JOINT TASK FORCE-VULCANO, Colombia—The top U.S. military officer is pushing to expand the Pentagon’s advisory role in Colombia’s fight against insurgents and narcotics traffickers, but made clear he is wary of rushing to supply the country with drones and other hardware Bogota says it wants to accelerate the campaign.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey made his first visit to Latin America as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to reassure allies in the region that it remains a priority for the U.S., even after the Pentagon revamped its strategy to put greater emphasis on the Asia-Pacific as troops exit Afghanistan.
Gen. Dempsey said U.S. military involvement in support of Latin American allies is important because of the risk that the region’s increasingly sophisticated drug-smuggling networks could be co-opted by Iran or terrorist groups to smuggle fighters or destructive weapons into the U.S.
“It’s certainly in our interest to do what we can to help the nations of this region to break those networks,” he told reporters during a four-day visit to Colombia and Brazil that included this encampment.
Gen. Dempsey cited last year’s foiled plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. Prosecutors alleged an elaborate international plot, with two men—including an Iranian-born U.S. citizen who had been living in Texas—using funding from the Iranian government to try to hire a Mexican drug cartel to kill the ambassador.
Other U.S. officials say narco-traffickers have little incentive to link up with terrorists because they know that their role enabling an attack would incur the wrath of the U.S. and likely disrupt their lucrative drug dealings.
To bolster Bogota’s military campaign, Gen. Dempsey said the Pentagon plans to send U.S. brigade commanders with hands-on counter-insurgency experience in Afghanistan and Iraq to spend two weeks with front-line Colombian army and police units being deployed in rebel strongholds.
The brigade commanders will be sent as early as June to newly established Joint Task Force encampments, including one called Vulcano, near the Venezuelan border. The brigade commanders will share “lessons learned” with their Colombian counterparts but won’t take part in military operations there, Gen. Dempsey said.
“The challenges they face are not unlike, to be sure, the challenges we’ve faced in the passed 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Gen. Dempsey told reporters.
The U.S. military also is sounding out retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, about advising the Colombians on their counter-insurgency strategy. Officials said it is unclear what type of role Gen. McChrystal, who now heads a leadership training and consulting company, could play.
Colombia has launched a stepped-up counter-insurgency campaign that in many ways resembles the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
In addition to the new Joint Task Forces, Colombia has set up its own version of the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command to conduct hunt-and-kill missions. U.S. defense officials estimate that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, has between 8,000 and 9,000 active members. The Colombian government has set a goal of cutting their numbers in half in two years.
U.S. officials say the Colombian military mainly wants more helicopters, sophisticated aerial surveillance aircraft, unmanned drones and assistance in fusing intelligence collected from different sources.
Gen. Dempsey said Colombian defense officials told him the equipment and capabilities they seek would be “accelerators,” allowing the military “to deliver the outcome of the strategy sooner.”
But Gen. Dempsey was cautious about the requests, particularly for drones, citing U.S. demand for unmanned aircraft in other regions that the U.S. sees as top priorities, including the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the Maghreb region in North Africa.
“Before I’ll change the priority, I really want to be persuaded that they (the Colombians) can achieve the outcome they’re speaking about in the time frame they’re speaking about, and if these ‘enablers’ are the real key in accelerating the time,” Gen. Dempsey said. “And then we would have to decide: ‘Is it a good policy decision?'”
U.S. officials said selling armed drones to Colombia would be difficult in the near term not only because they are in demand in other regions. U.S. lawmakers have objected to transferring Predator and Reaper drones to even close North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies like Turkey, arguing that the technology is too sensitive.
The Pentagon already has Special Operations teams advising Colombian army, police and elite hunt-and-kill units, U.S. officials say. Those forces, typically working in teams of 12, help their Colombian counterparts plan strikes against FARC and other groups but they aren’t allowed to take part in the operations themselves.
U.S. law enforcement agencies fighting the drug trade don’t have such restrictions on their day-to-day activities and take part in some raids.
The U.S. has about 250 military personnel in the country now, according to the U.S. military’s Southern Command, which is responsible for the region. That doesn’t include the Central Intelligence Agency, the Drug Enforcement Agency and other U.S. government entities which are involved in the campaign against militants and the drug trade.
U.S. officials say Colombia has set up about five Joint Task Forces in areas where the FARC and narco-traffickers are most active. The government plans to set up seven total, the officials said.
After the visit to the Joint Task Force, gunmen attacked a police station near Tibu, a town near the task force encampment. Gen. Dempsey had already left the area.
JTF-Vulcano houses 100 Colombian army members and 20 police. A contingent of Colombian marines in the area patrols waterways, which are the primary means of transporting narcotics across the border.