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House Republicans Want to Abolish Colombia "Troop Cap"

Adam Isacson

05-11-04

House Republicans Want to Abolish Colombia “Troop Cap”
Draft of Defense Bill Would Eliminate Key Safeguard

 

The Bush administration has asked Congress to increase a four-year-old limit on the number of U.S. military personnel and contractors who can be present in Colombia. House Republican leaders want to give them more than they asked for by eliminating the “troop cap” entirely when the Defense Authorization bill goes before committee on Wednesday, May 12.

Congress decided to limit the U.S. presence in 2000, when it passed a $1.3 billion package of aid for Colombia and its neighbors known as “Plan Colombia.” Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS) added language prohibiting the presence of more than 400 active military personnel and 400 private U.S. citizen contractors in Colombia at any given time. (The “caps” were initially 500 and 300, respectively, but were changed in 2001.)

“U.S. personnel are in harm’s way in Colombia, much more than they are in Djibouti, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, and dozens of other countries where they are deployed today,” says Adam Isacson, who for six years has directed the Colombia Program of the Center for International Policy, a Washington, DC-based research and advocacy organization. “Outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, I can’t think of a more dangerous deployment. Colombia’s conflict involves two guerrilla armies who consider U.S. personnel to be targets, and tens of thousands of right-wing paramilitaries whose leaders face U.S. indictments for narcotrafficking.” Indeed, eleven employees of U.S. contractors have died on the job since 1998, and three more have been hostages of the FARC guerrillas since February 2003.

Many in Congress, mindful that our troops are already thinly stretched around the globe, fear that Colombia’s complicated, poorly understood conflict has a great potential to turn into a South American quagmire. Congress added the troop cap in 2000 as a sort of “tripwire,” a way to measure and limit the expansion of our military role. This spring, after several years of quietly expanding that role, the Pentagon has triggered the tripwire.

In March, Bush administration officials began asking Congress to raise the “cap” to 800 military and 600 contractors. The stated reason: U.S. participation in “Plan Patriota,” a huge Colombian military offensive in the country’s guerrilla-dominated south. Plan Patriota depends heavily on the logistical and intelligence support of U.S. personnel deployed in southern Colombia.

The legislative vehicle for raising the cap will be the annual Defense Authorization bill (HR 4200), which the House Armed Services Committee will “mark up,” or draft, on May 12 in room 2118 of the Rayburn House Office Building. The draft legislation submitted by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), would abolish the troop cap, eliminating the tripwire entirely. Committee Democrats are expected to mount a challenge.

The “troop cap” is an important safeguard on a growing U.S. military commitment that has received little scrutiny or discussion. “It would be irresponsible to eliminate the troop cap without a serious debate about – or reconsideration of – our policy in Colombia,” says Isacson.