Merchant of Death
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Bad Omens in Latin America
The Associated Press today reports on how thinly spread U.S. Special Forces are in many parts of the world, including Latin America, at a crucial time.

"We're going to fewer countries, staying for shorter periods of time, with smaller numbers of people than historically we have done," Adm. Eric T. Olson said May 5 in his first interview since becoming commander of U.S. Special Operations Command last July.

To illustrate that point, Olson said that when the 7th Special Forces Group, which is based at Fort Bragg, N.C., and whose normal area of focus is Latin America, rotates into Afghanistan for seven-month tours, it takes two of its three battalions, leaving just one in Latin America.

"That leaves us underrepresented" in Latin America, the admiral said.

In Latin America, as in other areas of greatest interest to the Special Operations Command, Green Berets deploy to friendly countries like El Salvador or Colombia to train local military forces.

Special operations units that are designated mainly for use in Africa and Europe, Olson said, also are under strength for their normal role in those regions because they, too, are tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, about 80 percent of the overseas deployments of special operations forces have been to the Middle East and Afghanistan, Olson said. That compares with 20-25 percent before Sept. 11, 2001.

At the same time, the Reuters news agency reports on growing concerns about the Iranian presence in Latin America.

It noted the growing Iranian presence in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, which I have discussed extensively before.

"We are worried that in the event of a conflict with Iran, that it would attempt to use its presence in the region to conduct such activities against us," Thomas Shannon, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, told Reuters.

Left-wing governments in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia have all become allies of Iran in recent years, and other countries in Latin America have diplomatic ties with the Islamic republic.

Shannon said Iran wants to ease its international isolation by showing it is able to win friends in Latin America, which has been historically in the United States' "sphere of influence."

The juxtaposition of these two points to some of the alarming gaps that have developed in our ability to deal with virtually anything beyond the immediate spheres of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition to having no hard power to deploy in the region, should it be necessary, we are being vastly outspent and out-flanked on the soft power side, leaving the field almost unchallenged to Iran, China and others who do not have the same geographic or historic ties to the region.

Latin America is in serious jeopardy of seeing years of democratic reforms sharply reversed, in ways that are detrimental both to the populations of the region and US strategic interests.

I lived through the bleak periods of military dictatorship in Bolivia and covered the wars in Central America, and have some understanding of how profoundly different the region is from those periods.

It will be a serious situation when those gains begin to erode to the point of collapse.
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