The Taliban regime is gone, but a new one soon may emerge -- not in far-off Afghanistan, but in Colombia, a country nearly twice the size and on the front door of the United States.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), flush with a fortune in drug money and rested after three years of peace talks, is fighting a fierce battle against Colombia's democratic government and threatens to install its own totalitarian, anti-Western regime. If it succeeds, analysts say, the Marxist-Leninist FARC, which is on the State Department's list of terrorist groups, would become the world's newest outlaw regime and even more of a haven for terrorists and drug traffickers.
A Rand Corp. report prepared last summer for the Pentagon calls the Colombian crisis "the most serious security challenge in the Western Hemisphere since the Central American wars of the 1980s."
Will the United States help the Colombians save their democratic republic and destroy the narcoterrorist FARC? Or will it continue to keep its hands in its pockets and deny Colombia the intelligence, equipment and training needed to defeat the guerrillas on its own -- only to have to send U.S. forces to fight another terrorist regime in the future?
President George W. Bush, with his man Otto Juan Reich now the head of the Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department, seems not to have chosen yet. He is hamstrung by a Democrat-controlled Senate, where any laws or funding pertaining to Colombia would have to go through the hands of a long-time ally of the Latin American revolutionary left -- Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs. Administration sources tell INSIGHT that State is leaning toward a very strong and detailed Pentagon proposal to help Colombia defeat the FARC. The roadblock is on the National Security Council (NSC), where John Maisto -- a career Foreign Service officer and Clinton holdover -- is urging a cautious wait-and-see approach. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is following Maisto's lead for now, say sources.
Twice the size of France, straddling the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea and bordering mega-oil exporters Venezuela and Ecuador, Colombia is vital to U.S. national and economic security. Its national police force has earned a hard-fought reputation as one of the most professional in the world, and received strong U.S. support (even some from Dodd, in whose state the Colombian police's Blackhawk helicopters are built) in the fight against drug trafficking. But FARC sympathizers and others still traumatized about Vietnam successfully blocked efforts to provide meaningful counterinsurgency assistance to the Colombian military.
During the 1990s, the Clinton administration looked the other way as the FARC grew stronger. In 1995, according to a recent Rand study for the Pentagon, it had 7,000 fighters on 60 fronts; five years later, there were 15,000 to 20,000 FARC combatants on more than 70 fronts. The huge increase was financed with money from American cocaine and heroin users, but the Clinton administration reversed long-standing bipartisan policy and drew a distinction between drug traffickers and guerrillas. On condition of anonymity, a senior State Department official assured INSIGHT with a straight face in 1999 that "there is no such thing as narcoterrorists."
In this spirit, President Bill Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive 73, literally to deny intelligence data to the Colombians lest it help the counterinsurgency, even though the United States would provide similar data to the Colombian police to stop drug trafficking. Both the White House and Congress barred Colombia from using U.S. anti-narcotics aid against the FARC in counterinsurgency activity, allowing the equipment to be used only by police battling drug production and smuggling -- two key FARC industries, but only tangential to the narcoterrorist hold on the countryside. …