8 February 2003
U.S. Forces in Colombia Want to Participate in Missions
SARAVENA, Colombia — Colombian troops battling leftist rebels are getting inspiration from U.S. Army Green Berets — and from U.S. Gen. George S. Patton.
On an edge of a military base amid vast expanses of scrubland in an eastern region dominated by rebels, a sign carries the famed World War II general's words exhorting soldiers to not sacrifice their lives for their country, but to "make the other poor bastard die for his."
U.S. Army special forces, wearing wraparound sunglasses and armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers, roll past in Humvees on their way to train Colombian soldiers to set up ambushes and other offensive tactics.
As Washington's policy to Colombia shifts from fighting drugs to helping combat rebels, the Pentagon has put dozens of Green Berets in the hottest war zone in Colombia: Arauca state, where assassinations, car bombings, kidnappings and other attacks occur regularly.
On Thursday night, for example, rebels fought Colombian policemen, wounding three of them, in the center of Saravena, a town adjoining the base along the Venezuelan border.
The American soldiers are ready to defend themselves — and expected to if attacked. When a dozen journalists visited the Saravena base Friday, the Americans took up defensive positions, scanning the surrounding dry savanna for any threat.
Arauca has long been a stronghold for the rebel groups, who have been fighting Colombia's army and paramilitary for four decades. About 3,500 people — mainly civilians — die in the conflict each year.
Rebels sometimes exchange their uniforms for civilian clothes and mix with the local population. Asked if he had seen any Colombian rebels, one Green Beret captain responded: "Practically every day."
The 70 American soldiers arrived in Arauca in late January to train Colombian soldiers to protect an oil pipeline, carrying crude owned by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum, from rebel bomb attacks.
The Americans — who live in the Saravena base and other military installations in Arauca — are barred from participating in missions with Colombian troops.
But some are chomping at the bit.
"When the time for action comes, we have to say: 'Go. You're on your own,"' grumbled a veteran Green Beret sergeant. "That's not the way I like to do it."
The Colombian and U.S. governments insist they don't want American soldiers fighting in Colombia. Underscoring the sensitivity, U.S. Black Hawk helicopters that were to shuttle the Green Berets between training bases in Arauca have been grounded.
"What happens if during one of the flights they get fired upon, they return fire, and someone makes the claim that civilians got killed? That would be a huge problem," said a U.S. military official. Colombian and U.S. officials are reportedly trying to work out a compromise — possibly allowing Colombian soldiers to join the helicopter crews — that would allow the Black Hawks to be used.
Some of the elite U.S. troops, most of whom were too young to have known the Vietnam War, reject any parallels between that conflict and the growing American military involvement in Colombia.
One U.S. Army special forces captain, who like most of the other American soldiers could not be named for security reasons, described his parents as "ex-hippies" and said his father was a conscientious objector who refused to fight in Vietnam. This war, the soldier insisted, is different.
"Vietnam was a war not so much of a communist insurgency but a war of national liberation, but here that's not the case," the captain said. "I really don't think the guerrillas here have popular support."
The captain noted that Colombia supplies oil to the United States and that rebel attacks on the country's petroleum industry — an effort to extort money — "does have a big effect on oil prices at home."
"We definitely have a strategic interest and a moral obligation," he said.
Critics of U.S. aid to this South American country say the United States should not be allied with a military that has a checkered human rights record. And they warn that Washington is on a slippery slope that can lead to further involvement.
U.S. officials point out that the Colombian Army's 18th brigade, which is receiving training in Arauca, has been vetted for human rights abuses — as have three army counternarcotics battalions that U.S. soldiers trained in the past three years.
Colombian Army Maj. Frank Castrillon said he appreciates the U.S. effort.
"This support is really important," he said. "Our troops are learning tactics from an army that has participated in many wars."
Copyright © 2003 FOX News Network
Return To Index