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« Finally bought the boat | Main | How Russia will matter beyond energy and minerals »
9:17AM

Arming the Libyan rebels

NYT coverage of the debate in Washington about whether or not to arm the rebels.

Right up to this point, everything I've ever come across or anyone I've ever spoken with has said there are only trace amounts of al-Qaeda affiliated elements in Libya.  Now, of all a sudden, people are talking like maybe it's majority AQ, which strikes me as nonsense. Piece here quotes Mr. Terror Blurb himself, Bruce Reidel, saying it could be 2% or 80% - we don't know.  Frankly, again, slapping that level of SWAG on our understanding seems silly.

We know this:  plenty of Libyans showed up as fly-in jihadists in Iraq during the civil war period there, meaning they mixed it up with AQ then.  Does that make them AQ forever?  It certainly makes them opportunists.  All it really tells me is that there's an underemployed class of young men in Libya who, in the absence of other opportunities, will go where the fight is.  Nothing unique there.  

There's also al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but that group has frankly struggled to be taken seriously as a force, as it's mostly a relabeling of an existing group that was going nowhere (bigger the territory in the title, more likely, in my mind, that it's not exactly succeeding anywhere). Up to now, no one has portrayed that group as Libyan-centric.  Yes, they will show up, but that's standard.  The reality, as noted in the piece, is that you have to train on what you provide, so we'll have people on the ground (besides the CIA already there).  If things go really sour, then we burn that bridge when we come to it.  But this is not a logical showstopper.  A Libyan long divided in two and suffering civil conflict will do the same - or far better - for AQIM than a concerted arms push to dethrone the guy.  So, again, factor them in as the cost of doing any sort of business here, but do not elevate them into the decision-tilting bogeyman, because they're not, and speculating in the press doesn't make them so.

So telling me that there are "flickers" (ADM Stavridis' term) doesn't exactly make me hesitate all that much. And raising the specter of Bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s likewise doesn't do a whole lot, because it's not like that experience changed his goals or hatreds one bit in the end (Run the counterfactual and we don't supply the mujuahideen.  Is Bin Laden now our friend and non-terrorist?).  What arms his early AQ people obtained from us were also not exactly used against us, and given all the other arms we sell in this world (half the world's total), citing this "into the hands of AQ" danger is likewise a bit much.  AQ doesn't have a hard time buying small arms.

I'm not saying that all the usual dangers do not apply, because they most certainly do.  I'm just saying that layering on this additional fear factor about "arming al-Qaeda" is a red herring and - by all accounts until suddenly this week - an uninformed one.  I'm prepared to have my mind changed, but let's see the evidence of AQ running that rebel show.  If Mr. Reidel wants to propose an 80% infiltration of the rebel ranks, he should back it up or stop throwing unsubstantiated fears out there.

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Reader Comments (5)

What Bruce Riedel said was we don’t know what percentage of the Libyan rebels adheres to the ideology of al Qaeda or the Global Jihad. Riedel gave an honest answer based on the fact that the U.S. does not know much about the Libyan rebels.

April 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRick Wright

Worst AQ-related case: Libya turns into another Afghanistan. The good news is it's a heluva lot more accessible, particularly by Europeans. So I'd expect to see a repeat of the initial campaign that toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan, with a lot more European participation, and then it becomes their home-boy problem. I suspect the AQ-inspired leadership would have its hands full just governing the country, particularly in the absence of any oil income.

My biggest fear is a de-facto partitioning with a long and bloody civil war and no clear winner. NATO would have to sustain a fairly long no-fly zone/counter armor/counter artillery campaign, but again I expect that to be led by and sustained by the European countries in response to the threat of substantial refugees trying to flee to Italy, France and Spain.

April 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Emery

Nothing new. Have our folks read of T.E. Lawrence's experience, Rudyard Kipling's insight and advice to British & US, and (all) the results of Charlie Wilson's War.

No simple answers. Just think ahead and monitor results.

April 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlouis heberlein

No comparison to Afghanistan, neither geographically or tribally.

In Libya, you are dealing with several tribal groups who, basically are fighting among themselves on a sand table.

In Afghanistan it's the world against the Pashtun in "extreme" mountainous areas . . and the Pashtun are still winning . .

As for "Arming the Rebels'? based upon the current reports and videos, they have the arms, they need some knowledge about their use . .

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Largent

The Libya and other Arab cultures have similar cultural traits and historical insights to Afghan and other Central Asian groups. Marco Polo's story is of interest because the Mongolian Khan was trying to unify a vast region of different Chinese and Asian tribal groups that focused only on their local advantages for farm/river segments, and the ability to exploit transient international trade activities. There was no culture of unified national values. The Khan selected Polo as an advisor because he came from a European culture that was just returning from its Dark Age of continuous local conflicts, and learning to value national and regional partnerships with joint benefits. Polo worked with different tribal areas, then recommended to Khan those individuals that could best 'get' the new culture concepts. He often recommended that they be assigned to tribal communities somewhat similar to theirs, but without family ties ... so those ties could not be used to stifle nationalist actions of the Khan representative.

It is interesting to note that when Marco Polo returned to Europe he was at first sidelined because the political/business establishments of his time could not see practical European value in Asian modernization. Back in Asia, the Khan lost influence when he was talked into trying to curb the emerging power of Japan, lost ships to extraordinary weather circumstances, and was followed by military oriented Khans who just focused of putting down tribal brushfires.

So, does this generation know enough history to learn the current problem cultural/psychological patterns? The latest media pitch is that social networks can trump everything ... but what really are the insights for we think Libya and other regional folks should grasp and value?

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlouis heberlein

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