WASHINGTON – While the United States has spent millions of dollars on its interminable war on drugs in Colombia, the Bush administration is preparing to take the battle one step further by giving military aid to the Colombian government for counter-insurgency efforts.
Critics say the White House is using the war on terror to expand its drug war policy in Colombia, despite the fact that the violent rebels there have very little to do with international terrorism, Al Qaeda or sleeper cells poised to attack America.
"I think trying to expand the war on terrorism here is redefining what a terrorist threat is," said Charles Pena, a foreign policy expert for the Cato Institute. "We started with Al Qaeda, now it seems to encompass everybody."
Colombia is a major supplier of cocaine and heroin to the world through three violent guerilla insurgencies, the strongest being the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The U.S. government has spent $1.3 billion on anti-drug resources, including air and ground interdiction and crop dusting, economic development and judicial reform over the last two years. The "Plan Colombia" aid package was first signed by the Clinton administration. Bush is asking for $500 million more for 2003.
The White House is also seeking a $106 million increase for a total of $731 million for the Andean Counterdrug Initiative for Colombia and surrounding nations battling the heavy narcotics trade.
But the administration is prepared to take its anti-drug policy a step further by moving U.S. policy beyond counter-drug efforts.
In February, Secretary of State Colin Powell told members of Congress that Bush was interested in seeking $100 million in military aid in part to protect Colombia’s oil pipeline, which has been repeatedly attacked by leftist rebels.
The House passed a resolution by voice vote last week encouraging Bush to push legislation that would give him the authority to help the Colombian government go after FARC and the other guerrilla groups wreaking havoc on the country. The vote followed the collapse earlier this month of three-and-a-half years of talks between Colombian President Andres Pastrana and FARC.
Linking Colombian insurgents with the war on terrorism, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., said, "We have an extremely volatile situation in our own hemisphere that cannot be ignored any longer: The threat against democracy is in Colombia."
Not everyone agreed. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., who voted against the measure, said Colombia "is not part of the internationally supported campaign to dismantle Al Qaeda and other international terrorist networks."
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush said the United States would aggressively pursue terrorists and those who support them, and has deliberately left the definition of terrorist open to later interpretation as the war proceeded.
Since then, the United States has frozen assets of those not only linked with Al Qaeda, which has been accused of the Sept. 11 attacks, but of various groups tied to extremist Muslims, anti-Zionists, anti-Hindus, and even a socialist Basque separatist organization in Spain.
Stephen Johnson, a Latin American expert for the Heritage Foundation, said it's imperative that the U.S. get involved with protecting the Colombian government from FARC, which has had ties with the Irish Republican Army, pro-Palestinian Hamas and terrorist groups in Mexico.
"The fact of the matter is, not only are there terrorist activities associated with FARC, but they are what you would call a sophisticated drug cartel, so they really have the combined characteristics of being a Mafia, drug traffickers and guerrillas," said Johnson. "It may not be Al Qaeda, and it may not be affiliated with Al Qaeda, but it is a terrorist organization and has the potential to do some damage."
Sean McCormack, a White House spokesman, said the increased aid for Colombia is a continuing effort to stop the flow of drugs from that part of the world and help an embattled country. It has nothing to do with the war on terror and he disagreed that the administration might be pushing for more aid there under the guise of the war.
"These are completely separate issues, assisting Colombia in its counter-narcotics efforts and other efforts we've undertaken lately are in the national U.S. interests," he said. "Any assistance we give is in that context, regardless of the war on terrorism."
But now that Afghanistan is seemingly out of the heroin trade — in 2000 it produced 70 percent of the world's consumption, with profits going to the Taliban and Al Qaeda activities — Colombia could work to fill the void, experts point out.
The connection hasn't been lost on the White House entirely. A series of recent TV ads sponsored by the National Office of Drug Control Policy linked casual drug use in the U.S. to funding cartel murders in Colombia, and terrorists throughout the world.
But critics warn against an attempt to counter drug use in the United States by linking it to the war on terror, or to use that as an excuse to pursue the drug war and protect American oil companies that have a stake in the pipeline.
"I don't think anyone can prove the connection between Colombia and Al Qaeda," said Pena. "With every step we are more removed from the original threat."