I believe most Americans support military actions that protect the vital interests of the United States. Major American military initiatives, however, especially those involving the military invasion of a Muslim country in the era of the global jihad, have consequences and should only be taken because our vital strategic interests are at stake.
Thus far, no vital American strategic interests regarding Libya have been stated. Rather, official government policy appears to be designed to get rid of Gaddafi because he’s a tyrant, and to protect Libyan citizens on humanitarian grounds.
Our policymakers seem to believe that once this mission is accomplished some benign coalition of pro-democratic leaders will arise and take command, and all will be well.
There seems to be a huge general assumption that anti-Gaddafi forces are pro-American forces that should be armed and organized by the United States, but as you will see below there is documentary proof that at least some of the anti-Gaddafi forces are anti-American and pro-jihadist.
Even more disturbing: I have heard nothing from any policymaker, either political or military, that indicates that any of them have the slightest idea of the nature or make-up of Libya’s tribal society and how this will impact our ability to establish post-Gaddafi governance.
According to Libya expert Hanspeter Mattes of the Institute of Middle East Studies at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Libya is the most tribal of all the Arab states.
The country has not had a constitution since 1977, and there are virtually no democratic civil institutions — such as trade unions or PTAs — in the country, making the 140 tribes, clans, and powerful families key elements of society.
About 30 of these tribal entities have significant political power. Some, like the Maqarha and the Warfalla tribes, are in alliance with the Gaddafi tribe and have dominated the army, police, and intelligence services since Gaddafi took power. Others, such as the Zuwaya, control the key cities in the Gulf of Surt — where oil is exported.
While knowledge of the political power and connections of tribes is a must for any policymaker planning on transforming the country, this isn’t the only knowledge required.
Tribes are notorious for doing only what’s in their interests, which means that they often change sides. This is why the Iraqi tribes in al-Anbar province went from fighting American forces alongside al-Qaeda to joining American forces to kill their Muslim al-Qaeda brothers.
They made this dramatic shift because the U.S. could better serve the tribes’ interests by providing money and services — such as civil projects and government jobs — that al-Qaeda couldn’t deliver.
Another aspect of tribal society that is vital for policymakers to understand are the tribal concepts of honor, humiliation, and revenge. Tribes seek revenge against all who have dishonored them, and an understanding of these dynamics can mean the difference between success and failure when attempting to build tribal coalitions to govern the country.
The importance of tribes and the lack of democratic civil institutions in Libya should have been a huge red flag to any policymaker contemplating an intervention there, especially given the fact that the U.S. has a dismal record of understanding and dealing with tribes. It took our military leaders four years of trial and error in Iraq before they realized that dealing with the tribes of Anbar could give us the leverage we needed against al-Qaeda. Moreover, after more than eight years of fighting in Afghanistan, we still haven’t figured out how to deal with the tribes there. This lack of grounded truth and strategic thinking didn’t work in Iraq, isn’t working in Afghanistan, and won’t work in Libya.
Some of the questions our policymakers should have answered definitively before any serious military attack was contemplated:
Who are the protesters?
What do they want?
How are they organized?
How do they view the U.S.?
Are they likely to work with the U.S. in the region after Gaddafi, or might they side with Iran?
To what extent are they Islamist and have sympathies for the international jihad?
While some of these questions will take time to know, the answer to the last question is completely known, and disturbing.
Our first erroneous assumption is to think that the protesters against Gaddafi are democrats who want to establish an American-style representative democracy. There is a monumental difference between a local popular uprising against a tyrannical ruler and a movement organized to create Western democratic institutions, especially when the country is a Muslim tribal society and none of these institutions exist.
In this regard, the geographical headquarters of the revolt — located in Eastern Libya in the major cities of Benghazi and Derna — provides a clue as to who these folks are.
On February 25, 2011, Gaddafi blamed al-Qaeda for the revolt, and because Gaddafi is so self-serving, mercurial, and erratic, the mainstream media seems to have automatically discounted any possibility of Islamist involvement.
On February 15, 2008, however, long before anyone ever considered the possibility of a popular uprising against Gaddafi, the U.S. embassy in Tripoli sent a secret cable to Washington titled “Extremism in Eastern Libya” which revealed that this area is rife with anti-American, pro-jihad sentiment.
The cable describes a conversation between embassy officers and a dual U.S./Libyan citizen who provided the embassy with first-hand information about Islamist extremism gleaned from his family and friends in Eastern Libya.
According to the cable, the most troubling aspect of the report:
… is the pride that many eastern Libyans, particularly those in and around Derna, appear to take in the role their native sons have played in the insurgency in Iraq … [and the] ability of radical imams to propagate messages urging support for and participation in jihad.
Answering why this area is so radicalized, the embassy reported:
[The source] partly attributed the fierce mindset in Benghazi and Derna to the message preached by imams in eastern Libyan mosques, which he said is markedly more radical than that heard in other parts of the country. Sermons in eastern mosques, particularly the Friday “khutba,” are laced with “coded phrases” urging worshippers to support jihad in Iraq and elsewhere through direct participation or financial contributions. The language is often … incendiary and unambiguously supportive of jihad. Direct and indirect references to “martyrdom operations” were not uncommon.
The embassy’s alarming report is corroborated by captured al-Qaeda personnel documents — called the Sinjar Records — that came into American hands in 2007 and were analyzed by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The Sinjar Records revealed the country of origin of the foreign fighters who came to Iraq to kill American soldiers. While the majority of foreign fighters came from Saudi Arabia, the report also stated:
Libya was the next most common country of origin, with 18.8% (112) of the fighters listing their nationality stating they hailed from Libya. … Furthermore, Libya contributed far more fighters per capita than any other nationality in the Sinjar Records, including Saudi Arabia … the most common cities that the fighters called home were Darnah, Libya and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with 52 and 51 fighters respectively. Darnah, with a population just over 80,000 compared to Riyadh’s 4.3 million, has far and away the largest per capita number of fighters in the Sinjar records. The next most common hometowns — in real terms — listed in the Sinjar records were Mecca (43), Benghazi (21).”
While it is not correct to say that al-Qaeda created and controls the uprising, it is true that al-Qaeda supports the uprising and will do whatever it can to take advantage of the vacuum resulting from the fall of Gaddafi, especially among the Islamist pro-jihad population of Eastern Libya.
At a minimum, our attack of Libya will be grist for al-Qaeda’s information war and will result in increased recruitment and funding.
Demonstrating al-Qaeda’s support, on March 12 Libyan al-Qaeda Commander Abu Yahya al Libi — who is originally from Benghazi — appeared in an al-Qaeda video in which he praised the uprising:
O proud people and loyal tribes: move forth taking the help of your Lord, with determined goal, renewing your promise, seeking your aim without hesitation or fear, and throw al-Gaddafi into the dump of humiliation.
The documentary information cited above is not opinion or speculation; it is fact and evidence. With the apparent absence of any plan for post-Gaddafi governance, an ignorance of Libya’s tribal nature and our poor record of dealing with tribes, American government documents that conclusively establish that the epicenter of the revolt is rife with anti-American and pro-jihad sentiment, and with al-Qaeda’s explicit support for the revolt, it is appropriate to ask our policymakers how American military intervention in support of this revolt in any way serves vital U.S. strategic interests.