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Last Updated:2/27/03
CIP Memorandum: The U.S. military presence in Colombia, February 26, 2003


February 26, 2003
To: Interested Colleagues
From: Ingrid Vaicius, Associate, Center for International Policy
Re: The U.S. military presence in Colombia

On February 13, a plane carrying four Defense Department-funded contractors and a Colombian sergeant was forced to make an emergency landing while on an intelligence mission over the department (province) of Caquetá in southern Colombia. The four U.S. civilians aboard the Cessna 208 worked for California Microwave Inc., a unit of Northrop Grumman, a leading defense contractor.

Rural Caquetá has long been a stronghold of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a 17,000-member, nearly 40-year-old guerrilla group that since 1997 has been on the U.S. State Department's list of international terrorist groups. It appears that FARC rebels arrived almost immediately at the scene of the plane crash, where they killed the Colombian soldier on board and one of the U.S. citizens. The FARC announced on February 24 that the three remaining Americans are in their power, and that they plan to hold them - along with over twenty prominent kidnapped politicians - to pressure for the release of guerrillas in Colombian jails.

The Bush Administration has sent additional specialized troops to Colombia to assist the Colombian military's search-and-rescue operation, reportedly bringing the number of U.S. military personnel in Colombia to a new high of 411.

The Center for International Policy condemns the FARC's refusal to free the three captives and all of their so-called "politically retained" individuals. We also call on the United States to take this opportunity to consider ways to reduce the risks associated with our current policy toward Colombia - not just the force-protection risks that the February 13 incident makes clear, but the longer-term risks of proximity to a large and very complicated conflict. One such mechanism, a limit on the presence of U.S. personnel in Colombia, is already in place - but it deserves a closer look.

Is this legal?

Last year, the Bush Administration began widening the scope of its military assistance mission in Colombia. In August, Congress approved an administration request to allow all past and present anti-drug aid to be used against guerrillas and paramilitaries. In November, President Bush signed a secret order, National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) 18, which broadened several of the American military's guidelines in Colombia, particularly with regard to intelligence-sharing.

In mid-January, a contingent of sixty U.S. Special Forces arrived in the conflictive department of Arauca in northeastern Colombia, where they are to train the Colombian Army in an effort to protect the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline. These trainers' guidelines allow them to accompany their Colombian military counterparts outside the perimeters of military bases, but prohibit their presence in an area if there is a significant likelihood of combat.

While U.S. law gives the executive branch a good deal of freedom to deploy troops in such "operations other than war," the U.S. Congress has expressed concern about "mission creep" - the possibility that U.S. personnel may find themselves embroiled in Colombia's conflict. As a result, a provision that first appeared in the 2000 "Plan Colombia" aid package, and which has been renewed each year through 2003, sets a maximum of 400 U.S. military personnel and 400 U.S. citizen contractors who can be in Colombia at any given time. The law adds, "no United States Armed Forces personnel or United States civilian contractor employed by the United States will participate in any combat operation in connection with assistance made available by this Act for Colombia".

In strict legal terms, however, this "troop cap" provision does not cover all U.S. personnel. The language of the law only applies the cap to U.S. personnel in Colombia "in support of Plan Colombia" - the 2000 counter-drug initiative supported with funding from the State Department's anti-narcotics bureau.

Many of the Bush Administration's military-aid initiatives - in particular, the pipeline protection program - are not anti-drug programs, nor are they paid for with State Department anti-drug funds. They are not considered part of "Plan Colombia" - so the troop cap, in its current form, would not strictly apply to the U.S. military personnel in Colombia to carry out these programs.

U.S. officials have told members of Congress informally that they will nonetheless continue to obey the caps of 400 each. The administration's required quarterly reports to Congress on the U.S. presence indicate that the limit has not been exceeded. The last report claimed that there were 208 military personnel and 279 contract workers in Colombia on January 13, 2003; on November 13, 2002, the previous report cited 267 military personnel and 270 contractors.

While the law allows the president to waive the troop cap for 90 days if involvement in hostilities is likely, it states that even a formal waiver is unnecessary in the case of search-and-rescue operations like the one currently underway in Caquetá. While the current operation pushes the number of military personnel above 400, the administration is not legally bound even to notify Congress. "We informally told Congress about the search-and-rescue personnel that would be going down," explained State Department Spokesman Philip Reeker on February 25, but "no formal notification or waiver is required because the legislation makes quite clear that emergency personnel like the search-and-rescue personnel don't fall under that category."

What now?

In two briefings this week, Mr. Reeker has explained that, contrary to press reports, the search-and-rescue operation was not a single deployment of 150 U.S. military personnel. Instead, he says, the smaller number of search-and-rescue troops are in addition to an already-increasing U.S. presence in Colombia. Whatever the purpose, the reporting available indicates that the U.S. military presence in Colombia grew from 208 on January 13, 2003 to 411 on February 21. Some of these 203 new arrivals are the trainers working on the pipeline-protection program; some are search-and-rescue personnel. Others are what Mr. Reeker has vaguely defined as "pre-planned deployments of U.S. military trainers."

Beyond numbers, however, the effort to win the U.S. hostages' freedom signals a new role for U.S. military personnel in Colombia. Though the Colombian military is on the front lines of the search-and-rescue operation, U.S. personnel are in the field as well, serving as advisors and providing intelligence. While the trainers for the Arauca pipeline-protection effort have had to avoid zones where combat could occur - staying behind when their Colombian counterparts carry out an operation - the search-and-rescue personnel are actively accompanying the effort in guerrilla-dominated rural Caquetá. The possibility of combat is greater than it has ever been.

A government official told the Washington Post, "We can certainly expect pressure to respond in a very forceful way." Added Rep. James Moran (D-Virginia) during a visit to Colombia last week, "I don't think rescue by itself is a sufficient response." What that response should be, however, is far from clear. The United States must decide to what extent it wants to take on the counter-insurgency mission in Colombia. As the current crisis indicates, to do so would be a very large and frustrating undertaking.

As Rep. James McGovern (D-Massachusetts) said last May - the last time Congress debated Colombia policy - "when you add it all up, increased U.S. troops plus increased involvement in the civil war equals bad policy." Yet while support for opening this large new front in the "war on terror" remains in doubt, Washington continues to steadily increase its involvement. Instead of letting the policy drift in an unintended direction, Congress must rigorously apply strong safeguards - among them, a "troop cap" that actually applies to all troops in Colombia.

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