March 8, 2008 [LINK / comment]
Colombia's civil war spills over
Those who have been observing Hugo Chavez for the past few years knew that the day would come when he would seek to escalate an international crisis to the brink of war. Fantasizing about reliving the glory of Simon Bolivar, "El Libertador," Chavez has been spoiling for a fight. Likewise, it seemed inevitable that the narco-terrorist insurgency known as FARC would spread beyond Colombia's borders eventually. Nevertheless, the armed confrontation between Colombia and two of its neighbors this past week came as a bit of a shock.
It all started one week ago when Colombia launched an air strike on a FARC guerrilla base located across the border with Ecuador. Taking advantage of information gathered from a captured rebel leader in December, Colombia located a key rebel leader, Luis Edgar Devia, a.k.a. Raul Reyes, and successfully eliminated him. Colombian troops then moved in to recover the bodies and gather whatever intelligence they could find at the rebel base camp. This action took place just across the border with Ecuador, however, sparking outrage in that country and in Venezuela. (Well, what did they expect from hosting a rebel army?) Hugo Chavez sent thousands of troops and tanks to the Colombian border, briefly raising fears that Colombia's interminable civil war might spread to other countries. Daniel Ortega, the former rebel leader and current president of Nicaragua, declared he was cutting off diplomatic relations with Bogota. His accusation that President Alvaro Uribe committed "political terrorism" (see BBC) was quite ironic, given his own past.
At a summit meeting of the Organization of American States members in the Dominican Republic yesterday, the three leaders agreed to back off before a full-scale war erupts. Apparently, Colombia's president Alvaro Uribe blinked first, promising never again to violate another nation's border. See Washington Post. By doing so, without evident reciprocity by Chavez or Correa, he seems to be tying his own hands, giving the rebels much wider freedom of action in future confrontations. (That Post article also mentions that a second FARC commander, Manuel Jesus Muñoz, was apparently killed by his own men this week, a possible sign of worsening morale among the rebels.)
What is a bit odd about Uribe's apology is that it comes on the heels of evidence showing just how overtly Hugo Chavez has been supporting the FARC rebels. As reported in Friday's Washington Post, the captured documents provided ample evidence to show that Colombia's neighbors are hardly innocent bystanders in the "civil" war, so why on earth forfeit the righteous indignation? The timing of the attack, just before the summit meeting was scheduled to begin, was also a bit strange, but it may have been impromptu, taking advantage of a fleeting window of opportunity. CNN.com reported that President Rafael Correa of Ecuador claimed that Reyes was negotiating on behalf of FARC for the release of twelve captives, including Ingrid Betancourt, who ran for president in 2000. If so, that would cast doubt on Colombia's actions, but that is a very big if. It is fitting that Uribe should express regrets for having taken the precipitous action, but he should make it clear that it was made necessary by Ecuador's own failures to police its own territory. Future restraint by Colombia should be contingent upon future cooperation in fighting guerrilla movements. After all, how would we feel if Mexico or Canada harbored rebels or terrorists near our border? Would we stand idly by indefinitely?
In sum, the notion that Colombia is the real trouble-maker in the northern reaches of South America is simply too absurd to be taken seriously. Chavez has repeatedly voiced support and admiration for the FARC rebels, while denouncing Uribe as a "puppet" of the United States. In the six years since he was first inaugurated, Uribe has done more to pacify Colombia's rural areas and to subdue the subversive threat than any other president in modern history. He has strong support of his own people who are weary of the forty-year civil war and have become extremely dubious of the stated goals of FARC, which has evolved into a narco-mafia. Colombia deserves unwavering support by the United States, and President Bush is to be commended for speaking out strongly on behalf of one of our last remaining allies in Latin America. It would help matters greatly if Congress were to move ahead and pass the free trade agreement with Colombia, a reward they amply deserve. It would be a sign that our two countries share strong economic interests, as well as common long-term goals in fighting terrorism.
The balance of power
Washington Post summarized the military forces wielded by the three countries. None is prepared for a major land conflict, although Venezuela has purchased a large quantity of weapons from Russia in recent years -- Cold War nostalgia. (See February 2005.) President Chavez also sparked controversy by a large purchase of naval vessels from Spain, whose government has turned unfriendly toward the United States ever since the Socialists won control in March 2004. Venezuela's 21 U.S.-built F-16 fighters are the state of the art in Latin America, but they are in bad condition because of the refusal of the U.S. government to allow sales of spare parts. Spain also has F-16s in its inventory, and has supplied Venezuela with some key parts. (See May 2006.) On the other hand, purges of top officers suspected of disloyalty to Chavez has undermined the combat effectiveness of that country's armed forces. It is a persistent syndrome that whenever the military takes over a government, which is in effect what happened with Chavez in Venezuela, that the politicization of the officer corps tends to cripple their fighting ability. Venezuela was deploying ten battalions to the border, including a number of tanks, but the likelihood that they could sustain offensive operations in remote jungle terrain is very small. That is the main reason why most knowledgable observers are not terribly worried about a full-scale war breaking out -- it would be a logistical nightmare.
For its part, Ecuador has a substantial land and air force for a country its size, stemming from its border clashes with Peru in 1995. They are amply equipped with armored vehicles, surface-to-air missiles, attack helicopters, and fighter jets -- French Mirages and Israeli Kfirs.
Colombia's military is focused on counter-insurgency operations, with Black Hawk helicopters and light armored vehicles. The total manpower is 208,000, more than twice that of Venezuela, and that is what you would expect in a country in the midst of civil war. Like Ecuador, Colombia has purchased Mirage jet fighters from France, and Kfirs from Israel.