TOLEMAIDA MILITARY BASE, Colombia (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel praised Colombia's advances in counterterrorism on Friday and said that the South American country will provide valuable training and peacekeeping assistance around the globe as its internal conflicts wind down.
Hagel, who met with top Colombian leaders, said they discussed the threat that Islamic State militants pose, but that any decision to participate in that fight would be up to Bogota.
Colombia is Hagel's first stop on a six-day, three-country trip to South America. He will also visit Chile and Peru, where he will attend a conference of defense ministers from the Americas.
"Threats today in the world know no boundaries, whether they come from climate change or terrorism or transnational criminal networks," said Hagel, who met Friday with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon. "We are all together in our efforts to fight terrorists. How we do that is up to each country."
After his meetings, Hagel and traveled to this military base in the mountains near Bogota to watch a demonstration by special operations forces. As he sat under a cloudy sky, Colombian commandos — called Lanceros — rappelled down tall towers on the training ground, sometimes upside down, and at least once carrying a military dog.
Others dangled from lines dropped out of helicopters as the aircraft roared overhead. And in the finale, Colombian forces descended slowly through the clouds to the ground on bright blue and yellow parachutes.
While the demonstration resembles ones that previous Pentagon leaders have seen in recent years, it represents the high-level capabilities of the Colombian force that the U.S. believes can be used to train other nations' militaries around the globe. Colombia already conducts training for other South and Central American countries.
Colombia has waged a decades-long battle against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, but has made steady progress.
U.S. and Colombian forces have trained together for years and benefited from each other's counterinsurgency experiences over the last decade.
U.S. forces say they can learn from the Colombian's long and bloody campaign against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. Likewise, Colombia can learn from U.S. experiences battling the Taliban's roadside bomb threat, which has long been the No. 1 killer in Afghanistan.
The country's difficult battle with the FARC has dragged on for nearly five decades, but officials now tout it as a success story.
"To have countries like Colombia stepping up and showing the kind of leadership that Colombia has shown, with the kind of capacity, capabilities, training that they have, is a huge asset to the world, to the United Nations and would be very important to American interests around the world," Hagel said during a press conference with Santos after the demonstration.
Santos thanked Hagel and the U.S. for the continued support to his country in its ongoing counter-narcotics and counterterrorism battles.
According to the Pentagon, the U.S. provided about $53 million in military funding to Colombia for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, and the bulk of it was for counter-narcotics. Other funding was for counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance and defense reform initiatives.
Defense Department funding for Colombia has been dropping consistently in recent years, from a peak average of about $381 million a year.