"My prediction is for more blood and more violence, with more U.S. 
support," said Bruce Bagley, a Colombia expert who teaches at the 
University of Miami. "But it will be logistical support and advisers, 
not troops."

New aid would go to a Colombian military that, though improved in 
recent years, has been hobbled by poor morale, lackluster results on 
the battlefield and a reputation marred by past human rights 
violations. Persistent reports cite alliances between the army and 
ruthless right-wing paramilitary forces.

Some Colombians doubt their own nation's will to fight, pointing out 
that the poor do much of the fighting and dying in the countryside 
while the middle and upper classes in the cities remain somewhat 
insulated and aloof.

"There are many here who want foreign troops to come do the 
fighting," said Daniel Garcia-Pena, a peace activist and 
congressional candidate. "But I don't think the world is willing to 
send its sons to die in Colombia while the elite here is unwilling to 
send its own sons into battle."

Things changed dramatically in Colombia on Feb. 20, when an outraged 
President Andres Pastrana ended three years of peace talks after 
Marxist rebels hijacked an airplane and kidnapped a prominent senator.

Pastrana ordered army troops to retake a 16,000-square-mile "safe 
zone" he had ceded to Colombia's largest guerrilla group, the Armed 
Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in hopes of jump-starting 
peace talks.

The rebel response was to declare "total war" in its 38-year effort 
to overthrow the government and institute land reforms.

"The guerrillas are going to attack more, and the targets will 
include the large cities, cutting power supplies, communications and 
other infrastructure," said Alfredo Rangel, a top civilian adviser to 
the Colombian military. "These attacks will probably increase toward 
the end of President Pastrana's term in August because the guerrillas 
want to demonstrate their power to the new government."

Colombia is currently receiving a multiyear U.S. aid program that 
totals $1.3 billion, most of it for military advisers, trainers and 
equipment, including 13 sophisticated Blackhawk helicopters and 33 
UH-1HN, or Huey, helicopters. But Congress, wary of U.S. troops being 
drawn into a messy civil war, said the aid could be used only for 
fighting the drug war, not the guerrillas.

Congress also limited the numbers of U.S. military personnel, who can 
act as advisers and trainers only, to only 500 at any one time. 
Private American contractors are allowed to provide another 300 
personnel, many of them pilots flying drug eradication missions.

But as U.S. aid has grown, it has become clear that the lines between 
Colombia's drug war and its civil war are blurry, thanks to the deep 
involvement in the drug trade by the guerrillas and the paramilitary 

Last week, the Bush administration closely reviewed the restrictions 
on U.S. aid to Colombia, with the Pentagon pushing for an expanded 
U.S. role in Colombia's counter-insurgency effort.

Although overall Colombia policy is still under review, President 
Bush has publicly stated that the limitations are clearly spelled out 
in law and must be followed.

With the FARC now identified as a terrorist group, however, there 
might be new debate in Congress over whether to loosen restrictions 
and step up military aid to Colombia as part of the global war on 

Already, Bush has approved increased intelligence-sharing with 
Colombia and moved for expediting shipments of military spare parts. 
His new budget also includes $98 million to train Colombian troops to 
protect a vital oil pipeline, used by Occidental Petroleum Inc., that 
is a frequent target of rebel attacks.

But it remains to be seen whether Congress will lift the limitations 
on U.S. aid.

Critics have likened the conflict to Vietnam, a quagmire of elusive 
guerrillas hiding in dense, forbidding terrain battling a government 
with shaky popular support and a questionable will to fight.

Several factors -- an escalation of the war, further threats to 
Colombia's oil, increased political instability and the drug trade -- 
mean the Colombia problem will fester as a U.S. concern for years.

"We're in for a very difficult period," Garcia-Pena said. "The 
guerrillas have used the three years of negotiations to grow and 
better arm themselves, as have the army and the paramilitaries. We 
now have three powerful fighting machines ready to go at it. 
Unfortunately, it is the rural poor who are most often attacked."
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