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?
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.
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.
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.