Alarmed by signs of weapons traffic between Colombian rebels and the Middle East, the Bush administration is weighing a proposal to declare the destruction of leftist guerrillas in the South American country an explicit goal of U.S. policy.
Some senior officials are also pushing for the administration to assert, for the first time, that the Colombian rebels are a specific target of the worldwide U.S. war on terrorism, administration officials said.
Such declarations would mark a significant toughening of U.S. policy and pose an important test of how much leeway Congress will grant President Bush to expand military operations around the world in the post-Sept. 11 era. For six years, Congress has strictly limited the U.S. military mission in Colombia, fearing that if the anti-drug campaign escalated to a broader fight against insurgents, the United States could sink into a costly quagmire with echoes of Vietnam.
Under federal law and presidential directive, U.S. military assistance in the country's 38-year-old conflict has been generally limited to support for the Colombian government's counter-narcotics activities. The 250 U.S. troops there are barred from a combat role.
Yet as rebels have stepped up attacks in recent months, administration officials have come to the view that only sharply increased military pressure--with U.S. backing--can force the large and well-financed rebel forces to the negotiating table. This week, Colombian President Andres Pastrana broke off talks with the guerrillas, and the Colombian army moved Friday to take over a zone ceded to the rebels three years ago.
The administration officials argue that the United States should seek to foster Colombian democracy and that the collapse of the Colombian government would risk violence and turmoil throughout a strategic, oil-producing corner of the hemisphere.
Seeking to underscore the security risks posed by the rebels, officials pointed this week to classified reports indicating that crudely manufactured mortars used in Libya have been found in the hands of Colombian rebels.
These weapons, made out of natural-gas canisters, fire conventional shells but have also been used to bombard targets with unconventional materials, including excrement. Used that way, they can spread contagion, and become a kind of cheap and frightening biological weapon, according to U.S. officials.
The rebels are among the largest and best-funded insurgent groups in the world. They earn hundreds of millions of dollars from drug traffic as well as kidnapping and extortion operations.
Michael Shifter, an expert on Colombia at the Inter-American Dialogue research organization in Washington, said it would be a "radical departure" for the administration to commit itself to destroying the rebel organization, or even to making it an official target of the war on terrorism.
He noted that Bush had excluded the Colombian insurgents last fall when he defined the war's object as terrorist groups with "global reach."
Declaring the rebels part of the broader terrorism war would probably bring still more money and resources to the battle and give the problem more high-level attention in Washington. It would reflect the administration's view that the insurgents are a threat beyond Colombia's borders and could spread instability to neighboring Venezuela, a major oil producer, Bolivia, Ecuador and Panama.
It would also make the U.S.-led war on terrorism appear broader than a campaign against only Islamic militants.
Shifter said there have been past reports of contacts and arms traffic between the Colombian rebels and Middle Eastern groups, although none, as far as he knew, came from official sources. He said he had been skeptical of the reports because the rebels are "provincials" without wide contacts abroad. Yet he added, "I wouldn't be shocked" if the reports were true.
Last year, several suspected Irish Republican Army militants were arrested in Colombia and charged with helping the guerrillas there.
The Bush administration has been searching for a tougher line on Colombia, and an intense internal debate rages over how far the administration should go in reshaping what has been a strictly anti-narcotics campaign.
This month, the administration formally requested as part of its 2003 budget $98 million to train a new Colombian brigade to protect the Cano Limon oil pipeline, which is operated by Occidental Petroleum of Los Angeles. U.S. officials are also seeking permission to give the Colombian government new intelligence information to help it locate rebel forces, as well as additional spare parts for its military.
But U.S. defense officials said this week that they expect the military mission to be expanded far beyond protecting a single pipeline.
They predicted that the new brigade will protect other parts of the infrastructure that have been a target of rebel attacks, including roads, bridges and electric power installations. The overriding purpose is to protect or reclaim territory so that the Colombian government can assert its sovereignty, one defense official said.
And although U.S. troops are barred from combat, defense officials believe that American advisors will be allowed for the first time to accompany Colombian troops in firefights to help guide their activities, defense officials said. Despite their increased proficiency, the Colombian troops "lack self-confidence," said a defense official who requested anonymity.
In the debate over the policy, the State Department and National Security Council are urging a cautious approach, while the Pentagon is arguing for a more assertive stance.
A senior State Department official said in an interview that the request for aid to protect the pipeline marked a "big step forward." Yet the official sought to make clear that, from the department's point of view, the mission should still be strictly limited.
"We don't want to make too big a deal of this," the official said.
In testimony this month, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell struck the same note, saying the new military mission would be a "passive" one, in which the U.S. forces would try to deter attacks but not search the jungle for the enemy.
Congressional critics of U.S. involvement in the conflict have succeeded in restricting the American mission, beginning, notably, with an amendment proposed by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) in 1996.
But critics and supporters alike acknowledge that a tougher U.S. approach has won converts in light of the Sept. 11 attacks and the changing attitude of Colombians toward the war. As the rebels have carried out a string of kidnappings and bombings that have hurt civilians and soldiers alike, more Colombians have urged a harder line.
Administration officials say they intend to fashion their new policy in consultation with lawmakers and believe that they can build wide support on Capitol Hill if they have a chance to present their views.
"There has not been a real discussion on Capitol Hill on Colombia for three years," said Roger Pardo-Maurer IV, the Pentagon's top official in Western Hemisphere affairs.
Administration officials say they don't believe that the Colombian army can end the war with a military victory. But increased military force can build the pressure on the rebels, convincing them to negotiate, they say.
So far, the rebels have not been serious about peace talks because they don't believe that they are truly threatened by the government, U.S. officials say.
Pardo-Maurer said a well-known rebel leader from the Central American wars of the 1980s acknowledged that the decision to negotiate is all about calculations of the balance of power. He said that onetime Salvadoran guerrilla leader Joaquin Villalobos believed that cease-fires came about "not through trust, but through a correlation of forces."
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times