WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has asked Congress to allow the Colombian government to use past anti-drug contributions of helicopters, planes, gunboats and other equipment in its expanding campaign against guerrilla groups, officials said Friday.
The administration had signaled that it would ask Congress to allow new aid to be used for "counter-terrorism" activities as well as for the anti-drug effort. But in a supplemental budget request submitted this week, the administration seeks to further leverage the efforts against the rebels by loosening restrictions on previous aid as well.
The supplemental budget request, which includes the unfettering of past aid, also seeks $35 million in new funding for the current year. The sum would be in addition to $435 million that the administration has already requested for Colombia for fiscal 2003.
"This is big," said Adam Isacson, a Latin America expert at the Center for International Policy, a center-left think tank in Washington.
Congressional aides of the two major U.S. parties expect a fight over the proposal this spring because some lawmakers fear that broadening military aid could leave the United States mired in a conflict that has raged for 38 years.
Critics believe that the budget request language permitting use of the money for "counter-terrorism" defines its purpose so broadly that the Colombian government "could use it for almost anything," in the words of one aide.
Bush administration aides have been arguing that the United States needs to quickly step up the battle against the two main Colombian rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army. The leftist guerrillas are battling Colombian government forces and right-wing paramilitary groups.
U.S. officials contend that Washington should intervene because the groups pose a threat to democracy and also to Americans directly. They say Colombian rebels have kidnapped about 120 Americans over two decades; 18 are dead or presumed dead.
Administration officials maintain that past U.S. policy, which tried to limit aid to the anti-drug effort, was unrealistic because the rebels have increasingly turned to drug trafficking to fund their insurgency.
"The terrorism and narco-trafficking threats tend to merge in their attempts to undermine Colombian democracy," State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said Friday in a briefing.
U.S. aid to Colombia has been allocated to a variety of purposes, including building the Latin nation's economy and developing its democratic institutions.
But the U.S. anti-drug aid has bought a variety of military equipment that could be used against the rebels.
The United States has appropriated money to provide about 75 helicopters for the Colombian military, according to analyst Isacson, although not all of the aircraft are ready for operations. He said the United States has also bought about a dozen helicopters for the Colombian police and has provided fixed-wing aircraft with sophisticated sensors and some river gunboats that are armed with machine guns.
If approved, about $25 million of the $35 million in new money would go to help Colombian authorities improve their techniques in thwarting kidnappings. Rebel groups abduct Colombians and foreigners to raise money, and the country is sometimes called the kidnapping capital of the world.
The total would also include $4 million to help fortify police stations, especially in outlying areas. Police stations have frequently come under rebel attack; their destruction has often meant that the government had no control over parts of its territory.
The remaining $6 million of the requested new aid would be used to accelerate a proposed program to train newly formed Colombian military units so that they can protect an important oil pipeline that has come under frequent rebel attack.
In February, the Bush administration formally requested $98 million for the coming fiscal year to train Colombian troops to protect the pipeline. But officials say they want to begin that effort even sooner.
Administration officials and their congressional supporters noted that they aren't seeking to increase the number of U.S. military personnel who can serve as advisors in Colombia. That number is capped at 400.
And they stressed that they intend to continue to follow the human rights guidelines contained in the past policy. Under current law, the United States is barred from assisting any Colombian military units whose members have been found guilty of human rights violations.
At a news conference in Washington, Colombian Ambassador Luis Alberto Moreno said the administration's interest in helping his nation sends a message to terrorists: "Their days are numbered."
He welcomed the U.S. commitment to help Colombia combat kidnappings, which total an estimated 3,000 a year.
"This has a tremendous impact on foreign investment in the country," the ambassador said.