WASHINGTON -- At George W. Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch last Thursday, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe told President Bush he needs more U.S. aircraft to replace losses in his country's war against narco-terrorism. According to sources, Bush turned to State Department officials and said every effort should be made to give Colombia whatever it needs. Implicitly, he was asking: Why aren't the Colombians getting all they need?
The answer is not opposition from Congress. House Republican leaders the past two months have been pressing for an additional $147 million, a package that Uribe requests of every congressional visitor to Bogota. The aid has been stopped cold by the State Department, perhaps the victim of bureaucratic inertia rather than conscious obstruction. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may change that soon.
If the Western Hemisphere is the forgotten sphere of U.S. foreign policy, Colombia is the seldom-mentioned battleground in the war against terrorism. Nearly 400 soldiers and policemen have been killed there this year alone, but they are Colombians -- not Americans. Congressional experts believe leftist guerrillas are cornered and are fighting back hard. Uribe, a Colombian leader truly committed to winning this war, has kept his country from becoming filled with global terrorists as the Afghanistan or Iraq of the Western Hemisphere.
The pressing need is additional aircraft to pursue drug eradication. Over 10 years, some 40 planes with U.S. titles have been lost. Aircraft significantly damaged or destroyed in recent battles with Colombia's FARC guerrillas include at least one Black Hawk helicopter, several Huey II helicopters and some fixed-wing spray planes.
Uribe's requests to visiting members of Congress are specific. To equip an additional aerial drug eradication base will require four Air Tractor fumigation planes, six Huey II helicopters and two Black Hawk helicopters -- costing $120 million. The wish list also calls for two Patrol and Intercept Aircraft, with associated radar equipment, for the Colombian Navy, at a cost of $22 million. Finally, an extra $5 million is needed to extend the Colombian National Police's (CNP) intelligence intercept program.
The visiting congressmen took this list to career diplomat William B. Wood, U.S. ambassador in Bogota the past two years. According to the lawmakers, Wood said he would not approve money taken out of current funding for Plan Colombia (the long-term U.S. aid program). They replied this was additional funding, and they departed thinking the ambassador was agreeable.