Beating Colombia's army

Posted: Feb 14, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Ignored by Washington, the Colombian army has been taking a bloody beating at the hands of an unexpected offensive by Communist guerrillas. It is not just the death of more than 50 Colombian soldiers the past month. The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) has taken the initiative in the 40-year war, and the government troops look bad.

 The timing for President Alvaro Uribe's conservative government could not be worse. He is asking the U.S. Congress for another $700,000 tranche to spending that would bring the total cost for Plan Colombia over the $4 billion mark. Colombia, which has been depicted as a great success story, has all the earmarks of dreaded stalemate.

 As President Bush seeks to spread democracy to every corner of the globe, U.S. interests are seriously imperiled in the Western Hemisphere. Across the Colombian border in Venezuela, leftist President Hugo Chavez is solidifying dictatorial power and threatening to cut off oil to the U.S. To say that this close-to-home crisis has been a low priority at the White House and in Congress is an understatement.

 U.S. policymakers took at face value claims that Uribe's tough stand with a reformed army the past two and one-half years had thrown some 20,000 guerrillas into headlong retreat. The strategy was for destruction of coca production to so limit the flow of funds from illegal narcotics that the Communist fighters would be eliminated as a serious force in Colombia.

 Thus, the events of the last two weeks were totally unexpected. An army column that had penetrated the mountains of northwest Colombia was hit hard, with 19 soldiers dead and five missing -- the worst single military setback of the Uribe era. A week earlier, the FARC ambushed a remote naval infantry base in the south, killing 16 marines. Earlier that week, eight soldiers were killed in a FARC bombing.

 U.S. officials minimized the fighting, describing it as the last gasp of a defeated guerrilla force. But there is disagreement from non-government experts such as retired Marine Corps Maj. Gil Macklin, a fellow of the National Defense Council Foundation who has many years of experience in Colombia. "The Colombian government has overplayed its hand in saying that the FARC's military threat has been contained," Macklin told me. "This offensive shows FARC still capable of running sustained operations." Drugs continue to produce a million dollars a day for guerrillas, augmented by revenue from kidnappings.

 FARC began its offensive in mid-January, and has been winning the battles. What worries Americans is the ability shown by guerrillas to chop up army units in small pieces, encircle them and then eliminate them. Despite its improvements under Uribe, the army has had no answer to these tactics.

 U.S. officials in Washington, still playing down the FARC's military prowess, believe the guerrillas are combining the fighting in Colombia with a "charm offensive" to seek allies in Europe and elsewhere in South America. The guerrillas are attempting to use apparent military victories on the battlefield to win foreign pressure for negotiations between the FARC and Uribe.

 In the midst of the guerrilla offensive, 20 more Colombian soldiers were killed last Thursday when a U.S.-supplied Blackhawk helicopter crashed during a nighttime anti-narcotics mission. The aircraft crashed in mountainous southwest Colombia deep in the heart of FARC country, but authorities denied it was shot down.

 A crashed aircraft in Colombia nearly always produces such a denial, and that was the case on Feb. 13, 2003, when a single-engine Cessna 208 went down in Colombia. Three American contract employees, working for the CIA, were captured. Nobody knows whether they are alive or dead, but what's certain is official silence about their plight.

 When I reported on this crash two years ago, I referred to Colombia as "America's forgotten war." No official talks about the war today. Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, is widely criticized for that silence. The question is whether Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will address herself to Colombia now that it is clear that the war, far from being won, may even be lost.