Wednesday, January 30, 2008

SOTU: Shout Out for Colombia

In his final State of the Union address, President Bush specifically called on Congress to pass the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia:
These agreements also promote America's strategic interests. The first agreement that will come before you is with Colombia, a friend of America that is confronting violence and terror, and fighting drug traffickers. If we fail to pass this agreement, we will embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere. So we must come together, pass this agreement, and show our neighbors in the region that democracy leads to a better life.
Unfortunately, this is unlikely. House Majority leader Steny Hoyer stated that it was “doubtful” the Colombia Free Trade Agreement would be brought to a vote.

While the Democrats have legitimate concerns about the agreement a failure to ratify the Colombia Free Trade Agreement will have a substantial negative impact on American standing (rarely high) in Latin America. Not rewarding Colombia for its progress in a terrible war against the narco-terrorist FARC will send the message to Latin America that cooperation with the U.S. doesn't pay. But this is the wrong message to send a region Latin America with substantial lawless zones, a growing Islamist presence, and being swept with anti-American radicalism.

The Colombia deal faces the opposition faced by many free trade agreements, concerns about U.S. jobs. But it also is opposed because of the problematic human rights record in Colombia. There is ongoing concern that the full extent of the government’s complicity with the vicious paramilitary groups. These groups arose when the government was unable to defend major portions of the country from FARC and ELN revolutionaries. But the paramilitaries entered the narcotics business and became as bloodthirsty as their adversaries. While the paramilitaries have disarmed under an amnesty program, there are persistent reports that many have remained in business. Organized labor in the U.S. is particularly incensed because labor activists are targeted by the paramilitaries (over 700 have reportedly been killed since 2002 – more than the rest of the world combined.)

In addition U.S. aid to Colombia has had, at best, a mixed record in reducing the amount of cocaine coming to the United States.

While all this is true, the overall progress made by Colombia is difficult to dismiss. The Administration says there has been a 76-percent drop in kidnappings, a 40-percent drop in homicides and a 61-percent drop in terror attacks since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002. Uribe won re-election in 2006 with 62% of the vote and currently has an 80% approval rating. Most critics of Uribe and Plan Colombia (the multi-billion dollar US aid package to Colombia), such as The Center for International Policy’s Colombia Program will grant that security in Colombia has improved. At the beginning of the decade Colombia was on the verge of being a failed state, while violence continues it is far more stable now.

At the same time Colombia has been a loyal U.S. ally, when anti-Americanism is on the rise throughout the Latin America. Failing to pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement will effectively punish a country – and its President – who has remained firmly in the U.S. corner. While this will not have an immediate effect on Colombia’s fight against the FARC narco-terrorists, it will tell the entire region, which frequently distrusts U.S. interests and is perturbed at American inattention to their concerns, that the United States is an unreliable ally. If the U.S. fails to reward one of its closest allies, Latin American leaders will have little incentive to go to bat for the United States.

Latin America has made enormous economic, social, and political progress over the last several decades. But the region faces many strategic problems including: the petro-dollar funded spread of Chavezismo populism, the regional arms build-up, the lawless areas such as the Tri-Border region, the, the growth of super-gangs and criminal cartels in Mexico, Central America, and Brazil, and the increased Iranian and Chinese influence throughout the region. Now is the wrong time to neglect or punish Latin America.

This is not to say that the Democrats in Congress do not have legitimate concerns. They do. They also have multiple avenues for addressing them. Most notably, through shaping the funding of Plan Colombia and dedicating funds to address human rights concerns.

The Democrats have promised to improve the U.S. image in the world – a very welcome initiative. However, punishing the allies the United States already has is not an ideal way to begin.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Geopolitics of Gaza

In the coverage of the breach of the Gaza border, the focus has been on the increased threat to Israel. While there is little question that terrorists will acquire new capabilities and use them against Israel, their gaze may turn to a nearby but softer target.

In his memoirs Knights under the Prophet’s Banner: Meditations on the Jihadist Movement, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri observed:
The problem of finding a secure base for jihad activity in Egypt used to occupy me a lot, in view of the [activity against us] by the security forces and because of Egypt’s flat terrain, which made government control easy, for the River Nile runs in its narrow valley between two deserts that have no vegetation or water. Such a terrain made guerilla warfare in Egypt impossible…
Because of the difficulties in overthrowing the Egyptian government, Zawahiri and many other Egyptian Islamists moved to Afghanistan where they coalesced around Osama bin Laden and his nascent al-Qaeda movement, and helped turn al-Qaeda’s focus to the backer of the corrupt Arab regimes – the United States.

Now, in Gaza, the enemies of the Egyptian regime finally have the secure base they have long sought. There are reports of Palestinian terror cells affiliating with al-Qaeda as well as international “volunteers” filtering in. However, al-Qaeda is not the gravest Gaza-based threat to Egypt. Hamas itself has proven to be a formidable organization. The destruction of the Gaza barrier was a formidable technical achievement that required months of careful preparation. But the political preparation was also carefully managed. Hamas successfully advanced its story of deprivation at the hands of an Israeli blockade (in fact, Israel consistently allowed necessities through and only cut off fuel in response to a barrage of rocket attacks). But Hamas also provoked a border incident with the Egyptian border police earlier in the week. In the incident they used a tactic that they had often used against Israel, fomenting a riot and then shooting from among the mob. The Israelis developed counter-measures (particularly snipers), but as this video shows the Egyptians did not.

These images, broadcast live on al-Jazeera, helped inspire large-scale demonstrations orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which has close relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza (which is better known as Hamas.)

Although the Egyptian government insists it will restore order on the border, the fact that another section of the wall has been destroyed since, makes this unlikely. Egypt was outmaneuvered by Hamas and does not have the stomach for a real crackdown if it also means confronting its domestic Islamist opposition. Mubarak is paying the price for his long double game of Islamists at home and abroad.

Hamas however is also a key component of the Hezbollah-Iran-Syria-Hamas axis (helpfully dubbed HISH by Barry Rubin). Iran and Hezbollah link with Hamas are deep and extensive. They have trained together; their leaderships are in regular contact and Hezbollah personnel have operated in Gaza for several years. In addition, Iran has established a network of hospitals in the West Bank.

Certainly the terrorist threat to Israel will increase. Imported rockets can reach Ashkelon, an important Israeli port and industrial center. While Gaza has been a poor base for suicide bombs against Israel, Israeli security is now worried about suicide attacks from Gaza entering Israel via the Sinai. However, as serious as these threats are, they can be contained.

However, a new base of operations against Egypt could have vast geopolitical implications. Egypt has a fragile economy, frustrated populace with a large Islamist movement, and an aging leadership. There have already been terror attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula with Gaza links. Even if the regime is not overthrown, HISH will acquire substantial leverage over Egypt, and further the penetration of radical Islam into the largest Arab state, while acquiring a staging ground into the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

FARC chief calls for a General Offensive in 2008

When OBL or his sidekick Ayman Zawahiri sneeze the world media leaps to broadcast it. Yet, a long-standing terrorist chief with a world spanning network calls for a "General Offensive" and it barely makes the wire services.

FARC chief, Manuel Marulanda Velez, in his year end message, called for a General Offensive in 2008. This seems as though it ought to be significant. FARC has formidable capabilities and international links through its criminal activities. And, it has a record of violence - having killed thousands in Colombia's ongoing civil war.

This should also raise questions about FARC's intentions in light of the sputtering hostage negotiations. Certainly, efforts should be made to free the long-suffering FARC hostages. But the FARC's insistence on a demilitarized zone is troubling. By many measures the FARC is in decline, with large numbers of defections, loss of ideological enthusiasm, and some serious command and control problems. These problems were exemplified by some of their mis-steps during the recent round of hostage releases - such as embarrassing their ally Hugo Chavez and not knowing the location of hostage Clare Rojas' child. (The full story of this tragic chapter has not come out, but while the FARC portrays itself as egalitarian organization the actual treatment of its female cadres rarely approaches their propaganda.)

The antidote to FARC's malaise is a large demilitarized zone where the officers can engage and train (this is how they used the large demilitarized zone they were granted during the peace process from 1998-2002. Colombia, is a massive country, 440,831 sq miles (more than 2.5 times as large as Iraq). Most of the population lives in the cities, affording the FARC plenty of places to hide in the rough terrain that characterizes the countryside. However this asset is also a curse - it can make bringing the cadres together for functions that must be done in person (such as training and indoctrination.)

Marulanda's statement follows:
24 December 2007

Comrades in the Secretariat, Members of the Main Staff, Staffs of Blocs and Fronts, Commanders, the Bolivarian Movement for the New Colombia, Urban Networks, the Clandestine Communist Party, Guerrillas, and the people organized for the defense of Colombia's interests:

I send you my cordial revolutionary and Christmas greetings and wish you much success in the struggle for power. I also want to tell you the following:

In taking stock of the political and military actions in 2007 and in early 2008, I hope that the results are gratifying to the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] collective and to the masses on this historic date, when the Colombian family used to celebrate Christmas together by looking towards the future. Today that family is fractured, with some guerrillas in the jungle, others displaced, others exiled, and still others harassed by the violence of the State with the support of the Armed Forces led by the High Military Commands who are tied in to the paramilitary movement, sowing terror throughout the country and preventing opinions from being exchanged about the defense of their interests.

The wealthy are celebrating the successes of their rulers in defense of big domestic and foreign capital and are charting a new political and military strategy to remain in power and pitilessly exploit wage earners by utilizing the State's tools of terror and violence to prevent progressive, democratic changes towards the building of a New Government legally elected by the people without electoral fraud or paramilitarism.

Amid their anguish over economic hardship, unemployment, lack of housing and health care, and violence, the poor deplore their rulers' inability and lack of interest in meeting their chief needs and improving living conditions in the country today, where there is money only for war and Congress, linked to the paramilitaries-politicians, but not to meet the needs of the Colombian people. The people thus have no choice but to fight without distinction as to their politics alongside the grassroots mass organizations to achieve fundamental sociopolitical change, with the political and military support of the FARC, amid both favorable and unfavorable circumstances, against the class enemy, which is directed by the oligarchy in the person of President Uribe and some of the paramilitary generals, supported by the United States, an intervention that we must reject in all public and private forums.

I place special emphasis on the need to motivate the masses to fight for the Humanitarian Exchange so that guerrillas do not continue dying in jail, where there are being charged with trafficking and terrorism, and in the jungle. We must bear in mind that if President Uribe had demilitarized Florida and Pradera, the problem would have been solved years ago; nothing would have been lost, and we would have all gained.

Most of the mayors, council members, deputies, and governors who were elected on 12 October 2007 are tainted by electoral fraud, bribery, and paramilitary politics. It is thus clear how we must act in the face of the various political currents represented by the Uribe faction, the Liberal Party, Alternative Pole, and the independents, who all identify with each other, so that we do not go wrong in our political assessments and revolutionary action against the common enemy, as established in the conclusions of the Higher Organizations.

The FARC communiqué setting forth our position on the Government's offer of territory in the jungle for the Exchange ultimately became a time bomb that has succeeded in crossing borders. This has put Uribe in an uncomfortable position, because it has become impossible to prevent the FARC from playing a prominent role and even, very soon, from being recognized by a few Governments as a revolutionary movement that has taken up arms against the Uribe regime, which does not want peace for Colombia. At the same time, there are demonstrations almost all over the country, demanding that the authorities seek a political solution to the social and armed conflict with the FARC insurgency.

I think that it is essential to lay bare the lies that Uribe is telling over the print and electronic mass media, to the effect that his Government has achieved successes against the FARC, claiming that it has killed 8,000 guerrillas and dismantled 20 fronts. We have to ask where the Generals, the President, and the Commissioner have gotten such detailed statistics. The purpose of such news stories is to distract public opinion with falsified data to defend "democratic security" so that they can continue asking for economic and military support from the United States under the pretext of combating terrorism and narcotics trafficking. The purpose of the Government's touting of its military victories over the FARC in magazines, newspapers, and radio is to conceal the actual failure of the "Patriot Plan" and, in so doing, to deceive public opinion. In the same way, they have claimed that every mass rally has been in support of "democratic security" and of "no to the demilitarization" of Florida and Pradera for the Humanitarian Accord. They have not said, however, that the conflict has not had a high cost in terms of people wounded and killed, as the magazine Poder reported in its article entitled "Gerencia para la guerra" [Managing the War].

The best Christmas present for the FARC, as we take stock, would unquestionably be rapid growth in manpower and organization in the countryside and city. To accomplish this we must use various forms of action, rallies for very specific purposes, demands for peace from the State, the defense of human rights, civic work stoppages, denunciations of massacres and official abuses to the appropriate national and international organizations, etc. To this end, FARC cadres are obliged to guide the mass organizations under their leadership in the struggle for their real political, economic, and social grievances and for sovereignty, all of which are just as essential as armed FARC actions along roads and highways and in the jungle, urban centers, villages, and barracks, giving the enemy no respite, just as they have worked out their ongoing strategy against us in order to prolong the revolutionary process in Colombia, because like it or not, the political and armed triumph is part of the struggle that the people are waging in defense of their class interests.

The five years of battling the Patriot Plan have been like a school in which FARC commanders and guerrillas have learned how the enemy moves and operates day and night with its reconnaissance aircraft, bombers, helicopters, balloons, and satellites, as well as with its intelligence agents, infiltrators, collaborators, and economic blockades of the civilian population. As a result, we too are able to plan major actions for mobile troops in the jungle, along roads, or in villages without much immediate protection. We should take advantage of the general crisis through which the Government is going and the weariness that some military units have shown in order to begin laying the groundwork for organizing a general offensive.

We will see how the military commands are going to respond to President Uribe when he claims to have defeated guerrillas who are without resources, sick, and with only roots left to eat.

President Uribe's "nonnegotiable conditions" are just some of the many pretexts that certain generals have in their heads for preventing the Humanitarian Exchange and prosecuting the war against people who are discontent because of the appalling living conditions to which they have been subjected. We must bear in mind that all laws and constitutions in any country can be amended in accordance with the particular circumstances in which it finds itself and on the basis of political, economic, social, cultural, and sovereignty-related realities. The rulers are obliged to allow changes in favor of the ruled who have elected them. Otherwise, the people are the ones who must bring about the changes called for in the FARC platform and manifesto, along with other documents, regardless of the whims of Congress and the Administration. They are the ones who refuse to accept the present realities in Colombia, amid mass mobilizations and political currents with some degree of organization and awareness, with proposals for achieving peace, which are running up against the obstacle of the "nonnegotiable conditions" through which the Government is struggling against the tide, using the Public Force for that purpose, with no results for the public to see.

In conclusion, we cannot allow this Christmas Day to pass without remembering all of the comrades who have been killed by enemy action, Acacio, Martin Caballero, and so many others who have battled Uribe's oppressive system. In addition, I would like to send my most heartfelt condolences to their relatives and friends, as we pay homage to those who have given their lives for the revolutionary cause of the people.

Having said all this, I want to express my appreciation for your love of the cause. Onward to victory. A firm handshake.

On behalf of the Secretariat,

Manuel Marulanda Velez