As the Obama administration struggles to decide whether to intervene in Libya’s escalating political violence, a trove of once-secret documents from the bloodiest days of the Iraq War offer a cautionary tale about the dangers of forging alliances with rebels whose true beliefs—and intentions for their country—remain unknown.
The Iraq files, known as the “Sinjar documents,” suggest that U.S. policymakers should move slowly when it comes to deciding whether to ally the U.S. with rebels who hail from a pair of Libyan cities which have long been linked to Islamic militants—and which sent disproportionate numbers of young men to fight and die in Iraq.
An analysis of the documents by the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center found that Libya sent more fighters to Iraq on a per-capita basis than any other Muslim country, including Saudi Arabia. Perhaps more alarmingly for Western policymakers, most of the fighters came from eastern Libya, the center of the current uprising against Muammar el-Qaddafi.
“Libyans were more fired up to travel to Iraq to kill Americans than anyone else in the Arabic-speaking world,” Andrew Exum, a counterinsurgency specialist and former Army Ranger noted in a blog posting on Thursday. “This might explain why those rebels from Libya's eastern provinces are not too excited about U.S. military intervention. It might also give some pause to those in the United States so eager to arm Libya's rebels.”
The eastern Libyan city of Darnah, for instance, sent more fighters to Iraq than any other single city or town, according to the West Point report. It noted that 52 militants came to Iraq from Darnah, a city of just 80,000 people (the second-largest source of fighters was Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which has a population of more than 4 million). Benghazi, the capital of Libya’s emerging provisional government, sent in 21 fighters, again a disproportionate number of the whole.
“Both Darnah and Benghazi have long been associated with Islamic militancy in Libya,” the report said.
Today, the cities are known for being the center of the escalating showdown between forces loyal to Qaddafi and the rag-tag rebels working to violently unseat him.
The rebels achieved some significant diplomatic gains this week and may be poised for even greater success in the days to come. On Thursday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed a pair of envoys from the Libyan National Council, the rebel leadership, and said France would soon become the first country in the world to recognize them as the legitimate government of Libya. Britain has signaled that it may also recognize the rebels as Libya’s new rulers, a move that would put enormous pressure on the Obama administration to follow suit.
The rebels have stepped up their efforts to win international recognition, in large part because that would make it easier for them to gain access to the tens of billions of dollars that Qaddafi is believed to have squirreled away in overseas accounts during his decades-long rule. The diplomatic progress comes as forces loyal to Qaddafi continue to batter rebel-held towns and positions, with some international observers suggesting that the insurgents are slowly losing ground.
The escalating violence in Libya is prompting lawmakers from both parties to urge the Obama administration to implement a no-fly zone, institute a strict arms embargo on Qaddafi’s forces, or provide weaponry and other assistance to the rebels. White House officials say all options are on the table, including such forms of military intervention, but have made clear they don’t want to move forward without express authorization from the United Nations Security Council.
The once-secret Iraqi “Sinjar documents” provide an additional reason for the Obama administration to take a cautious approach in its dealings with the rebels from both Darnah and Benghazi. It noted that Islamist organizations in both cities led an earlier uprising against Qaddafi in the mid-1990s that was brutally put down by the Libyan dictator.
“Qadhafi used helicopter gunships in Benghazi, cut telephone, electricity, and water supplies to Darnah and famously claimed that the militants ‘deserve to die without trial, like dogs,’ ” the report noted.
Reports from the ground in Libya suggest that Islamic groups in eastern Libya are working closely with secular rebels in the fight against Qaddafi and have made no effort to take control of the situation or impose strict Islamic law in the areas they control. Still, the Obama administration is right to say that the United States knows relatively little about who’s calling the shots within the rebel leadership now—and who may do so in the future if the groups gain control of the rest of the country. With so much uncertainty, a cautious approach may well turn to be the correct one.