WASHINGTON – President Bush told Colombian President Andres Pastrana on Thursday that helping the South American country defeat drug traffickers is part of the U.S. campaign against terrorism.
"My biggest job now is to defend our security and to help our friends defend their security against terror," Bush said in an Oval Office meeting with Pastrana.
Pastrana said Colombia and the United States "are fighting a common enemy that is narcotrafficking and narcoterrorism."
Bush has asked Congress to remove restrictions that bar Colombia from using U.S. helicopters and other drug-fighting assistance against leftist guerrillas in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the State Department has branded a terrorist group.
"These aren't 'so-called terrorists,' these are terrorists. ... They've captured people. They're after Andres," Bush said.
"By fighting narcotrafficking, by the way, we're fighting the funding source for these political terrorists. And sometimes they're interchangeable," he added.
Pastrana met later with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick on their joint efforts to win Senate passage of legislation to renew the Andean Trade Preference Act, which expires May 16.
The act is designed to help Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru expand trade as an alternative to drug cultivation and trafficking. Pastrana called it a "vital component in the fight against drugs," and Zoellick emphasized its renewal and expansion remains a White House priority.
On Capitol Hill, Bush's linkage of Colombian troubles to the war on terrorism was greeted with skepticism at a hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, which is considering Bush's additional request for nearly $600 million in anti-terror aid to Colombia.
Rep. Sonny Callahan, R-Ala., asked Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage what Colombia has to do with the U.S. war on terrorism.
"We do believe this is part of the war on global terrorism," Armitage replied.
"We know ... FARC is targeting Americans, and not just targeting officials and infrastructure in Colombia."
Along with $35 million in emergency anti-terrorism support, Bush wants $439 million in longer-term aid and $133 million to help Colombia stop guerrilla attacks on an oil pipeline, reduce kidnappings and rebuild bombed police stations.
The United States has given Colombia $1.7 billion in the past two years to further Pastrana's $7.5 billion, six-year, anti-drug initiative.
"We want to join" Colombia's fight, Bush said. He praised Pastrana for a "valiant effort" against all forms of terror and expressed confidence that it will succeed with "the right help from America."
At the House hearing, Rep. Steven Rothman, D-N.J., questioned whether money requested to protect the pipeline was intended for that purpose or actually might pay to build up Colombia's anti-insurgency forces.
Possibly both, Armitage said.
"They are in a real tussle ... for survival," he said. "We want to train another battalion that will effect that type of security. Could those forces be used in counterinsurgency? Absolutely. Could they also be used to protect the pipeline from insurgents? Absolutely."
Colombian peace talks with FARC collapsed in February. Since then, bombings blamed on FARC have hit major cities and targeted Pastrana's likely successor in the May 26 elections, Alvaro Uribe, who has pledged to crack down on terror.
Bush and Pastrana discussed reports that FARC is operating out of Venezuela, which is the midst of political turbulence.
Pastrana said he has made formal inquiries of the Venezuelan foreign minister. "We want answers, if these guys are or are not in Venezuela," Pastrana said.