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.

The cycle is a familiar one: rather than commit American lives to a murky and uncertain conflict, the White House asks the CIA to find or create local proxies that can do the fighting for us. We invariably find the most skilled fighters, the most ruthless killers, who can best challenge or outright topple whatever regime -- often communist, usually despotic and deserving of ouster -- has earned American ire. But the conflict often escalates and turns for the worse. Our killers turn out to be even more brutal than their killers, or maybe they're not as unified as we thought and turn against one another, or they end up targeting civilians as well as enemy fighters.

The most common outcome of U.S.-funded rebellions has been to create instability and violence that, whether in the form of intractable insurgencies or low-level sectarian fighting, tends to last far longer than whatever political conflict they were meant to resolve. The flood of arms -- particularly the easy-to-use, impossible-to-destroy, grimly effective Kalashnikov rifle variants -- make weapons so prolific and so cheap that terrorism, criminal gangs better armed than the police, and militias of every political and religious stripe are all but impossible to stamp out. By the time that CIA funding dries up, young men who have made their living for years fighting on the American dime have no other way to support their family than killing for hire. Wealthy, extremist sheikhs and would-be sheikhs on the Arabian Peninsula are always happy to write checks in pursuit of their Islamist dreams, as they have done in support of Afghan and Pakistani militants for decades. Violence begets violence, instability begets instability, and the U.S. tactic of arming rebels has been incredibly successful at fomenting both, but has done little to end either, often creating problems far outsizing those we originally meant to solve.

Neither the French nor the British share this sordid history with the U.S. -- although the U.K. did arm Arab fighters against the Ottoman Empire during World War One, to considerable success. But with the war against Qaddafi still largely leaderless, and each Western power fighting more or less on its own, France or Britain could arm the rebels unilaterally. Even if the Obama administration does decide that arming rebels is not worth the risk of repeating some of our darkest moments in twentieth century foreign policy, it will not be enough for the U.S. to decline to hand out arms. Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy would also have to be persuaded against it as well. But the U.S. political system is never especially fond of soul-searching or admitting past error -- author Gore Vidal refers to the U.S. as "the United States of Amnesia." Back in Afghanistan, we have found another group to arm -- the Taliban-fighting Shinwari tribes -- in the hopes that the enemy of our enemy, if we only ship them enough guns, might bring peace. Image: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters