United States, Colombia Seek to Reinforce Success

By Jim Garamone

An axiom in war, business and politics is that you reinforce success. That’s what officials in Colombia and the United States want to do as part of the effort to defeat the threat posed by narcoterrorists.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe met with President Bush last week and asked that the United States lift its congressionally imposed cap on the number of U.S. service members and contractors in Colombia.

Currently, 400 U.S. military personnel – mostly special operations forces – are in the nation, along with another 400 U.S. contractors. Uribe wants the ceiling raised to 800 and 600, respectively, and U.S. officials agree. The prohibition against U.S. personnel engaging in combat would remain.

"We’re building on success," said Roger Pardo-Maurer, deputy assistant defense secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs. "President Uribe has really done all the right things. The Colombian people are backing him … (and) his military has an 87 percent approval rating. They are doing the right things, and this is the time to make a difference and bring the rebel groups to the negotiating table."

The Colombian government and military have taken the offensive against rebel groups. These groups – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the United Self-defense Groups of Colombia (AUC) – use tactics indistinguishable from those of terrorists.

Colombian officials estimate the FARC – the largest rebel group – has roughly 15,000 hard-core adherents, with another 5,000 "sleeper cells." They estimate the ELN has about 5,000 supporters and the AUC, about 10,000. All of the groups are allied with drug traffickers and sell drugs to buy weapons and finance their operations.

Two of the groups – the ELN and AUC – are negotiating with the government for an end to their rebellion.

In the past, U.S. effort was focused on combating the drug traffic. However, success did not come until a committed leader took the helm – Uribe – and U.S. policy changed from just eliminating drugs to addressing the terrorist nature of the threats.

By any measure, Colombia’s actions have been successful, Pardo-Maurer said. Murders, massacres, kidnappings and other crimes are down in the country. Rebels are deserting, and there are far fewer rebel sympathizers.

Congress imposed the caps on U.S. involvement for a reason. In the past, the Colombian military was accused of corruption, human rights abuses and supporting paramilitary death squads. The new military has received training from U.S. Army Special Forces, which included extensive human rights training. Human rights complaints about the Colombian army have since dropped precipitously.

DoD is working closely with Congress on the details about the caps. Congress is asking excellent questions, Pardo-Maurer said. He said he is pleased with the bipartisan support the proposal has engendered.

Pardo-Maurer said the additional military and contractor personnel would probably help the planning and assistance teams set up in Colombia. These teams are designed to increase the ability of Colombian units to turn intelligence into operations. "This will help the Colombians really put the squeeze on the FARC and bring them to the negotiating table," he said.