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Congress Doubles the Limit on U.S. Troops in Colombia

October 8, 2004 | Policy Brief

By Adam Isacson

A House-Senate conference committee has completed work on a compromise version of the 2005 Defense Department Authorization Act (H.R. 4200). In the text made public this morning, the revised bill fully grants the Bush administration's request to double the number of U.S. military personnel allowed on Colombian soil, from 400 to 800. It also grants the administration's request for a 50 percent increase in the permitted presence of U.S. citizens working for private contractors in Colombia, from 400 to 600.

The consensus bill will next be approved by both houses of Congress - a step that is usually little more than a formality - after which President Bush will sign it into law.

The House and Senate versions of the bill had gone in two different directions on the Colombia "troop cap." The House bill would have allowed only a small increase in U.S. troops, from 400 to 500, and would have held the contractor presence at 400. This rejection of the Bush administration's request owed to an amendment, introduced by Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Mississippi), that passed by a bipartisan vote in the House Armed Services Committee. By contrast, the Senate version of the bill granted the full request of 800 troops and 600 contractors. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) had sought to add the lower House caps with an amendment introduced during Senate debate in June; the provision lost by a vote of 40-58, with nine Democrats voting against.

As the Center for International Policy has pointed out before, Congress added a troop cap to the 2000 "Plan Colombia" appropriation due to concern that the U.S. military-aid mission in Colombia could expand very quickly. With a forty-year-old, drug-fueled conflict pitting an underfunded military - often aided by abusive right-wing paramilitary groups - against two leftist guerrilla groups, Colombia offers a lot of "growth potential" for the U.S. military commitment. It is a risky mission for U.S. personnel, riskier than most of the dozens of countries where they are stationed. The plight of U.S.-funded contractors is a disturbing indication of this: 11 contractors have been killed on duty since 1998, and three have been FARC hostages since February 2003.

Since Plan Colombia became law in 2000, the United States has provided over $2.5 billion in military and police assistance, and has expanded the purpose of this aid beyond counter-narcotics to include support for counter-insurgency operations. U.S. personnel are now helping Colombia's military to protect an oil pipeline from guerrilla attacks, and providing intelligence and logistical support alongside 17,000 Colombian troops carrying out "Plan Patriota," a large-scale counter-insurgency offensive in the jungles of southern Colombia.

Following some military successes, Plan Patriota is proceeding "with much less certain results," the Brussels-based International Crisis Group observes in a September 23 report. Whether successful or not - whether the offensive proves disastrous or becomes a model to be replicated - it is likely that Plan Patriota's outcome will bring with it calls for an even greater U.S. commitment in the near term. Whether sounding the alarm about military setbacks or insisting that victory is near, it is easy to imagine the Southern Command going back to Congress in a year or two seeking a green light for even more troops.

With the congressional committee's decision to trigger the troop cap "tripwire," it is impossible to deny that the U.S. military is getting more deeply involved in Colombia. As our commitment increases to a new level, it is even more important that Congress, the media and groups like ours continue to pay attention to the many warning signs - continuing human rights problems, floundering negotiations with paramilitary groups, the guerrillas' continued strength, the Bogotá government's fiscal crisis, the lack of a strategy to meet urgent social and economic needs - indicating that we are going further down the wrong path in Colombia.

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