Monday, March 03, 2008

What’s going on down here

As some of you may have heard, there was an incident between Colombia and the FARC on Saturday that happened in Ecuadoran territory. While reports are still sketchy (never trust anything that the Colombian military says, at least not until confirmed by multiple sources), it looks like the Colombian military detected the presence of a guerrilla camp just on the other side of the border with Ecuador. This is a fairly common thing. The guerrillas know that they can hide across international boundaries with virtual impunity and it makes the war that much more difficult to prosecute.

For reasons that are still unknown, Colombia decided to launch an attack (precision munitions) against the camp. In all probability they were motivated by their intelligence which pointed to the presence of a high level guerrilla leader, Raúl Reyes (the #2 in command by most accounts). So, using clever George Bush style interpretations of international law, the Colombian air force launched the attack from their side of the border into Ecuador. Reyes and others were killed in what is being hailed as the greatest victory against the FARC in the history of the 40 year struggle.

The impact of this event is still being sorted. However, several things are clear. First, President Chavez went totally insane and made a number of saber-rattling declarations and brashly and dramatically (on national TV and radio) ordered several battalions and tanks to the Colombia-Venezuela border. He also closed the Venezuelan embassy in Bogotá. This sort of thing is to be expected from Big Red. It also raises all sorts of questions, one of which I’ll discuss below.

On the Ecuadoran side, they too expressed outrage and sent troops to the border. They also claim that Colombia went deep into Ecuador to carry out the attack, violating the nation’s sovereignty. The Colombian military denies this of course. And now the president’s of Chile and Mexico are offering to mediate.

Those are the facts. If you read the links, you’ll find any number of absurd quotes from both Ecuador’s President Correa and Hugo Chavez. These quotes would be shocking except by now, we’re all used to Big Red blabbing on and on with idle threats. At any rate, I think there are several important points that need to be made:

1. I get Colombia’s motivation in this and I can’t disagree with it. It’s virtually impossible to prosecute a war against guerrilla terrorists when they can find safe haven in neighboring countries.

2. That doesn’t mean that they were justified in breaking international law. These sorts of things should be negotiated in advance. But we don’t know the behind the scenes aspect. We don’t know if the Colombian government has tried negotiating (I assume they have) and it seems likely that Ecuador isn’t willing to help or give them permission to cross the border.

3. This would be a very interesting issue to ask the Democratic presidential candidates since Obama has said he would cross the Pakistani border to chase the Taliban if necessary.

4. Should Venezuela belong on the State Department’s Terrorist List and be subject to US Sanctions? Consider the following quote from the AP article linked above:

“This is saber-rattling, trying to make a point," said Adam Isacson, an analyst for the Washington-based Center for International Policy. By holding a moment of silence in honor of the slain rebels during his program, Chavez "has all but said that the FARC will be safe in Venezuela, and that the Venezuelan armed forces would respond to a similar Colombian incursion into Venezuelan territory."

Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it not the purpose of the terrorist list to sanction those countries that either sponsor or abed terrorists? Sounds like Venezuela is a MUCH more significant state sponsor of terrorism than say, North Korea (especially if the very credible reports that FARC ammunition is supplied from Venezuela prove true).

Politics intervenes, of course, because Venezuela has a lot of oil and we want it. But there’s also cross border trade between Colombia and Venezuela that is extremely important and putting them on the Terror List would truncate that trade, in addition to causing other problems.

5. This event both proves the FARCs weakness and the Colombian military’s strength. Chavez blames the US for this event and to some, extenuated degree, he is correct. Had it not been for Plan Colombia, the Colombian military would never have had the intelligence technology and training necessary to find the guerrillas and bomb them. They have gotten much, much stronger over the last 7 years.

So too has the guerrilla gotten weaker. This is an embarrassing defeat for an organization that has been increasingly pushed around by the military. The war, for better or worse, has made a huge impact on the FARC’s ability to conduct attacks and operate as a unit (although it’s not just the war).

6. This likely ends any other hostage releases for the near future. The FARC will undoubtedly try to retaliate as well. It remains to be seen if they have the capability, but there can be no doubt that their organization is now going to be in a bit of disarray and they’ll be unlikely to welcome the idea of more negotiation or good faith efforts. Not that I think they were going to do that anyway. Reyes was the classic “negotiate about everything, do nothing” style negotiator and never had any real interest in peace talks. So it remains to be seen what comes next. There is a possibility that his replacement will be more interested in negotiation and genuine peace efforts, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Until the old guard truly expires, the FARC will never make peace

At any rate, there are more details at this informative link.



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