US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's flight path from Tripoli to Kabul this week should have given the US administration some reason to reflect on how to ensure that the US' mistakes in Afghanistan are not repeated in Libya.
Those missteps began, as US officials now concede, not in October 2001 after the 9/11 attacks but in 1980, when America with Pakistan's help raised the Mujahideen to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. The motivation for that operation, as the one in Libya, may have had its roots in the world's 'best interests.' Even so, as in Afghanistan, the West's recent intervention in WANA (West Asia-North Africa) has the potential for disaster in the longer term.
Brushing aside the means
To begin with, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) actions in Libya completely contravened any mandate given by the United Nations Security Council, or request made by the Arab League. In a matter of weeks, a resolution authorising the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya was turned into Mission 'Get Gaddafi.' In the course of 'Operation Creep,' as it came to be known, NATO bombers did not just defend rebel positions, they actively destroyed Muammar Gaddafi's troops and their armoury, ensuring the recapture of towns such as Misrata and Zawiyah more than once. To start with, as in 1980 in Afghanistan, the support was essentially monetary, with countries such as Turkey and Egypt helping fund the resistance in Benghazi. Next, MI-6 and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives moved in to train National Transitional Council (NTC) troops, and to provide ground intelligence for NATO air strikes.
Finally in August, when it seemed like a stalemate and Gaddafi remained in control of Tripoli, the US authorised the doubling of drone missions, and that enabled the fall of the Libyan capital. In September, with Gaddafi on the run but still in control of several towns, the British Royal Air Force carried out its biggest air-raid, sending formations of RAF Tornado GR4s equipped with Brimstone missiles to 20 separate targets, to capture towns such as Sebha. Finally, it was predator strikes and French jet bombings on Gaddafi's convoy just outside Sirte that led to the capture and killing of the former dictator.
In the seven months and 26,000 air missions that it took for Operation Libya to be completed, NATO turned a blind eye to the means used for its ends - whether that meant bombing civilian areas, or ignoring reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that rebel soldiers were perpetrating human rights abuses on towns supporting Gaddafi. But the really surprising brush-aside has been to concerns that the rebel forces included Islamic radical groups such as the al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), defeated by Gaddafi in the past. Very little attention was paid to the situation when the NTC's commander, General Abdel Fatteh Younes, was assassinated by radical militiamen. But the obvious gainer was Abdel Hakim Belhaj. He is now the commander of the NTC, and many al-Qaeda watchers were aghast when they saw him lead the rebels into Tripoli. After all, Belhaj was the head of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that he started from Pakistan while serving with the Mujahideen against the Soviets. He built the LIFG fighting alongside the Iraqi al-Qaeda two decades later. In 2003 Belhaj was captured by the CIA, and in 2004 he was transferred to a Libyan prison as a gift from the US to Gaddafi. The curious turn of events this year that saw NATO troops training men who had spent the past 30 years fighting for al-Qaeda is a cause for worry. More curious is the tone of the NTC's statements (not unlike the Mujahideen and then the Taliban of the late-1980s) promising the full application of Shariah law in Libya, while Belhaj demanded in an article in The Guardian last month that the "Islamists must be allowed to share power."
Already that shift in power in Libya is having an impact on the neighbouring countries.
This September, the American West point journal CTC Sentinel noted with alarm that "the AQIM is back in full force in Algeria," with a string of deadly bombings over the preceding two months, encouraged by the fall of Gaddafi next door. A fresh wave of attacks by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabab group in Somalia forced gun battles with Kenyan forces inside Somalia last week.
Message to radicalists
For South Asia, the events of 2011, and the US' actions in WANA, hold much meaning too. To begin with, it is the dual message that Washington is sending out on Islamist radical groups. Ms Clinton landed in Islamabad this week shortly after Pakistan had witnessed its 300th drone strike aimed at Taliban-backed groups, and had pressed for more action against them. Yet in Libya, and increasingly in Syria, the US has been seen to be backing armed Islamists against the regime. While no tears may be shed for Gaddafi, and few support President Assad's actions, many here wonder if the two policies can co-exist.
The second message has been the manner in which the US, the U.K. and France have reversed positions on leaders after the Arab Spring. The 360 turn on Gaddafi, and the sudden withdrawal of support to Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, must have been noted by other leaders like President Hamid Karzai, leading to a greater sense of insecurity in the subcontinent.
Perhaps the most disturbing message is that the possession of a nuclear weapon seems the only way to ensure immunity from Western strikes. There is little doubt that had Gaddafi not abandoned his nuclear programme in 2004, the NATO forces would not have struck as they did. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani put that message bluntly when he said this week that the US would think "10 times before striking Pakistan, a nuclear power unlike Iraq and Afghanistan." That message has probably been received not just in Islamabad but also in Tehran, as well as in Yangon-Naypyidaw, where US officials say they have detected incipient signs of a nuclear programme aided by North Korea.
Those in the US administration who have justified their actions as purely humanitarian and democratic initiatives would do well to study if other such problematic, albeit unintended, messages have gone out to autocrats and dictatorial regimes around the world.
For the US, there is even more to think about. A recent WikiLeak-ed report says US President Barack Obama wanted to apologise to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during a trip to Japan in 2009. His key advisers have often admitted that the 2003 War in Iraq was wrong. Both Hillary Clinton and Admiral Mike Mullen have in recent interviews acknowledged that arming the Mujahideen with the help of Pakistan in the 1980s and then pulling out of the region, led to the problems the US faces today in Afghanistan. Such acknowledgments are signs of introspection, that is welcome and important for a world power of the US' stature. But the only real mistakes, it is said, are the ones you don't learn from.
(The column appeared in The Hindu on October 22, 2011)