WASHINGTON -- As U.S. assistance to war-fatigued Colombia escalates, the
Clinton administration portrays American military involvement there as
nothing more than basic anti-drug fighting aid.
Haunted by the shadows of Vietnam and El Salvador, administration
officials vow to avoid managing another war by proxy in a foreign land.
The truth, however, isn't that clear cut.
Enlisted U.S. military personnel in Colombia, which average 250 on any
given day, are under orders to stick to anti-drug efforts, including
training of three anti-drug battalions.
But the Clinton administration quietly has hired a high-level group of
former U.S. military personnel whose job far exceeds the narrow focus of
the drug war and is intended to turn the Colombian military into a
first-class war machine capable of winning a decades-old leftist
These military consultants keep in close contact with Pentagon officials
while advising Colombians on efforts to improve the Colombian army and
even advise on the passage of new laws to help make the Colombian military
more professional and effective. In addition, the consultants are helping
to revamp the National Police, traditionally charged with fighting the
drug war in Colombia.
The hiring of military experts - in this case, Military Professional
Resources Inc., an Alexandria, Va.-based company run mostly by retired
U.S. military brass - is a relatively new development in American foreign
military assistance programs.
Critics say the practice, known as outsourcing, is intended to bypass
congressional oversight and provide political cover to the White House if
something goes wrong. MPRI has done other work for Washington around the
world, including in the Balkans.
"We're outsourcing the war in a way that is not accountable," says Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch. She argues that because the 130,000-strong
Colombian military is notorious for human rights violations, it is
essential for the United States to provide assistance "in accordance with
international law and in a transparent manner - not in secret."
Supporters of private military companies, however, argue that not only are
they more cost-efficient than the U.S. military but that they ease the
pressure on American troops, burdened by foreign assignments, including
MPRI is working full time in Colombia under a $ 6-million contract. The
company has dispatched 14 employees to Bogota under the direction of a
retired Army major general.
Administration officials say MPRI personnel are doing precisely what
uniformed American soldiers have traditionally done. They say MPRI was
hired not because it has any special expertise, but because U.S. Southern
Command in Miami, which oversees American military operations in Latin
America, cannot spare 14 men to send to Colombia.
"What are we doing with MPRI that Southern Command or someone else can't
do? In theory, nothing," Brian Sheridan, the senior Pentagon official who
oversees the work of MPRI, said in congressional testimony in March.
"It's a manpower issue," he said.
Nevertheless, U.S.-Colombia policy experts say the use of firms like MPRI
is intended primarily to limit the risk of American military casualties
"It's very handy to have an outfit not part of the U.S. armed forces,
obviously," said former U.S. ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette. "If somebody gets killed or whatever, you can say it's not a member of the
armed forces. Nobody wants to see American military men killed."
Although the hiring of MPRI was approved by Congress, it raises serious
questions about the propriety of U.S. intervention in the affairs of a
sovereign state, of American civilians participating in a foreign war, and
whether the United States can guarantee the Colombian military will not
misuse the assistance it receives from MPRI.
It also raises the question of the privatization of American foreign
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking member of the Senate Appropriations
Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, is the author of human rights
requirements in the $ 1.3-billion aid package Congress approved in June
under Plan Colombia, a $ 7.5-billion internationally funded program with a
strong U.S. military component designed to brace Colombia against
He, too, is critical of using companies like MPRI.
"(It) is fraught with dangers, especially when human rights are at stake," Leahy said.
"The Congress has little choice but to rely on the Pentagon to supervise
the contractors, but the Pentagon too often does not pay close attention.
"We have no way of knowing if the contractors are training these Colombian soldiers in ways that are fully consistent with U.S. policy, laws and
MPRI and the Pentagon both denied requests by the Times to review the MPRI
contract, which is renewable each year. MPRI spokesman Ed Soyster, a
retired Army lieutenant general and former director of the Defense
Department's Defense Intelligence Agency, compared the need for secrecy in
Colombia with the need for secrecy in Vietnam.
"When I was in Vietnam, I wouldn't want to tell you about my operation," he said. "If the enemy knows about it, he can counter it."
Analytical problem solvers
In congressional testimony and in interviews, Pentagon and Colombian
officials - including Sheridan; the retired Southcom commander, Gen.
Charles Wilhelm; and the Colombian ambassador to the United States, Luis
Alberto Moreno - have characterized MPRI staff as "men in business suits" who assess problems within the Colombian Ministry of Defense and provide solutions through detailed analysis that Colombia can either accept or
In this view, they aren't any different than the other 50 or so private
U.S. contractors providing equipment or services paid for by U.S. foreign
aid in Colombia.
MPRI employees can "from time-to-time go out on a field trip to see
something," the Pentagon says, including Colombian military operations,
but they don't participate in battles against the rebel forces.
Its mission, according to MPRI internal documents, is to provide advice to
the Ministry of Defense "with continued development and implementation of
military reform measures."
Specifically, MPRI is working with the armed forces and the National
Police in the areas of planning; operations, including psychological
operations; training; logistics; intelligence; and personnel management.
Soyster, the MPRI spokesman, compares his company with other U.S.
companies operating overseas - "Like Coca-Cola," he said.
But, for the most part, MPRI officials operate out of public view, and
neither Pentagon nor MPRI officials will talk in great detail about the
MPRI's stated mission in Colombia is strikingly similar to its stated
mission in the Balkans.
In January 1996, according to European-based Jane's Intelligence Review,
Croatia and MPRI signed the Long Range Management Program designed to
assist the Croats "in establishing the architecture, structure,
organization and system for planning, programming and budgeting functions
for the Croatian Ministry of Defense."
MPRI insisted that its work in Croatia was limited to classroom teachings
and never involved any training in tactics or use of weaponry.
But suspicions were aroused after two successful military operations
launched by Croatia in 1995, just months after MPRI's contracts began.
The operations "demonstrated that the Croatian army was now able to
coordinate armor and infantry attacks supported by large artillery forces
and master new communications techniques," Jane's reported. "Most
importantly, the Croatian performance did not resemble the usual outmoded
Warsaw Pact military tactics."
Officially, U.S. aid to Colombia is directed at the drug war, not the
rebel war that has plagued the country for nearly 40 years.
But even senior administration officials, including drug czar Barry
McCaffrey, acknowledge that the line between the drug war and the
guerrilla war has become increasingly blurred because of rebel involvement
in the drug trade.
Indeed, U.S. military officials familiar with the 18-week training program
of anti-drug battalions in Colombia say that skills being taught by the
Special Forces, including sniper training, are transferable to the fight
against the Marxist rebels.
Among the most provocative parts of the MPRI mission are plans for MPRI to
recommend legislation, statutes and decrees to Colombia regarding a
military draft, a professional soldier statute, officer entitlements and
health law reforms.
"They are using us to carry out American foreign policy," Soyster, the MPRI spokesman, said. "We certainly don't determine foreign policy, but we can be part of the U.S. government executing its foreign policy."
So delicate is MPRI's work in Colombia that State Department officials say
there is an ongoing internal debate within the Clinton administration
about for whom MPRI works - the United States or Colombia?
Moreno, the Colombian ambassador, said he saw no problem in the contract.
The United States was paying MPRI, but Colombia was the recipient of its
military expertise, he said.
"Colombia tells MPRI that we need help or we need advice in this area."
Moreno said he has met with MPRI personnel and that his country welcomed
A country of 41-million people, Colombia has been at war with the rebels,
a powerful force of 20,000 men, women and children, since 1964. Once
fueled by Marxist ideology, the insurgency is now fueled by the drug
trade, critics say.
Complicating peace efforts even further for the government are roving
bands of right-wing paramilitary death squads, funded by wealthy
landowners as well as the drug trade.
Totaling between 5,000 and 10,000 strong, the paramilitaries often have
been linked to the Colombian military.
"The military in Colombia has to be very professional and very modern if
you are going to have peace," Moreno said. "Any time you spend on
modernizing the Colombian military is time well-spent."
Washington has pumped more money into Colombia because it has grown
increasingly concerned about the rebel war spilling over into its
neighbors. Fighting already threatens stability on the border with
Venezuela, a main U.S. supplier of oil, as well as Ecuador and Panama.
Only Egypt and Israel get more U.S. foreign aid than Colombia.
U.S. and Colombian officials say one of the strategies in the drug war is
to cut off funding to the rebels, who earn hundreds of millions of dollars
by selling protection to the drug traffickers. Colombia provides as much
as 85 percent of the cocaine sold on U.S. streets and an increasing amount
In explaining the impetus for the use of MPRI, Pentagon officials say they
have become frustrated over the past 40 years with trying to help reform
the Colombian military piecemeal, doing exchange programs, for instance,
that yielded poor results.
State Department officials say Washington is not using MPRI to ram
military reform down the throats of the Colombians.
Colombia can reject MPRI suggestions.
When MPRI began operations in Colombia, the Pentagon said the ministry of
defense already had begun a reform program.
It was Sheridan, the assistant secretary of defense for the Special
Operations Low-Intensity Conflict, or SOLIC, section of the Pentagon, who
recommended MPRI to Minister of Defense Luis Fernando Ramirez.
The Pentagon said that every quarter MPRI reports directly to a senior
steering committee in Washington, including Sheridan, representatives of
Southcom and Randy Beers, the assistant secretary of state for
International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
Congress, meanwhile, gets no updates about the MPRI mission.
And that makes critics, even within the military, queasy.
In 1998, Col. Bruce D. Grant wrote a strategy research project at the U.S.
Army War College questioning companies like MPRI.
Not only did he conclude that what they do is illegal, because they
circumvent congressional oversight, but he also wondered how military men
and women could sell their expertise to the highest foreign bidder.
"This dangerous trend removes military expertise from public
accountability and corrupts our military," Grant wrote.
"The unintended consequences of profit-motivated military assistance could detract from U.S. foreign policy objectives, result in tragedy when
misused by recipients and leave a dispirited military."
Military aid is clearly the most sensitive form of aid flowing to
Curtis Kamman, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia until a few weeks ago,
maintained a policy prohibiting reporters from observing Special Forces
training because he feared the images beamed to television sets back home
would remind people of Vietnam.
Earlier this year, as conditions in Colombia worsened and the U.S.
Congress debated the merits of the $ 1.3-billion aid package, critics
often cited Vietnam.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., said he detests Vietnam analogies, "because nine out of 10 times they are all wet."
"But I have to tell you," he said, "this reminds me very much of Vietnam... Whatever happens, there are going to be a lot of mothers' sons who
are going to die who may or may not be Americans."
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