On Dec. 20, as a holiday "truce" in Colombia's bloody civil war was proclaimed, leftist guerrillas ambushed an army patrol in northern Cesar province and killed nine soldiers. Just to confirm that this was no mistake, army units near the town of Fundacion were attacked on Christmas Day by the Marxist FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

"This truce exists only on paper," said an unsurprised Gen. Fernando Tapias, chief of the Colombian armed forces. The phony cease-fire goes down as another illusion by well-meaning, peace-seeking President Andres Pastrana. His concessions have been met by escalated guerrilla attacks over the past year.

But Pastrana's biggest illusion may be his expectation of substantial U.S. military aid to counter the estimated $100 million a month received by FARC from big-time drug traffickers who are protected by the guerrillas.

The scope and success of the year-end FARC offensive raises these serious questions about the U.S. commitment to Colombia:

Will President Clinton break his silence on the danger of Colombia becoming a narco-leftist state? Will he use his State of the Union address Jan. 27 to call for the $1 billion to $1.5 billion promised to the Colombian government more than three months ago? Will he actually include those funds in the federal budget to be presented Feb. 7?

The likely answer to all these questions is no. Colombia's struggle for survival is the world's forgotten war. So vocal about outrages far away in the Balkans, Clinton volunteers nothing in the ordeal of his hemispheric neighbor. Fighting Marxist guerrillas financed by the drug trade does not make a war that a liberal can love.

The death toll in that war was more than 300 for the week ending Dec. 18 as the FARC launched a new offensive. The casualty list included 10 civilians killed and more than 60 wounded in bombings. As government and guerrilla negotiators hammered out the holiday cease-fire in the southern city of Hormiga Dec. 17, a car bomb ripped through the business district, killing five passersby and severely wounding scores more.

Those attacks followed persistent pleas by Pastrana for a Christmas truce that were regularly rejected by the FARC. But on Dec. 20, the leftists suddenly offered "a unilateral truce in offensive actions" through Jan. 9, which Reuters news service described as "extending an olive branch to the war ravaged country."

Some olive branch, considering the immediate FARC violation of its "unilateral" truce. "I don't believe in the truce," commented Gen. Tapias. "What most affects the Colombian people is kidnapping, extortion and intimidation, and if that doesn't stop, we can't talk of a cease-fire."

What the general could not and did not say is that Colombia is losing the war. On Dec. 12, FARC guerrillas overran a Colombian naval base near the Panama border. Stratfor.com, the authoritative private intelligence source, commented that "the raid highlights a new lack of Colombian military intelligence." Help from Washington is clearly needed.

Pastrana's daring gesture in 1998 of establishing a huge demilitarized zone, far from bringing peace, has provided the Marxists with real estate to build a parallel Communist society. A new $10 million offer from Iran to build infrastructure in the zone looks like the beginning of a socialist state.

Indeed, FARC leaders have insisted on an end to free-market policies and a cessation to all international debt payments by Colombia before they will even consider a long-term cease-fire.

In a meeting last autumn with senior House Republicans (including Dan Burton and Benjamin Gilman), Pastrana said $3 billion in aid is needed to save his country. The State Department promised $1 billion. But to the consternation of the Colombians, nothing was approved in the 1999 session-end money jam.

The Colombian Embassy in Washington believed it had found the key to the Treasury when it hired Vernon Jordan, Washington superlawyer and the president's best friend, to lobby for the U.S. aid. The Colombians did not quite fully appreciate that they were hiring his law firm, not Jordan (who never has done much lobbying and now is spending most of his time in New York as an investment banker). Another illusion.

Colombian officials privately grumble that Democratic members are unenthusiastic about financing an anticommunist guerrilla war that they fear could suck in the United States, Vietnam style. It will take some expression of enthusiasm from Bill Clinton to promote help for Colombia. More likely, things will get worse when the Christmas truce, such as it is, expires on Sunday.

(c) 2000, Creators Syndicate Inc.