Newsbrief: Bush Wants More US Troops, Civilian Contractors in Colombia 3/26/04

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The Bush administration wants to step up US involvement in Colombia's long-running civil war, Gen. James Hill, the top US military official in the region, told a congressional panel Wednesday. Hill, who heads the US Southern Command, told the House Armed Services Committee that the administration is asking Congress to raise the cap on the number of US military personnel and civilian contractors.

In an effort to forestall a gradual build-up of US forces in Colombia, Congress mandated limits on the number of personnel who could be deployed there at any one time. That limit is currently set at 400 military personnel and 400 civilian employees. The administration wants to double the cap on military personnel to 800 soldiers and increase the number of civilian contractors by 50% to 600.

US military personnel train and advise one of the sides in Colombia's four-decade-old civil war, the Colombian Armed Forces. The US State Department and other government agencies employ civilian contractors for a number of tasks related to counterinsurgency efforts, most prominently as pilots and crews for the aerial eradication campaign against coca crops.

Increasing the personnel caps is critical to the success of Plan Colombia, said Gen. Hill. That multi-billion dollar program began under President Clinton as a counter-narcotics effort and was expanded and folded into the global "war on terror" under President Bush. It is now in its sixth year. The White House is seeking more than $700 million this year for its Andean Regional Initiative, the bulk of it destined for Plan Colombia.

"It is vitally important that we sustain Plan Colombia's progress," Hill said, according to a Reuters account of his remarks. The personnel caps must be raised or the limits will hurt Plan Colombia just as it "is beginning to pay huge dividends," he said.

Hill praised hard-line Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, claiming that Uribe had turned the tide against the leftist insurgents of the FARC and the smaller Army of National Liberation (ELN). "As a result of this substantial progress, a window of opportunity has opened in which the Colombian government has the potential to deal a decisive blow to the narco-terrorists," Hill said.

Some of Hill's audience remained skeptical, however. Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS) told Hill Colombia ought to do more to fight its own war, Reuters reported. "They ought to be digging deeper into their own pockets and they ought to be asking their own kids to serve," he said, adding that Colombia had not approved long-term revenue measures to pay for the war or reformed draft laws that allow the wealthy to avoid military service.

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