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U.S. Faults Colombia in Joint Drug Battle

Military: Congressional report says S. American nation hasn't provided the personnel it pledged. White House is seeking more aid for the effort.


WASHINGTON — Even as the Bush administration is lobbying to increase U.S. military aid to Colombia, the South American nation is failing to do its part in a joint effort to combat narcotics trafficking, according to an unreleased congressional report.

The report, from the General Accounting Office, says Colombia has failed to provide military pilots for 14 U.S.-supplied Black Hawk helicopters, leaving the high-tech aircraft idle. It says the country's armed forces have not supplied all the personnel promised for programs to train pilots and mechanics, and recently cut back on drug crop-eradication programs because of "political concerns."

Plans for using U.S. military aid "have fallen substantially behind schedule, and prospects for near-term fixes are bleak," according to the brief report, which has not been released publicly but was provided to relevant congressional committees this week.

It is the first time that a government report meant for public circulation has faulted the Colombian armed forces' cooperation in Plan Colombia, the anti-drug effort to which the United States has committed about $2 billion since 2000.

It reflects the view, held by many who advocate a stepped-up U.S. role, that the Andean nation must do its share if the United States is to provide the additional money and assistance the Colombians seek.

But those who doubt the wisdom of greater U.S. activity also are likely to seize on the report as evidence that the three-sided fight involving left-wing insurgent groups, right-wing paramilitary forces and the Colombian military will become a quagmire for the United States.

In the short term, the report's results will add to the pressure on Colombia's president-elect, Alvaro Uribe, to commit greater resources to the battle. Uribe, who was elected last month and takes office in August, is to meet in Washington next week with Bush administration officials and congressional leaders.

One U.S. official who asked to remain unidentified said that although leaders of the incoming Colombian government are demanding increased U.S. aid, "if they're not doing their part, it makes no sense for us to provide it." The official noted that Colombia is already the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

John P. Walters, head of the Bush administration's drug control office, has been arguing that Colombia needs to at least double its spending, which now amounts to about 3.5% of the country's gross domestic product, on the anti-drug effort.

Officials at the Colombian Embassy in Washington said they had not seen the GAO report and were unable to comment.

The report says that many U.S. officials interviewed "expressed frustration with the overall pace of Plan Colombia, and the lack of Colombian commitment to the program, and expressed interest in having GAO examine the status and effectiveness of U.S. counter-narcotics assistance to the Colombian military."

Plan Colombia called for the United States to provide 14 Black Hawk and 30 new Super Huey helicopters to transport U.S.-trained counter-narcotics troops to conduct anti-drug operations. All the Black Hawks have arrived, and the Super Hueys are due before the end of the year.

The Colombian army was supposed to provide about 250 pilots for training and other personnel for mechanics training. But it has been slow to do so, the report says.

It says the Colombians also were not maintaining 10 older Huey UH-1H helicopters that were sent to provide initial training for the pilots.

The Colombian government is relying on the State Department's contractor, DynCorp, to maintain a fleet of 36 Huey UH-1N helicopters that were provided as an interim step until the more advanced helicopters arrived.

The report also notes that the Colombian government has not increased military spending, nor has it changed its conscription laws to provide more manpower for the military force. Colombian laws exempt high school graduates from combat duty.

The administration has asked Congress for permission to begin using aid not only for the counter-narcotics fight in Colombia but in a broader military effort to fight insurgents whom the administration considers terrorists.

Congress will soon begin considering an administration request for an additional $400 million in aid for fiscal 2003.

Tim Rieser, an aide to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who has urged caution in the U.S. mission, said the report "obviously raises a lot of questions that need to be answered."

"This needs to be a partnership, and we have to be much clearer with the Colombians about what they need to do if the United States is going to continue to provide this kind of support," Rieser said.

Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington, said that although other aspects of Plan Colombia have come in for official criticism, "this is the first time that they have pointed a finger at the Colombian army for what's been happening here."

Michael Shifter, a Latin America specialist at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said the report reflected "a sense of disappointment that is broadly shared" about Colombia's contribution to fighting its war.

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