WASHINGTON - Members of Congress and top Bush administration officials, seeking to broaden US aid to the Colombian military, are increasingly painting that country's battle against leftist insurgents and drug traffickers as part of the larger struggle against terrorism.
To bolster their argument, the officials are accusing the Colombian guerrillas of having links to some of the same global groups that are the target of Washington's expanding war on international terrorism.
The new aid for Colombia, being considered on Capitol Hill, would for the first time allow the US military to help and train forces in the battle against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the largest Colombian guerrilla group, which controls about 40 percent of the country. US law has limited American assistance to the Colombian government to fight the drug trade.
But critics of expanding US military aid from counternarcotics to broader counterinsurgency operations say that alleged ties between Colombian guerrillas and such global terror groups as the Al Qaeda network are weak at best, and that supporters of a shift in policy are taking advantage of the Sept. 11 attacks to make their case.
Calling for a ''unified campaign against narcotics traffic and terrorist activities,'' the administration in March requested more than $500 million in supplemental spending to expand US military assistance in Colombia to counterinsurgency. The request was made after the government of President Andres Pastrana moved military forces back into a demilitarized zone that had been ceded to the FARC three years ago in an effort to jump-start peace talks.
Spurred in part by a recent House committee report that found Colombia ''a potential breeding ground for international terror equaled perhaps only by Afghanistan,'' top administration officials are now frequently using the US-led war on terrorism to help build the case for a greater US military role in Colombia's struggle against the FARC and other guerrilla groups linked to the drug trade. The groups have been blamed for hundreds of attacks on government forces, including kidnappings, assassinations, and hijackings.
''In the past year, there's a lot of fertilization taking place between different terrorist organizations and, with each passing day, you can begin to see different connections emerge that have to be pursued,'' Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee last week. ''We have to have the flexibility it needs to go after this kind of threat'' in Colombia.
Powell's comments followed a report April 24 by the Republican staff of the House International Relations Commitee alleging connections between the FARC and various international terrorist organizations and supporters, including the Irish Republican Army, Iranian agents, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda. The staff said they based the allegations on intelligence reports.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, in testimony April 18 before the House Appropriations Committee, said Al Qaeda supporters have been active in the tri-border area of Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. He did not specify what evidence the United States has to support the allegation.
Other administration officials have weighed in. Attorney General John Ashcroft, announcing the indictment of FARC leaders for the slaying of three American citizens in 1999, last week called the insurgents a ''fiercely anti-American terrorist organization.'' John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, later told reporters that the Colombian rebels and other groups dependent on the illegal drug trade are closely tied to global terrorist groups.
Although US officials have not gone so far as to say the FARC and other Colombian guerrillas are terrorist organizations with global reach - a point that has been emphasized in the campaign against Al Qaeda - their statements underscore a growing sentiment that the war on terrorism is being viewed as a broad struggle against a wide array of threats.
''It is certainly clear that there is nobody willingly supporting the FARC other than terrorists and militants,'' said Alberto Alesina, a specialist on Colombia at Harvard University. ''The view of the left that these people are some sort of freedom fighters is totally misguided. Like terrorists, they have no interest in negotiating. The change in policy is to eliminate them militarily.''
Critics who warn that the United States could be walking into a quagmire question whether global terrorism is truly at play in Colombia. They accuse the White House and Republicans in Congress of using the war on terrorism to further their goal of greater US intervention in South America.
''I think it's strained,'' US Representative William D. Delahunt, Democrat of Quincy, said in a recent interview. The FARC ''has transformed itself more into a criminal organization, but it is not a terrorist group with global reach,'' he said, citing recent intelligence briefings. ''To call it that is an effort to secure more involvement and military assistance to Colombia.''
A US intelligence official, asked about potential links between the FARC and global terrorist groups, said there is no strong evidence of any linkage.
''It's a very lawless, Old West-type of place and every type of bad person operates there,'' the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said of the border region. ''But as for direct links between the FARC and Al Qaeda or Hezbollah, those kinds of groups, the experts just laugh.''
A recent report published by the Council on Foreign Relations said ''there is no evidence linking the Islamists of Al Qaeda to the FARC'' or two right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia, the National Liberation Army, and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
Delahunt said he worries that additional military assistance, such as training the Colombian Army to protect oil pipelines from attack, eventually could include more direct US military involvement.
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