Haunted by the Ghosts of Afghanistan, Libya Asks NATO to Stay On

  • Share
  • Read Later

Libyan revolutionary fighters returning from Sirte are welcomed in Benghazi, Libya, Oct. 22, 2011. (Photo: Francois Mori / AP)

The request by Libya’s Transitional National Council for NATO to continue its military mission in the country despite the overthrow and slaying of Col. Muammar Gaddafi is a reminder that Libya may have some things in common with Afghanistan circa January 2002. There, the Taliban had been routed and driven out of power by a NATO-enabled indigenous opposition (the Northern Alliance), and a new government — under President Hamid Karzai — had been put in place, recognized by the international community before its legitimacy and support had been established through any indigenous political process. The number of foreign troops in the country was small, and what lay ahead was the challenge of reconstruction, building a new state from scratch on the ruins of one that had long-since collapsed.

The Taliban, of course, had been scattered and its leaders driven into exile, but with the support of Pakistan, whose interests it had been created partly to serve, it regrouped over the next four years — and reemerged as an insurgent force that looks increasingly likely to force the U.S. and Karzai into a compromise political settlement.

The TNC, recognized as Libya’s government by the international community before its legitimacy on the ground has been clearly established, clearly recognizes the insurgent danger: Its leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalili called on NATO to continue its mission at least until the end of this year to protect Libya’s revolution against Gaddafi loyalists. (The Alliance will decide on the issue on Friday.) The TNC is clearly aware that while the regime may have been decapitated, there were many thousands of Libyans willing to fight for it — and even more civilians supporting them. Even though most of the dictator’s inner circle have been killed or captured, there have been a number of signs of continuing resistance. And Iraq proved that if those who benefited from the old regime are not given a stake in the new order, many of them fight on even if their erstwhile leaders are dead. 

(PHOTOS: Libyans celebrate Gaddafi’s demise.)

The not insubstantial number of Libyan civilians that supported the regime or remained ambivalent towards the rebellion remain in play, and the conduct of some rebel formations — like the brigade from Misrata that played a key role in capturing Sirte and killing Gaddafi, but who have also been accused in massacres, wanton destruction and pillage in the city — could potentially further alienate them from the new order.

There are too many differences between Libya and Afghanistan to draw easy parallels: It’s difficult to even compare a relatively well educated oil-rich, ex-dictatorship on the Mediterranean littoral with one of the world’s poorest countries, a hard and mountainous land whose main export is heroin,  with no tradition of a strong central government and where localized warlordism being the predominant form of authority on the ground.

Still, one or two features Libya shares with the Afghan situation in early 2002 are worth noting. In particular, there’s a disconnect between the new government and those who did most of the actual fighting to remove the old one. Karzai may have been the face of the new regime, but his power was largely dependent on the Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara warlords of the Northern Alliance. And the power game in Afghanistan has been about managing the diverse and competing interests of the provincial ethnic and tribal warlords in the anti-Taliban camp, a time-honored politics of patronage — with the Taliban insurgency taking advantage of the failures and mistakes of the new government.

Like Karzai, when it comes to military force, Libya’s TNC and Jalili appear to be largely dependent on the kindness of others: NATO’s air forces and intelligence resources, of course, and the hundreds of Qatari special forces troopsnow revealed to have been in the thick of the fighting on a number of fronts. But many of the key indigenous forces in toppling Gaddafi have been the Islamist and regional militias that have yet to bend the knee to the political leadership of the TNC.

By one measure, in fact, Afghanistan in January 2002 was more stable than Libya is right now — the Northern Alliance formations that seized Kabul and other key cities from the Taliban were disciplined military units whose structure and chain of command had been forged over two decades or in the field, fighting first the Soviets, then rival mujahedeen warlords, and finally the Taliban. Libya’s rebel military units, by contrast, have existed for a matter of months, and the complaints even from fellow rebel fighters about the conduct of some of those from Misrata that have been in the forefront of the rebel campaign may be a warning sign of problems to come.

(VIDEO: In Tripoli, supporters express their love for Gaddafi.)

Even without the threat of an old-regime insurgency, however, Libya faces a massive security problem — one that may be more reminiscent of Afghanistan in 1992 than in 2002. Right now, there’s no established monopoly of force in Libya, i.e. no central state. The rebellion has been waged by a patchwork of fighting units with localized command structures and a sometimes tenuous connection with the TNC — they were discrete local armies who “coordinated” their efforts, rather than a single rebel army with a unified chain of command.

The TNC faces an epic challenge in disarming these freewheeling militias and creating a single set of security forces with a single chain of command, incorporating elements of the regular army that had not been among the elite forces on which the Gaddafis relied to suppress the rebellion. And this in a country awash with weapons looted from government armories, and potentially facing a stubborn insurgency.

Some saw the heavily Islamist tone of Jalili’s speech last Saturday declaring victory as an outreach to the militias designed to bolster his appeal for their disarmament and subordination to central authority.

The Afghanistan 1992 scenario is even more dangerous than the 2002 one, of course: In the latter, the threat is allowing an insurgency to take root; in the former, the forces that had fought in coordination with one another to oust a hated enemy turned on one another once he fell. In 1992, Kabul’s Soviet-backed regime had finally surrendered to the mujahedeen rebels — a loose assemblage of distinct and diverse militias based in different locales and coordinating their efforts. Efforts to establish a functioning post-Soviet government were negated by the increasingly vicious power struggle among rival mujahedeen commanders, that saw years of bloody fighting in and around the capital, devastating the lives of many thousands of innocents.

(PHOTOS: Afghanistan, glimpses of a long distance war, 1988-2009.)

It was into this terrifying void that the Taliban stepped in 1996, sweeping across the country from Pakistan where it had been founded in the refugee camps to seize power in Kabul — with the support of much of the long-suffering population, who initially hailed them as the force that would bring an end to the chaos. Needless to say, the Taliban brought a different type of chaos to which most Afghans were happy to see ended five years later.

But Libya’s leadership appear to be well aware of the perils that face their efforts to knit together a new state in the wake of Gaddafi’s violent collapse. And curiously enough, as Omar Ashour has noted none more so than many of the senior fighters in the Islamist militias — after all, many of them did jihad duty in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and got a firsthand look at the brutal consequences of fratricidal war among those who had once fought on the same side. It’s not an experience they want to repeat in their own country.

(MORE: After Gaddafi’s death, has Third World solidarity died with him?)