In Arming Libyan Rebels, the U.S. Would Follow an Old, Dark Path

As Libya reaches a violent stalemate, a strategy with a mixed and disturbing record is getting stronger support


On December 6, 1984, as the U.S. increased its funding to anti-Soviet Afghan rebels to tens of millions of dollars in weapons and supplies, CIA Director William Casey wrote in a classified memo, "Unless U.S. policy is redesigned to achieve a broader attack on Soviet vulnerabilities it cannot restore independence to Afghanistan." The next year, he got a quarter of a billion dollars, all quietly siphoned out of leftover Pentagon budgets by secret Congressional authorization. In the search to spend that money, a CIA officer wrote in another classified memo, "analytically, the best fighters -- the best organized fighters -- were the fundamentalists." The memo concluded that the best such fundamentalist fighter and target for U.S. funding was one Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a brutal mujahideen commander who would later join the Taliban, with which he is still battling the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

Today, the U.S. is facing a civil war in Libya between the forces of Muammar Qaddafi and of a rebellion, led informally by defected generals and gun-toting civilians, based in the country's east. Several days of air strikes have slowed Qaddafi's assault but have not been enough to stop him outright, or to enable the rebels to overtake Tripoli. For now, the war faces a deadlock, one that could potentially drag on for months or years, plunging this already fragile country into costly and horrific violence.

The U.S. and the European powers leaders helping lead the intervention are looking for ways to get more involved and help bring the war to an end. Western officials are increasingly turning to the same option that the U.S. employed in Afghanistan in the 1980s: arm the rebels. In the U.S., Senators John Kerry and John McCain, the leading Democratic and Republican foreign policy figures in the Senate, have both suggested that the U.S. should arm anti-Qaddafi rebels. So have Senators Joe Lieberman, Kent Conrad, and Mary Landrieu. In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron and Secretary of State William Hague are both signalling they may arm rebels. At a panel discussion on Thursday night held by the American University of Lebanon, the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl reported that France, which has been by far the most aggressive Western power in intervening, is considering arming the fighters.

The U.S. has a long, complicated, and dark history of arming rebel groups around the world. Our support for the anti-communist militias in Argentina and Honduras led us to directly train some of the fighters that later evolved into outright death squads. Nixon-era CIA operations in Chile helped Augusto Pinochet's takeover by military coup, which later ended with Pinochet's arrest as a war criminal for the mass murder and torture. The Nicaraguan contras, whom we armed in the 1980s to terrorize the Marxist government, instead terrorized civilians, whom they tortured and killed in large numbers. The U.S.'s support for the rise of the Khmer Rouge, remembered for their genocide of nearly 2 million Cambodians, is more ambiguous and complicated. At the very least, they enjoyed tacit U.S. tolerance as long as they fought Communist Vietnam.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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