WASHINGTON – House Speaker Dennis Hastert, with Colombian President Andres Pastrana by his side, promised to push to allow U.S. military equipment to be used against Colombian insurgents as well as drug traffickers.
"Terrorism is terrorism, whether it's narcoterrorism or terrorism against a government," Hastert, R-Ill., said Wednesday.
The Bush administration, in a departure from previous U.S. policy, has asked Congress to remove restrictions that prevent Colombia from using helicopters and other U.S. anti-drug aid to fight leftist guerrillas. Congress imposed the limits to avoid having the United States become entangled in a larger war.
President Bush also is seeking $133 million to help Colombia stop guerrilla attacks on an oil pipeline, reduce kidnappings and rebuild bombed police stations, as well as $439 million in longer-term aid.
"We have a common enemy that is narcoterrorism," said Pastrana, who was to meet with Bush on Thursday. "In the last weeks, the last months, that is what we have had in our country and that is why we are asking the support of the United States to fight narcoterrorism, the support of the world to fight this common enemy, with its violence financed by drugs."
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle indicated his approval for changing the policy on Colombia's use of helicopters and other U.S. equipment.
"My predisposition is to be very supportive," Daschle, D-S.D., told reporters shortly before meeting with Pastrana on Wednesday. "President Pastrana especially has done an outstanding job in leading his country through some very difficult times."
Daschle also expressed concern about the future impact of a change in policy, given that Pastrana is leaving office this year.
"What will be the commitment of the new government?" Daschle said. "What will be the intention of the Colombian government with regard to using their own forces? Why have we not been able to apprehend some of the FARC leaders yet? Those are questions that we'll be asking."
Peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, collapsed in February. Recently, bombings blamed on FARC have hit major cities and targeted Pastrana's likely successor in the May 26 elections, Alvaro Uribe. He has pledged to crack down on terror.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he would favor relaxing some limits on the use of U.S. equipment.
"There is a danger of a narcoterrorist taking over that country," McCain said in an interview. "Events have changed in Colombia since we passed the law. The safe areas have disappeared and the violence has spread."
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Western Hemisphere panel, gave qualified support to the idea.
"We can't do it unilaterally," he said in an interview. "It is going to be critical to have at least the Andean countries, plus Brazil, on board. Without Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, it's not going to work." Bush should build that coalition, Dodd said, and include Europe, where FARC enjoys support.
In addition, the Colombian military must do better at ending human rights abuses by paramilitaries, and improve its abilities as an armed force, Dodd said.
"There's no question the United States needs to help, and I will be supportive of that," as long as these other efforts are made, he said. If not, he said, "My fear is, all it's going to do is get you more bogged down."
"The United States could wind up financing both sides of the war: Drug consumption funds the narcoterrorists, and the government will be financing the Colombian government's side," he said.
The United States has given Colombia $1.7 billion in the past two years, and some lawmakers are critical about how it has been used.
The aid was for Pastrana's $7.5 billion, six-year, anti-drug Plan Colombia, which includes a plan to persuade coca plant growers to switch to legitimate crops.
"For the first time, we're looking not only at the military side of the drugs, but also the social side, and we're starting to get results," Pastrana told reporters. "We have advanced the protection of human rights in our country."
Bush wants Congress to approve an expanded Andean Trade Preference Act, originally enacted in 1991 to help Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru increase trade as an alternative to drug cultivation and trafficking.
The House approved it in November, 225-191. A slightly different version is pending in the Senate. Earlier this month, Bush pressed the Senate to pass it by this Monday.