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Last Updated:6/25/00
Speech by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), June 21, 2000
Mr. McCAIN. Mr. President, I rise today to address the situation in Colombia and the question of the U.S. role there.

The situation in Colombia has been correctly described as grave. To the extent that `grave' can be considered an understatement, however, that is the case with respect to the ongoing conflict in that strife-torn country. The issue ostensibly before us involves the war on drugs. What is being contemplated, however, should under no conditions be considered a simple extension of that struggle. What is being considered is nothing less than an escalated U.S. role in what has increasingly become an all-out civil war. The relationship between the narcotics trafficking that we seek to curtail and the insurgency that we oppose but dare not engage has become dangerously blurred. To contemplate engaging one but not the other is to labor under an illusion of alarming dimensions.

Mr. President, the conditions on the ground in Colombia are not in doubt. A large, highly motivated, well-armed and funded guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and the smaller but equally lethal National Liberation Front, have emerged over the last two years as a serious threat not just to Colombia, but to the entire Andean region. The FARC, in particular, has evolved into a large-scale threat to regional stability. Look carefully at the operations the FARC has carried out over the past two years. What you will see is impressive and alarming. Sophisticated battalion-size operations against Colombian military and police units, including coordinated multi-objective operations spread out across Colombia have become the norm. The March 1998 battle at El Billar, for example, demonstrated the FARC's ability to conduct battalion-size operations employing refined tactics like maneuver warfare against Colombia's best trained units. In a separate operation, a 1,200-strong guerrilla force successfully carried out simultaneous attacks on an anti-narcotics police installation and the army base at Miraflores, overwhelming both.

This should give us pause. The Colombian government's position is precarious. Already, the fighting has touched Colombia's neighbors. Panama, which lacks a military as a result of the post-invasion structure the United States imposed on that country, is now threatened by cross-border incursions by guerrillas, whose main arms pipeline crosses its border with Colombia. Colombia's other neighbors in Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela are all feeling the heat from the war in Colombia, the latter in the form of refugees escaping the fighting.

I point all of this out, Mr. President, because no one here

should be under any doubt that the path down which we are heading is potentially fraught with peril. I don't know anyone who actually believes that Plan Colombia is the answer to that country's problems; we support it because we are at a loss for viable alternatives. But a guerrilla army as capable as the FARC will not be defeated by three specially-trained and equipped battalions. Much more is needed, including fundamental reform and restructuring of the Colombian armed forces to reverse the ratio of combat units to rear-area units--a key reason an army of 140,000 is stretched so thin against guerrilla armies numbering around 20,000.

And the army and police must be thoroughly inculcated with the need to respect human rights. This not just a moral imperative, but a practical one as well. Human rights abuses by government forces increases sympathy for guerrilla armies that otherwise lack serious popular support. It is never easy, as we learned in Vietnam, to fight a guerrilla army that can melt into civilian surroundings and build an infrastructure of support, through force and intimidation if necessary, that government forces are hard-pressed to defeat without inflicting civilian casualties. But Colombia's army and police must not underestimate the importance of maintaining constant vigilance in respecting the rights of the people they purport to defend.

The United States role in Plan Colombia is, to date, limited to training the aforementioned special battalions and equipping them with modern helicopters. Toward this end, we are sending special forces teams into the field in the midst of that civil war. The primary role of U.S. Army Special Forces is the provision of such training. But we must be assured that their role will not extend to that of active combatants. The bond that will surely develop between our soldiers and those they are training must not extend to a gradual expansion of their role in Colombia.

And with respect to the issue of helicopters, Mr. President, I find it deplorable that the question of which helicopter should be provided to Colombia should be decided on the basis of any consideration other than operational requirements. Blackhawks were selected for the capabilities they provide, capabilities that are not inconsequential in terms of the Counter-Narcotics Battalions' ability to deploy to the field with the speed and in the number required to confront opposing forces. Their substitution by the Appropriations Committee with Super Hueys goes beyond the usual fiscally irresponsible approach to legislating that permeates Congress. It is, in fact, morally wrong. We are talking life and death decisions here: the ability of soldiers to fight a war. That decisions on their equipment should be decided on the basis of parochial considerations is reprehensible.

Let me return, though, to the fundamental issue of a counter narcotics strategy that is imbued with an inherent flaw: the misguided notion that the war on drugs in Colombia can be separated from the guerrilla and paramilitary activity that is the threat to Colombia's existence. If, as has been suggested, the FARC is reconsidering its involvement in the drug trade, it is possible that surgical counterdrug operations can be conducted without expanding into counterinsurgency. That the guerrillas control the very territory where the coca fields are located, however, should continue to cause us concern. To quote one unnamed U.S. official in the Christian Science Monitor, `If the guerrillas [so] choose, they don't have to continue to protect the narcos, [but] if they do. . .this [aid] will be used against them.'

This, Mr. President, is precisely the problem. Plan Colombia is perhaps a last desperate hope to save a nation. But it carries with it the seeds of greater U.S. involvement in a civil war of enormous proportions. Those of us who have been witness to our country being gradually mired in a conflict in another region, in another time, should not fail to bear witness to the choices we make today. Funding for this plan will go forward, but the Administration and the government in Bogota should not be surprised that many of us will be watching the situation there very carefully. To do less would be to acquiesce in the possible materialization of that most feared foreign policy scenario, another Vietnam.

As of June 25, 2000, this document was also available online at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?r106:S21JN0-36:
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