Colombia: Not Just a Blip

Of the countries that have dropped off the public-awareness map since the start of the Iraq debate, Colombia - America's top cocaine supplier - is one that the public should not lose sight of.

It blipped onto the national radar screen ever so briefly last week when Colombian leftist rebels reportedly kidnapped three Defense Department contractors. Their US government plane went down in rebel-held territory, and their travel companions, another American contractor and a Colombian soldier, were found shot dead.

The incident speaks to the growing role of the US military in the land of the coca leaf, and to the increased risk this greater engagement poses for Americans operating there.

Colombia is the third-largest recipient of US foreign aid, coming ever closer to Nos. 1 and 2, Israel and Egypt. In addition to increasing funding for Colombia, the US recently shifted its policy. No longer is Washington focused solely on eradicating coca production. Now it's helping to train Colombia's military to fight a rebel insurgency of nearly 40 years.

The first step in this new direction came last month when 70 US Special Forces arrived in the lawless province of Arauca to help teach Colombian troops how to defend a 500-mile stretch of oil pipeline. Jointly operated by the Colombian government and Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum, the pipeline was bombed a phenomenal 170 times by leftist guerrillas in 2001.

The US policy shift comes under the heading of fighting global terrorism, but insofar as it targets the rebels, who perpetuate the drug trade, it is still about fighting drugs.

Years of US-led coca- crop eradication have failed to stem Colombia's drug flow. Neither have years-long efforts at peace talks proved fruitful.

With that in mind, America's military training for Colombian troops deserves strong support, especially considering the new Bogotà leadership's rigorous commitment to defending democracy.

But the strategy is not without risk. A greater American presence makes a natural target for guerrillas, who over time have lost their way and ideology. Recently, the rebels kidnapped and released two journalists, one an American. It's possible the abduction of the Pentagon contractors is the start of stepped-up attacks on Americans.

In this new phase of engagement, Washington must be vigilant in keeping its military role to training only. At the same time, Americans should be aware that far from Iraq, the US is more involved than ever in a war on drugs that is not without its own dangers.

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