Questions About the Rescue in Colombia

The dramatic rescue of the FARC hostages raises a host of important questions, here are a few, with short answers following and lengthy answers below:

Was the rescue the cover for an arrangement with the FARC?
Probably not.

What effect will this have on future hostage releases?
It will probably lead to more units dissolving and possibly releasing their hostages.

Colombian security used a ruse claiming to be an NGO, could such ploys undermine the legitimate role of NGOs?
Possibly, it’s complicated.

Staged Rescue

Cesar, the commander of the FARC front holding the hostages put them on a helicopter after receiving an order he believed came from the FARC jefe Alfonso Cano. Consider the implications of this: it would be as if someone tricked a General into believing he had just received an order from the President. Such communications are not handled casually. The fact that Colombian intelligence could deliver this fake message probably indicates a very high-level of human and electronic penetration into the FARC’s communications networks. A few specialists have quietly speculated that this was an inside job – perhaps Cano wanted to arrange this to set the stage for a peaceful surrender. While anything is possible, the correspondence unearthed from Raul Reyes’ laptop – such as the talk of selling uranium – has a certain clueless quality. The blog of the Center for International Policy’s Colombia Program cites a FARC assessment of the U.S. elections as another example of strange assertions and gross inaccuracies in the FARC’s perception of the world. Based on the FARC’s seeming poor information about and ability to assess the outside world, it does seem conceivable that the organization has simply become dysfunctional and that its organizational nervous system has in fact been deeply compromised.

The fate of the hundreds of remaining hostages

The FARC holds many more hostages, possibly as many as 700, about 40 of whom are prominent. It is possible that the rescue operation will make it harder to negotiate for the release of the remaining hostages. Without their most valuable chits, the FARC cannot hope to obtain any of the concessions it demands – consequently the remaining hostages may languish. But, as the FARC breaks down, it is more and more likely that fronts will abandon the fight altogether, particularly as they become isolated from the central command (or mistrust its instructions). The rescue was a huge blow and FARC morale will sink even further. Expect the Colombian campaign to encourage FARC members to desert to expand and include incentives to bring in hostages as well.

NGO Quandaries

Finally, in my previous post I noted that there may be a cost in using ruses involving NGOs. Several people with a lot of background on the issue told me that many Colombian NGOs are effectively FARC fronts. The mere fact that the hostages’ guards fell for a ruse that an NGO was aiding in a FARC operation lends some credence to this argument. It is not an unfamiliar phenomenon, the Israelis complain deeply (and with much justice) about NGOs acting as fronts and agents for terrorist groups as well.

However, NGOs in principle are expressions of the fundamental right of association aka civil society – a right and value that is essential for the liberal democratic polity. That some become fronts for loathsome causes is not new, Stalin too had his useful idiots and front groups. One of the great challenges of asymmetric warfare (whether it is terrorism, counter-insurgency or something else) is distinguishing between groups exercising this right – even if their views are controversial – and groups that are fronts for organizations undermining legitimate authority.

This is a tricky problem, one faced here in the United States as well, as our law enforcement agencies attempt to determine if Islamic charities and other organizations are operating legitimately or are linked to Hamas, al-Qaeda or Hezbollah.

That being said, I am not questioning the Colombian use of the NGO ruse in this case – the benefits outweighed the cost. But, similar operations, if done too often could undermine the rightful place of legitimate NGOs. This could have pragmatic consequences such as hurting the ability of NGOs to deliver aid, to broader philosophical consequences of undermining freedom of association.

There is a parallel with the Colombian strike that killed Raul Reyes in Ecuador. As a matter of principle, military attacks that cross national borders are not a good idea. But, there are times and places where such strikes necessary. However, when done too often violating the national sovereignty of other states will exact a cost in legitimacy.

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8 Responses

  1. Great… “That being said, I am not questioning the Colombian use of the NGO ruse in this case – the benefits outweighed the cost.” Sure? “This could have pragmatic consequences such as hurting the ability of NGOs to deliver aid” Is not important this?
    Today, using NGOs ruses. Yesterday, a military attack that cross national borders… And later what? “the benefits outweighed the cost.” Really?

  2. Hey, TerrorWonk…

    You just can’t admit that the democratic forces of Colombia beat the Far Left using their OWN tactics – terrorist sympathizing NGO’s included.

    This was a spectacular success in all aspects; no footnotes, no astericks, no ifs, ands or buts!

  3. Two great, thoughtful comments that take completely opposite sides highlight the nature of the conundrum.

    Think of international law is more a matter of manners that ironclad commandments. They are needed to limit conflicts – but there are times and places where they simply cannot be followed. The question of to what extent sovereignty is sacrosanct is an important one.

    On the other hand, consider the “manners” metaphor – one can occasionally violate accepted norms but not constantly. The NGO ruse was clever – but what if similar ruses were used with a well established and respected NGO like the ICRC. That could have a detrimental impact on their ability to do their important work.

    Making these decisions, steering between Scylla and Charybdis as it were, is why politics is a tough business.

    I absolutely celebrate Colombia’s achievement, the FARC’s collapse, and the freedom for these hostages and think that the Colombian calculations were the right ones.

    Thanks again for the great comments.

  4. The BBC have a main man for telling porkie pies about al-qaeda and everything else that is on the neo-con war agenda. I was suspicious as to why Frank Gardner was in Columbia a week before this happen. Maybe it was to be briefed on it all. To my knowledge he had not been sent that way before by the state broadcaster and the timing struck me as being more than coincidence.
    There is usually a continuity problem with Frank’s less than frank reports. I haven’t investigated this one yet, however, his last story was about some government ‘al-qaeda’ documents left on a plane. The viewer was shown the dreaded Mr Gardner with the documents in his hands, no details, just the ‘top secret’ bit at the top. This then cuts to the police picking up the document in latex gloves and putting it into some evidence bag. This made it appear to the lay viewer that the government had an al-qaeda strategy, when in fact, all they do is make it up and get the like of Frank to spin the lie.

  5. I don’t know anything about Frank Gardner and BBC.

    Next comment – on the possibility that this was a set-up. Tough to say. The FARC was incredibly difficult to negotiate with and it is possible that Uribe determined that their offer wasn’t serious (maybe was a PR ploy by Chavez or Sen. Cordoba.)

    Lots of rumors have floated around FARC, Betancourt et al – so this supposed hostage release might have been another. We don’t really have enough info to judge.

  6. The FARC has been trying to negotiate peace for decades. The last attempt, in the late 80’s, costed them the lifes of thousands of their militants who were murdered when participating in a democratic elections campaign. When Raul Reyes was murdered, he was the main FARC contact in the negotiation for the release of hostages. Remember they had freed several hostages a few weeks before unilaterally. Uribe represents a global oligarchy that thrives in war, drug trafficking, corruption and exploitation. They don’t want peace. They are the terrorists.

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