Dan Simpson: As Libya falls apart

We ought to resist the urge to meddle in North Africa

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There used to be a joke among American Africanists that had particular poignancy for me. Why does the United States care about Chad? Because it is a dagger poised at the heart of the Central African Republic.

The joke had particular punch for me. I was at one time U.S. ambassador to the Central African Republic. It was — even I admitted — of almost no interest to the United States.

Now, of course, 20 years later, it is the scene of a horrible humanitarian disaster, its government having completely collapsed. Chad — because of the kidnapping of some 200 Nigerian schoolgirls — has drawn the United States to station 80 of our forces there to try to help the Nigerians and neighboring countries find the abducted students. Chad has also turned out to be oil-rich, always an attention-grabber for the United States.

However, today’s column turns on another figure from another country in my past who is once again front and center — a Libyan general, Khalifa Belqasim Haftar. For those of us who are geography-challenged — the only geography course I ever had was in 4th grade — Libya, Chad and the Central African Republic are stacked north-south from the Mediterranean Sea into the center of Africa.

Libya into Chad (and Mali) and the Central African Republic has also been the route for disaster stemming from what turned out to be the disastrous decision by the United States, France and Britain to help Libyan rebels in 2011 overthrow the government of Moammar Gadhafi. None of that is to say that Gadhafi wasn’t a disaster himself, in power and when he was menaced by overthrow as he threatened to slaughter part of the population of Libya.

But overthrowing him led to two more disasters. The first was that Libya descended into chaos that persists to this day. No government has been firmly established. Prime ministers have come and gone. There is no justice system, no law and order. There are no effective national security forces and, thus, locally based, well-armed militias run the show.

The second is that the overthrow of Gadhafi loosed southward into Africa, like a ruptured fracking-liquid storage tank, a flood of weaponry into the hands of fractious elements who have torn up the pea patch in a number of unsteady African countries. One was Mali. An American-trained officer carried out a coup and dissident Tuareg and radical Islamist forces in the north declared independence. The French and some African forces suppressed the revolt. But now the rebels are back, having seized control of northern Mali again.

Other beneficiaries of fugitive Libyan arms include the Muslims who set off the killing in the Central African Republic and Boko Haram, the extremist Islamist group which is now rattling the eye teeth of the fragile governments of Nigeria and neighboring Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Thank you, those who took out Gadhafi. He was bad news, and perhaps nobody could have foreseen what would come next in Libya and in the region. But the fact remains that the United States and former colonial powers Britain and France messing around in the Libyan crisis produced the current situation in North and Central Africa.

Gen. Haftar is now presenting himself as a possible solution to the disorder that has reigned in Libya post-Gadhafi. His name was familiar to me, not from my time in Libya — I didn’t know him even though he is from Benghazi, where I lived — but from my second assignment to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then Zaire, in the late 1980s. At that point Mr. Haftar’s Libyan National Army, then part of Qadhafi’s forces but disowned, were prisoners in Chad, having been taken prisoner by the Chadian Army in a war over a band of territory between Libya and Chad, the Aouzou Strip, which was believed to contain oil.

The Chadians wanted to get rid of their prisoners. They were an embarrassment and had to be fed and sheltered. The French, who had troops in Chad, didn’t want them there either. The CIA, which had lines to Gen. Haftar and his merry band, worked with the Zairians, ruled by then-cooperative president Mobutu Sese-Seko, to get them out of Chad and, eventually, at least Gen. Haftar, to the United States. He settled in Northern Virginia, not far from CIA headquarters, until Qadhafi was overthrown.

Now Gen. Haftar is back in Libya with an army and is being talked about as the Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Libya. A good question for Americans is, who set him up? Who provided his so-called Libyan National Army its equipment, transport and intelligence support?

I wouldn’t be prepared to argue that someone shouldn’t do something to put some order back into Libya in the face of its deepening chaos, particularly if such action were to preclude growing control by Islamist extremist militias. And there is Libya’s oil, which continues to be of considerable interest to American companies.

I don’t know if Gen. Haftar has retained his once good lines to the CIA. I don’t have any idea if the CIA is supporting him in his campaign to put himself in power in Libya. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if the agency were backing him, as an old friend, as an asset.

The real question for me is why — if we are backing Gen. Haftar — we are still messing around in places like Libya, Chad, Mali, Nigeria and the Central African Republic, as if we did not have much higher priority needs here at home?

We cannot control what happens there. Even if we think we can, we are likely to leave them worse off than when we intervened, recent cases of wrecked countries in point being Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

My impression of the growth of the U.S. military command for Africa, AFRICOM, created by President George W. Bush in 2008, is that its activities around the continent are a clear example of supply-driven actions — America pointlessly in quest of wars and enemies.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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