In the late winter of 2003, as the United States was dispatching tens of thousands of soldiers to the Middle East for an invasion of Iraq, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command was deployed in sixty-five countries. In Nepal the Special Forces were training government troops to hunt down the Maoist rebels who were terrorizing that nation. In the Philippines they were scheduled to increase in number for the fight against the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. There was also Colombia—the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel and Egypt, and the third most populous country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico. Jungly, disease-ridden, and chillingly violent, Colombia is the possessor of untapped oil reserves and is crucially important to American interests.
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The totalitarian regimes in Iraq and North Korea, and the gargantuan difficulty of displacing them, may have been grabbing headlines of late, but the future of military conflict—and therefore of America's global responsibilities over the coming decades—may best be gauged in Colombia, where guerrilla groups, both left-wing and right-wing, have downplayed ideology in favor of decentralized baronies and franchises built on terrorism, narcotrafficking, kidnapping, counterfeiting, and the siphoning of oil-pipeline revenues from local governments. FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), for example, is Karl Marx at the top and Adam Smith all the way down the command chain. Guerrilla warfare is now all about business, and physical cruelty knows no limits. It extends to torture (fish hooks to tear up the genitals), gang rape, and the murder of children whose parents do not cooperate with the insurgents. The Colombian rebels take in hundreds of millions of dollars annually from cocaine-related profits alone, and have documented links to the Irish Republican Army and the Basque separatists (who have apparently advised them on kidnapping and car-bomb tactics). If left unmolested, they will likely establish strategic links with al Qaeda.
Arauca province, a petroleum-rich area in northeastern Colombia, near the Venezuelan border, is a pool-table-flat lesion of broadleaf thickets, scrap-iron settlements, and gravy-brown rivers. The journey from the airfield to the Colombian army base, where a few dozen Green Berets and civil-affairs officers and their support staff are bunkered behind sandbags and concertina wire, is only several hundred yards. Yet U.S. personnel make the journey in full kit, inside armored cars and Humvees with mounted MK-19 40mm grenade launchers. As I stepped off the tarmac in late February, two Colombian soldiers, badly wounded by a car bomb set off by left-wing narcoterrorists (the bomb had been coated with human feces in hopes of causing infection), were being carried on stretchers to the base infirmary, where a Special Forces medic was waiting to treat them. The day before, the Colombian police had managed to deactivate two other bombs in Arauca. The day before that there had been an assassination attempt on a local politician. And the day before that an electricity tower had been bombed, knocking out power in the region. Previous days had brought the usual roadside kidnappings, street-corner bicycle bombings, grenade strikes on police stations, and mortar attacks on Colombian soldiers—using propane cylinders packed with nails, broken glass, and feces.