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Tomgram: Nick Turse, The Pentagon, Libya, and Tomorrow's Blowback Today

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

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Be careful what you wish for.  In 2011, a Libyan rebellion began against autocrat Muammar Gaddafi.  It undoubtedly reflected the wish of many Libyans for a new world of their own without his heavy hand or that of his secret police and secret prisons. Wishing to be rid of a ruler long seen as a nemesis, Washington, in tandem with its NATO allies, joined the fray at a moment when it looked like the rebels might otherwise be going down. Without consulting Congress, and so of course without a declaration of war, President Obama brought in the planes, drones, and Tomahawk missiles. Air power certainly helped turned the tide and then hasten the fall of the autocrat.  Only one problem: what came next.

The aftermath proved to be a slowly devolving Libyan nightmare filled with militias of every sort, including jihadist ones. The results have been grim, including of course the death of a U.S. ambassador. In the meantime, weaponry from Gaddafi's looted arsenals, ranging from modern assault rifles to antitank weapons and even shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, soon began spreading to Mali, elsewhere in North Africa, and later as far as Egypt and Syria, as well as into the hands of "extremists and criminals." The result has been a regional boost for exactly the jihadist forces the U.S. opposes most fervently, while for Libyans, it was the saddest story of all.  A recent poll indicates that, with a desperately weak central government and marauding militias, "more than one-third of Libyans report feeling unsafe going to the market, school, or work," while 40% of women feel that way simply leaving their houses heading anywhere.  In response, Libya has been transformed into a gun-toting society, with firearms in nearly 30% of Libyan homes (though, according to that same poll, most Libyans "would happily give up their arms in an environment of a well functioning military and police and with an improvement in general security").

Given the unsettling results of the 2011 intervention thus far, you might imagine that Washington and the Pentagon would think twice about what in the world to do next and perhaps adjust their approach. As events of the twenty-first century have made all too clear, however, there is no genuine learning curve in Washington when it comes to such things.  The only response is always, in some fashion, more of the similar, if not the same. Today, Nick Turse explores a new Pentagon scheme to train up a force whose Libyan recruits will be drawn from already existing and often notorious militias as a supposed future bulwark for the weak central government. It's one of those plans that may sound sensible in Pentagon briefings but has "cockamamie" written all over it.  It practically comes with a bound-to-fail guarantee stamped on it and an assurance that it will increase the misery of Libyans.  Writ small, it seems to go to the heart of the distinctly underreported U.S. pivot to Africa which, as Turse has so vividly and repeatedly shown, is proving to be largely a machine for destabilizing the continent, stoking extremism, and creating the conditions for blowback. Of course, given the way Washington thinks, those results offer a guarantee of their own: a self-perpetuating employment program for the U.S. military into the distant future. Tom

Washington Fights Fire With Fire in Libya 
How Not to End Violence in a War-Torn Land 
By Nick Turse

Is the U.S. secretly training Libyan militiamen in the Canary Islands? And if not, are they planning to?

That's what I asked a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). "I am surprised by your mentioning the Canary Islands," he responded by email.  "I have not heard this before, and wonder where you heard this."

As it happens, mention of this shadowy mission on the Spanish archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa was revealed in an official briefing prepared for AFRICOM chief General David Rodriguez in the fall of 2013.  In the months since, the plan may have been permanently shelved in favor of a training mission carried out entirely in Bulgaria.  The document nonetheless highlights the U.S. military's penchant for simple solutions to complex problems -- with a well-documented potential for blowback in Africa and beyond.  It also raises serious questions about the recurring methods employed by the U.S. to stop the violence its actions helped spark in the first place.   

Ever since the U.S. helped oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi, with air and missile strikes against regime targets and major logistical and surveillance support to coalition partners, Libya has been sliding into increasing chaos.  Militias, some of them jihadist, have sprung up across the country, carving out fiefdoms while carrying out increasing numbers of assassinations and other types of attacks.  The solution seized upon by the U.S. and its allies in response to the devolving situation there: introduce yet another armed group into a country already rife with them.    

The Rise of the Militias

After Gaddafi's fall in 2011, a wide range of militias came to dominate Libya's largest cities, filling a security vacuum left by the collapse of the old regime and providing a challenge to the new central government.  In Benghazi alone, an array of these armed groups arose.  And on September 11, 2012, that city, considered the cradle of the Libyan revolution, experienced attacks by members of the anti-Western Ansar al-Sharia, as well as other militias on the American mission and a nearby CIA facility.  During those assaults, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, local armed groups called on for help or which might have intervened to save lives reportedly stood aside.

Over the year that followed, the influence of the militias only continued to grow nationwide, as did the chaos that accompanied them.  In late 2013, following deadly attacks on civilians, some of these forces were chased from Libyan cities by protesters and armed bands, ceding power to what the New York Times called "an even more fractious collection of armed groups, including militias representing tribal and clan allegiances that tear at the tenuous [Libyan] sense of common citizenship."  With the situation deteriorating, the humanitarian group Human Rights Watch documented dozens of assassinations of judges, prosecutors, and members of the state's already weakened security forces by unidentified assailants.  

The American solution to all of this violence: more armed men.

Fighting Fire with Fire

In November 2013, U.S. Special Operations Command chief Admiral William McRaven told an audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library that the United States would aid Libya by training 5,000 to 7,000 conventional troops as well as counterterrorism forces there.  "As we go forward to try and find a good way to build up the Libyan security forces so they are not run by militias, we are going to have to assume some risks," he said.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 
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