WASHINGTON, D.C. -- This is a country at war; a poverty-stricken land controlled by a large, well-financed radical terrorist organization. Over the past decade, 19,000 members of an indigenous terrorist organization and two allied groups have kidnapped 70 Americans and murdered 10 of them in this nation. At least one other infamous international terrorist organization has sent advisors here to teach the locals murder techniques. The state's terrorists have hijacked airliners, kidnapped and killed government officials, and targeted U.S. military personnel for extermination.
Is it Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen or the Philippines? Not a chance. The country in question is Colombia, and the terrorist organization is the FARC -- the self-described Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Last week, the Colombian government finally began to fight back. Unfortunately, it may not get what it needs most to succeed -- serious U.S. military assistance.
For 38 years, the Colombian government -- the Western Hemisphere's second oldest democracy -- has been struggling against well-armed, externally supported domestic adversaries. In the 1980s, while Ronald Reagan was trying to prevent Nicaragua's communist government from spreading its Soviet-bloc supported "revolution without frontiers," Marxist-inspired M-19 terrorists murdered the entire Colombian Supreme Court. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the M-19.
By the early 1990s, the M-19 had been supplanted by the FARC and the equally deadly National Liberation Army -- the ELN. Bank robberies, extortion and kidnappings proved insufficient sources of revenue, so they joined the drug trade -- initially "taxing" and protecting cocoa farmers, and eventually cultivating, producing and distributing drugs themselves. Last year, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the FARC pocketed over $300 million selling cocaine and heroin -- mostly to Americans. In comparison, during that same period, the Taliban made less than $51 million from worldwide opium sales.
The flood of Colombian cocaine and heroin on U.S. streets throughout the 1990s got the attention of the Republican-controlled Congress. In 2000, the House and Senate voted $1.3 billion in military and economic aid to fund "Plan Colombia" -- an ambitious counter-narcotics campaign aimed at stemming the drug flow. But the Clinton administration had other ideas and slow-rolled promised helicopters, weapons, intelligence and training, while pressuring Colombian President Andres Pastrana into the same failed policy it advocated for the Israelis -- trading "land for peace." Consequentially, the Colombian government ceded over a third of the country -- land the size of Switzerland -- to FARC and ELN control.
During three years of U.S. State Department-lauded "peace talks," thousands of Colombians perished in narco-terrorist violence and over 55,000 Americans died of drug overdoses. But finally, after last week's indictment of three IRA terrorists charged for training FARC bomb-builders, hijacking a civilian airliner and kidnapping a Colombian senator and female presidential candidate, Pastrana unleashed the Colombian Army against the FARC. And now, his biggest problem may be getting support from the same country that wants the world to stand up against terrorism -- the United States.
For a change, the problem isn't the White House. In the aftermath of 9-11, President Bush authorized providing U.S. intelligence to countries combating terrorism. The new presidential finding lifts some Clinton-era restrictions so that the Colombian government can finally receive essential information on the FARC, the ELN and right-wing paramilitary units. And last Wednesday, Bush said, "I applaud the efforts of their president ... to bring order to the country, but we are restricted by law, and I intend to adhere to that law."
Unfortunately, "that law" limits U.S. help for Colombia to counter-narcotics support -- and bans the Department of Defense personnel, contractors and U.S. equipment from supporting a military campaign against the FARC as a terrorist or guerrilla organization.
The law's Clinton-era language -- barring U.S. help for Colombian military operations against the FARC and the ELN -- was crafted to placate the political left in Congress when "Plan Colombia" was being debated. Now, the Bush administration's 2003 budget asks Congress for $98 million to help train and equip regular units of the Colombian Army -- not just those fighting the drug war. That's enough to detonate Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who claims that President Bush has "crossed the line" from supporting strictly counter-narcotics training to counterinsurgency support.
To Indiana Rep. Dan Burton, this is a distinction without a difference. He told me on Thursday, "While America is ridding the world of the Sept. 11 terrorists, we cannot forget the terrorists who are waging chemical warfare against us every day." Georgia's Bob Barr agrees: "We know who is pumping the illegal cocaine, heroin and ecstacy into our country, and we should be going after them. Clearly they are the enemy -- in Colombia, Afghanistan or elsewhere."
Apparently, Leahy sees the FARC and the ELN as something other than what they are: terrorist organizations just like Al Qaeda -- except that FARC receives tens of millions of dollars in support from the United States in drug money. The Colombian military needs and deserves not U.S. troops on the ground, but more U.S. training, weapons and equipment. And members like Leahy would do well to remember what President Bush told the world in the aftermath of 9-11, "You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists."
Whose side are you on?