Arms for Colombia?

Posted: Aug 08, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

 On May 13, a letter urgently requesting the $147 million was sent to Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis by four Republican chairmen: Henry Hyde (International Relations Committee); Tom Davis (Government Reform Committee); Dan Burton (Western Hemisphere subcommittee), and Mark Souder (Drug Policy subcommittee). They sent a copy to Rep. Jim Kolbe, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.

 However, nothing happened in the Appropriations Committee. When I asked Kolbe, he said his subcommittee had approved everything requested by the Bush administration. I subsequently learned of the May 13 letter asking for additional funds and went back to Kolbe. He replied he had talked to Ambassador Wood, who told him these funds definitely were not being requested by the administration.

 What had happened? Uribe's arms list came to rest in the office of Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. It died there. Noriega recently was eased out of office by Secretary Rice and is expected to be replaced by Foreign Service officer Thomas Shannon, Latin American specialist at the National Security Council.

 Shannon was at Crawford last week as the U.S. and Colombian presidents met and discussed military needs. Rep. Burton took the opportunity of this meeting to write Bush, repeating the requests made three months earlier to the Appropriations Committee. Burton noted that three days earlier, 15 CNP members on a drug eradication mission were killed by a roadside bomb. Expressing regret that no action was taken on the May 13 letter, Burton urged the president to press for early approval of the $147 million.

 Today [Monday] marks the third anniversary of Alvaro Uribe's presidency. On that day in 2002, guerrillas bombed the Casa Narino presidential palace. A life-and-death struggle continues against the narco-terrorists in Colombia. With the U.S. so far spending $4 billion for Plan Colombia, Uribe may wonder what kind of government he is dealing with that experiences so much trouble approving a small but desperately needed $147 million arms package.