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US says Plan Colombia will win war but critics say goals are unclear.

BOGOTA -- White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey predicted recently that the Colombian government, with the help of US aid, would shatter the war economy of the country's Marxist rebels within five years by attacking their narcotics operations.

How the US government hopes to do that is one of the controversial elements of the $7.5 billion Plan Colombia, of which the United States has pledged to supply $1.3 billion so far. Critics of Plan Colombia, say its twin approach of bolstering the Colombian military while offering incentives for drug producers to get out of the business will fail because it does not offer enough aid to woo drug traffickers away from a lucrative occupation. Nor does it provide enough military assistance to defeat the various groups involved. They say Washington will be dragged into a Vietnam-style War.

However, US military officials say that the United States learned from its bitter lesson in IndoChina. The say the model for this war El Salvador, though debate remains about just how successful that effort really was.

The US effort in Colombia focuses on boosting the combat mobility of the military to enable the rapid deployment of well-equipped Army troops, Navy riverine brigades and counter-narcotics units. The skills of these units are equally applicable to both counterinsurgency and anti-narcotics operations.

As in El Salvador, a key element in the government's war plan will be to ferry large numbers of troops into battle by helicopter in an effort to force the rebels to return to small hit-and-run attacks rather than massing large units, as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been doing recently.

Colombia has some of the same problems that existed in El Salvador, such as a shortage of helicopter pilots. In addition, the area singled out for the main thrust of Plan Colombia, the southern provinces of Caqueta and Putumayo, are several times larger than the entire nation of E1 Salvador.

The FARC, Colombia's main rebel force, is at least twice the size of the guerrilla forces in E1 Salvador and are much better financed thanks to income from the drug trade, kidnappings and extortion.

Some military analysts warn that US goals are overly optimistic.

"Out of this $1.3 billion (in US aid), the United States is going to have unreasonable expectations of progress. But (the war in) Colombia unquestionably falls into a long-term time frame," US Gen. Fred Woemer said. Other officers expressed surprise that McCaffrey broke one of the cardinal rules of unconventional warfare: putting a time frame on victory.

While few argue with the tactical wisdom of the US military approach, there is widespread skepticism that the overall US strategy will accomplish US aims. There already are questions about what those goals really are.

Former US ambassador to E1 Salvador Edwin Corr sees the objectives in Colombia as broadly the same as in E1 Salvador, namely "to get peace, to make the constitution more democratic and to get them out of the economic doldrums".

But others are far less certain. "Nobody has really laid out what the strategic objectives are and so its difficult to see if the goals are being accomplished. We're asking the Colombian military to defend a motherland that doesn't really exist. The Bogota government is not legitimate in many parts of the country," said Cynthia Watson, a strategy expert and associate dean at the National War College in Washington.

Congressional support for the war also is slipping. One of the congressman who gave strongest backing for a huge hike in aid to Colombia now believes the plan is poorly focussed. In a letter to McCaffrey this month, Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) warned Washington was heading for a "major mistake" by donating most of the aid to the Colombian army, which has a poor record on the battlefield and on human rights issues. Gilman prefers to ann Colombia's drug-fighting national police units instead. "If we fail early on with Plan Colombia - as I fear - we could lose the support of the American people for our efforts to fight illicit narcotics abroad," he wrote.
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Publication:America's Insider
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 21, 2000
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