The Byzantine rivalries and long memories of the Middle East assure that any shot fired in anger will reverberate through the decades.The current crisis in Libya is itself an echo of past intrigues, of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s attempts to assassinate Saudi royalty, export violent revolution, and spill the blood of hundreds of Westerners in old terrorist plots.
With the Obama administration calling for Qaddafi’s departure and pulling the trigger once again in the Middle East through Operation Odyssey Dawn, however, it’s worth recalling that the United States’ own military actions in the region have often ricocheted disastrously. There’s a reason U.S. ground forces are still mired in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade after 9/11. Too often in the past, policymakers and military planners have failed to adequately answer a deceptively simple question before engineering a tyrant’s fall: “What happens next?”
As it continues to tighten the noose on the Libyan strongman and consider the future of a post-Qaddafi Libya, the Obama administration will find its ability to shape events hamstrung by the same drawbacks already evident in Odyssey Dawn: a barely passing acquaintance with Libyan rebels; rapidly deteriorating Arab support for continued military action; and the minimalist approach adopted by an essentially leaderless Western coalition.
Even if Qaddafi departs the scene, the cumulative impact of those shortcomings could foreshadow a prolonged period of instability and violent insurgency that ultimately threatens to split Libya.
“If you go down the list of insurgencies throughout history and catalogue the factors that precipitated them, virtually every one is in play in Libya today,” Steven Metz, a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, told National Journal. “So it’s difficult for me to imagine a scenario where this conflict doesn’t drag on and produce a persistent insurgency.”
The ingredients in that witche's brew include two passionately committed forces with irreconcilable goals; a country awash in arms and young men willing to use them; wide swaths of ungoverned space that could host insurgent bases; a geographic divide in political and religious culture between east and west and between competing tribes; and a history of persistent insurgencies and their enablers in North Africa and the Western Sahara.
“Now that the rebels have the military backing of the international community, they don’t think they can lose, so they have no reason to compromise,” Metz said. “Qaddafi is psychologically incapable of compromising, and the cult of personality he has nurtured for decades has produced significant numbers of true believers. Even if Qaddafi is overthrown or departs, he thus leaves behind loyalists and favored tribes with major grievances.”
WHO ARE THOSE GUYS?
Administration officials stress that in their recent discussions with leaders of the Libyan National Council, the umbrella group for the Libyan rebellion, its representatives have said all the right things. The council has tried to rally disparate tribal groups from different parts of Libya, for instance, behind the goal of a “democratic civil state based on the rule of law.”
“Council leaders have told us they are committed to a secular future for Libya, and are mindful of human rights and the dangers of Islamist radicals trying to take advantage of the current violence,” a senior administration official said. “While we continue to be in contact with the council, however, we don’t pretend to have a perfect picture of the Libyan opposition. Qaddafi deliberately constructed a very opaque society over more than four decades. So we will continue to expand our range of contacts with the opposition and monitor that the council remains committed to reasonable goals.”
The Libyan National Council may well aspire to the same pluralistic ideals as other democratic movements roiling the Middle East. Yet there is also ample reason for caution. U.S. officials also found common cause in arming the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviets in the 1980s, only to discover much later they were the antecedent to al-Qaida.
Paul Pillar is the former top Middle East analyst with the CIA. “We don’t know a lot about the Libyan opposition, but what we do know is cause enough for concern. We know that there are a significant number of radical Islamists in Libya, for instance, and that they constituted the main opposition to Qaddafi in recent years. We know that Libyans are disproportionately represented in transnational terrorist organizations to include al-Qaida,” said Pillar, currently the head of Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. “And we know that there has been historic friction in Libya along the divide between Cyrenaica in the east, which is the home base of the opposition, and Qaddafi’s stronghold in Tripolitania in the west, and that those tensions have a significant tribal dimension.”