Saturday, June 10, 2006

End of Army support in drug war questioned

Seattle PI

Miami, FL - The proposed withdrawal of Army air support from a U.S.-Bahamas anti-drug effort could entice cocaine and marijuana smugglers to return to the islands and undo more than two decades of progress, key U.S. lawmakers and Bahamian officials say.

"It would clearly have negative consequences for the region as a whole," Joshua Sears, the Bahamas' ambassador to the United States, said in a telephone interview Thursday. "The traffickers obviously would see that as a signal to increase their activity."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, citing war needs elsewhere, said in a letter last month that he intends to withdraw seven Army Blackhawk helicopters and their crews from Operation Bahamas, Turks and Caicos - known as OPBAT for short - by Oct. 1, 2007. The Associated Press reported the letter's contents Wednesday.

The Blackhawks are a critical air asset for the effort.

OPBAT was started in 1982, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration credits it with driving smugglers away from the vast chain of islands, some of which are only a few hours by boat from Florida. More than 80 percent of cocaine shipments to the United States once came through the Bahamas and Caribbean.

Five U.S. House members, including two Republican committee chairmen, said it would be a mistake to withdraw the helicopters.

"These assets have proven invaluable in our nation's counterdrug transit zone strategy in the Caribbean Sea," they wrote in a May 25 letter to Rumsfeld. "If you withdraw the assets in question, no other agency is capable of filling the void and another smuggling route will be significantly undermanned."

Rumsfeld had said in announcing his decision to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that he would work with the Justice Department in finding a suitable replacement for the Blackhawks. The DEA currently has one helicopter in the Bahamas and the Coast Guard has three, although the Coast Guard number varies based on mission needs.

Officials at the Pentagon did not respond Thursday to phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment.

The congressional letter was signed by Reps. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the International Relations Committee, and Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the Government Reform Committee; Indiana GOP Reps. Mark E. Souder, chairman of an anti-narcotics subcommittee, and Dan Burton, head of a western hemisphere subcommittee; and Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.

By Curt Anderson


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