Libya and Mali, Part I

Nine months ago, I wrote a piece titled “NATO’s Intervention in Libya Was a Mistake.” As the French-led intervention in Mali continues, Libya is once again on people’s minds. People ask what relevance the precedent of intervention in Libya has for Mali, and what connections there are between the intervention in Libya and the ongoing crises in Mali.

With regard to the latter question, one often hears two opposed viewpoints: either “Libya’s civil war and the ensuing intervention caused Mali’s crises” or “Libya’s civil war and the ensuing intervention did not cause Mali’s crises.” I think the debate is a false one: I think that the crises in Mali have multiple causes, of which Libya is an important one, but only one.

As Aaron Bady eloquently explains here in a different context, sometimes people ostensibly participating in a shared conversation actually want to have different kinds of conversations. The conversation some analysts want to have runs, “The causes of Mali’s crises are too complex to be reduced to fallout from Libya.” I agree with them in a limited sense, but I think the way some analysts make that argument has two political effects, intended or not. First, this argument can imply that fallout from Libya had a negligible role in Mali’s crises. I disagree with that view. Second, making this argument can allow a speaker to sidestep the question of whether policymakers in Washington, Brussels, or elsewhere made the right decisions on Libya. Tackling this second question is the conversation that I really want to have. This post and a forthcoming sequel are my way of responding to arguments about Libya and Mali but also my way of attempting to broaden the terrain of the conversation to include an appraisal of concrete policy decisions.

This post is meant to serve a ground-clearing function: I want to state plainly that the main reason I feel that the intervention in Libya was a mistake is that I think it had a negative effect on Libya. I want to preclude the possibility of anyone reducing my arguments to “Thurston says Libya was bad because Mali.” Even if Libya was an island I would regard the decision to intervene there as a mistake.

Colonel Muammar Qadhafi’s treatment of his own people was deplorable. Yet the architects of the NATO intervention, framing their actions at times as a response to a perceived moral imperative to protect civilian life, planned poorly for the post-invasion period. A failure to soberly consider the possible unexpected consequences of intervention and transition has helped chaos to develop in post-Qadhafi Libya.

To my mind, the external intervention in Libya picked a winner in that country’s civil war. The intervention either picked the weaker of the two sides (this is my opinion) or accelerated a process whereby the rebels might have eventually defeated Qadhafi. In either case, the side that ultimately won the civil war – the National Transitional Council or NTC – was not prepared to unify the country politically and establish security and order. At present, the NTC’s successor organization the General National Congress does not effectively govern the country either.

The roots of political disunity and state weakness in Libya reach back into the period of Qadhafi’s rule (1969-2011) and before. As papers like this one describe, Qadhafi to some extent personalized the state while dismantling or undermining key political and social structures. The NTC does not deserve blame for all of Libya’s current problems, but I believe the intervention, by tipping the scales, put a body in “power” that cannot govern, especially in the short term.

Some observers have characterized the “new Libya” in optimistic terms. Libya’s July 7, 2012 national assembly elections met with Western acclaim for their relatively peaceful staging, their basically free and fair quality, and their results, namely an outcome where Islamists did not win.

But much news out of Libya is grim. There are a number of trends I could highlight, but two in particular are worth mentioning:

  • The persistence of armed militias, of whom there may be as many as 1,700: see here, here, here, and here for commentary and reporting on this issue. These militias challenge state control and security while contributing to violence and disorder. An article from December sums it up: “Almost two years after the start of the armed uprising that felled the regime, the militias that formed to fight Qaddafi show little sign of real integration into national security forces, and some are using their considerable clout to influence political and security decisions as a wobbly government takes its first steps.”
  • Assassination attempts against government officials, politicians, and security personnel: Defense Minister Mohammed al-Barghathi (January 20, 2013), Interim President of the General National Congress Muhammad al Maghariaf (January 6, 2013), Islamist leader Ahmed Abu Khattala (January 6, 2013), and police Colonel Mohammed Ben Haleem (October 13, 2012). There have also been assassination attempts against diplomats from Britain and Italy, and finally the tragic killing of US Amb. Chris Stevens and three other American diplomats in September 2012. I regard these episodes of targeted violence as both symptoms and causes of political instability in Libya. A government whose leaders routinely have brushes with death does not truly govern.

As a recent RAND Corporation report stated (.pdf, p. 3), “Security is the most immediate challenge today. Without it, progress in other areas will be stilted and likely fall apart…The attacks and ongoing violence since make it clear that Libya is not out of the woods yet. Even small numbers of moderately well-armed spoilers could push the country into a downward spiral of insecurity, recrimination, and violence.” International Crisis Group’s report “Divided We Stand” makes similar arguments while acknowledging the possibility of political progress.

Perhaps you interpret security challenges and other trends in Libya as “growing pains” for the new government. Perhaps you regard the present instability as an appropriate price to pay for ending the Qadhafi regime. Myself, I believe that tipping the balance in Libya’s civil war is one critical cause of the present instability, which has added to the tragedy that began with the civil war. I also fear that such instability will continue.

The conversation about whether the intervention in Libya was the right move or not could end there, could remain, so to speak, within the boundaries of Libya itself. But the conversation should not, I would say, end there. Later this week or early next week, we’ll talk about Libya and Mali.


21 thoughts on “Libya and Mali, Part I

  1. Having observed & in a sense participated in the Libya conflict, I can truthfully say that NATO members made a huge mistake in their assessment of whom they were fighting with… I am not saying it was wrong to intervene. The French (yes, us again) did effectively stop a massacre in Benghazi on the 19th of March 2011. However, all the operations from there on were based on a shaky liaison with a “common” “ally” .. NTC (FF or rebel) forces, perceived & supported as a unified block.
    This wasn’t exactly a reality, and the assassination of Younes may have been one of the red flags not heeded. Even “NTC” C&C structure was alveolated with military centers in different localities. Clusters, which sometimes had no contact with each other.

    We are in an era where everything is analysed as networks. Backing a pèle-mèle sack of assorted networks in Libya did not work. The highlight of this strategy disaster was probably the support Bel Haj received, and his subsequent rule on Tripoli after having (sole-handedly :p) “taken” it …
    We supported the wrong factions, in part because we weren’t able to think “networks”.
    We also neglected to equip & fund those who would later be able to keep power mongers in check – activists and local civil society.

    The post-conflict power balance is indeed determined during the conflict, not once the situation is “stabilised”.

    Regarding Mali, with it’s complex political structure and rich ethnic fabric, if we don’t start reasoning in a more sophisticated complexe and fluid fashion, we’ll probably back the wrong people, again; and muzzle those who could denounce injustices, again.

  2. I understand your position, but a lot of decisions about Libya were made in the heat of the moment.

    Assuming the West didn’t intervene in Libya we could have ended up with a Syria like situation and would the Islamist government in Egypt have sat back and allow Gaddafi to consolidate his power?

    If the West didn’t, somebody else would have smuggled weapons to the opposition and the most motivated fighters would still have been the jihadists. Gaddafi could still be in power, but he would be weakened and there is no assurance that the borders would have been secured.

    Something is happening across Africa and the Sahel, it is called “history”. History happens irrespective of what we think or do, the most important course of action is to adapt to the present realities. I will list some of them:

    1. The post-colonial African state has been a mixed success. In many cases it has failed and this is the time to re-imagine the post-colonial African state. The borders of some states will have to be redrawn, nationalities and ethnicities have to brought out to the open and discussed.

    2. Africa has a youth unemployment problem – I don’t need to say anything more about that.

    • Egypt wouldn’t have intervened. The Egyptian bureaucracy and military might have disliked Qaddafi but they certainly weren’t going to arm or militarily back a rebel force that had a strong group of militant Islamists in it, they can barely put up with the Muslim Brotherhood at home. That someone else would have been sending weapons into Libya I don’t dispute (probably Saudis and Qatar).

      However if African states start renegotiating borders that opens the floodgates for everyone to have an opinion, especially if they have guns. It seems better to me to focus more on ending tribalism (which probably is better called ‘ethnic politics’) and on more political parties which do more than just support the interests of their ethnic group.

      • Mali, South Sudan, Eritrea, Cote D’Ivoire – you are hearing it loud and clear, Africa’s borders need to be re-negotiated.

        Ending “tribalism” is wishful thinking. In Europe, the tribes became nations. In Africa, half a tribe was put in state A and the other half in state B together with other antagonistic tribes. Like a game of dice, there will be positive outcomes, but there also will negative outcomes.

        Finally, nobody has demonstrated how to end “ethnic politics” and we should start listening to the African people, not carefully crafted political theories.

      • Actually in Europe the majority of those ‘tribes’ intermingled and eventually simply disappeared. There was a time when ‘Caucasians’ in America considered Poles to be dirty foreigners and there was a time in France when people from Brittany saw themselves as completely different from the people of Saxony. These days no one sees a Polish-American as anything other than a valid citizen of America and France is a well-unified nation with little real chance of breaking up.
        As for Africa, out of a continent that had (officially) fifty nations up until recently only a handful have seen real change into new nation-states, and all of those examples you give are from places that were horribly governed. I’d say it’s pretty obvious what the real problem is, horrible governance. In other words assuming that you should only be in nations with others of your ancestral group (who often see that identity emphasized more than genetic testing would suggest it should) is just more of the zero-sum politics that are the problem in Africa.

      • Gyre,

        Africa is not just “entering into history”. We have different tribes, but there are coastal people, sendentary farmers, pastoralists etc. Mali for example, is a hastily cobbled together construct that lacks internal logic. Sudan was never going to work (Nilotics and “Arabized Africans”).

        Africa’s borders are what you get when you throw a game of dice – and they must change. Take it, from an African.

      • Minor note. I actually meant Burgundy, not Saxony. Though the two are very similar as former states that eventually became part of a unified nation-state, Burgundy is now French while Saxony is now German.

      • Why do you insist that Africa must follow the trajectory of Western/European history? Why don’t you listen to what we have to say and look at the evidence on the ground?

        I am telling you what myself (and many other Africans) are seeing and what we project the future will look like, and you are drawing me back to 15th Century Europe?

      • Because I think you’re ignoring one of the staples of political science. Humans are humans across the world. Bad governance tends to have the same impact no matter where you are.

  3. The creation of armed militias and political assassination would almost certainly have occurred regardless of whether the West had intervened or not, or whether Gadhafi or the NTC had won. Had the West not intervened when they did, Benghazi would have fallen. Though the NTC may still have triumphed in the end, it would have taken years of guerrilla warfare, during which both militias and political assassinations would have become a fact of life, as it is in Syria. Your two points can’t therefore be persuasively used to support your argument that Western interference was a mistake.

    While I agree that post-Gadhafi planning left much to be desired, Western interference allowed peace and freedom to arrive faster than it would have otherwise. Surely that counts for something?

  4. I have to agree with Kelvin, Alex. The only reasonable counterfactual to the NATO intervention scenario that happened is a Syria situation. I can’t see how anyone could argue that an agonizing brutal civil war like Syria is better because it will be more conducive to quicker restoration of effective governance. Any reasonable person would say exactly the opposite. The only people who say “a long brutal war is good for governance” are people who read too much Charles Tilly.
    Keep up the good blogging!

    • Considering the advances Qaddafi’s forces made (which spurred the intervention in the first place) I don’t think we would have had a Syria-type situation so much as constant unrest and violence in the east of the nation. Would that have been better than the current Libya? Pretty hard to say.

  5. For whatever it’s worth, the general opinion of U.S. intelligence is that the U.S. military grew lax in Mali and underestimated the tipping point from Libya. Many of Mali’s problems are internally based and an insurrection could have occurred at another time, but Libya’s aftermath is the type of event that would create a critical mass around its environment. Not to say Libya’s mission was a complete mistake – inaction would have been vilified.

  6. Alex, while you’re clearing ground, I’d like to mark some rocks and other obstructions you will encounter discussing Mali, should you keep on this path.

    You are a careful, thoughtful writer, but I do disagree almost completely with where you appear to be headed. Maybe I’ve misjudged your argument – please correct me if I have. But Mali’s current crisis was not caused by Libya’s, let alone the failures caused by NATO’s intervention there. The facts just don’t support that view. Saying that this has some impact on one’s view of Libya is beside the point.

    This is too long a conversation to have here, but I want to caution against a march off in a bad direction. I recognize you’re not saying that “Libya was wrong because Mali”. Honestly I haven’t heard much of that. Rather I see the more nonsensical “Mali is bad because Libya was wrong.” Libyan intervention was wrong because of the fallout in Libya. I argued this from before the intervention itself. I agree with all the points you make regarding Libya.

    But if you intend to then argue that Libya caused in any crucial way the current Mali conflict, I must disagree. For all the din across the Western political class, the Libyan war — and it’s bad outcomes — had limited effects in Mali. The well established evidence you have in the past provided of Libya’s much greater effect in Niger, should warn us off such an argument.

    I think the common press and government belief, now uncritically shared across the western political spectrum, that large numbers of armed men and large amounts of arms came into Mali from Libya will be ultimately proven false. If for no other reason than because governments and NGOs repeat it constantly without ever providing any evidence. God knows they must be looking for it.

    Mali lost this war. The rebels didn’t win it.

    I have limited means, and I can’t find evidence of any substantial flow of weapons or fighters (some of both but dwarfed by those already there). I assume governments and NGOs have much greater means, but they seem unwilling to provide any evidence apart from appeals to expertise. Proof of a negative is impossible, but I would not put money on this holding up.

    I’ve spend dozens of hours examining press photo’s and rebel videos. I’ve been keeping a private database news reports and academic writing for a larger project. Digging through these sources again and again and again I see Malian fighters who prior to late 2011 were in the Malian armed forces or local militias operating in the north. I see vehicles and weapons with Malian army markings (many supplied by the U.S. Government I should add). I’ve spent many hours looking at photos and videos of looted Libyan army warehouses and the weapons in the hands even the uniforms on the backs of fighters on both sides. I have seen nothing that is not more likely Malian than Libyan. Did you see some of the things in the hands of Libyan militias? They have tanks and artillery pieces. Even their pickups are mostly new model Hiluxs, while Malian rebels invariably drive unmatched less than new Landcrusiers. I’m sure there are Libyan weapons, as there certainly are Libyan fighters. We may even see a surprise anti-aircraft missile make an appearance in the coming month. But nowhere apart from appeals to experts have I seen indications that there are in Mali Libyan people or weapons in numbers or quality that could be decisive. And the amount of weaponry and ammunition looted from Malian bases in the north is staggering.

    The collapse of Libya will have long term effects on Mali, and North Mali in particular. But we have not yet seen these effects. I’m thinking of changes born of the loss of partnership/meddling that all neighboring states and political actors within those states have built their calculations around for thirty years. It destabilizes the Morocco v Algeria rivalry which is so present in Mali. If Libya continues in chaos it will — perhaps most importantly — starve of cash tens of millions of foreigners who relied on a family member working menial jobs in Libya.

    But none of those things was anywhere near decisive in the Mali conflict. These are for the future, and they effect all the states in the area.

    Rather than try to tie Libya to Mali, I would ask that you carefully examine Mali.

    The Amadou Toumani Touré system of political transhumance, the creation of rival militias, the entirely new way in which ATT solved the 2006 crisis by empowering undergroups and previously excluded politicians in Kidal and elsewhere. These sorts of things — not Tuareg nationalism and not Libyan blowback — created the disaster in Mali.

    Mali went from outcomes within the expectations of past insurgencies to disaster on 22 March. It could not have happened without that collapse from within. And no one can reasonably lay this at the feet of Libya. The pressure in the north came from the willingness for the former ADC 2006-7 rebel coalition to leverage it’s growing business relationships with Algerian led and Mauritanian fed jihadis. This relationship, like the blossoming of new fighters, came not from Libyan, but from the monstrous ransom cash influx into a spiraling smuggling network that crossed lines and provided resources unavailable to local big men.

    I want to add, thought, for all my mixed feelings about the French intervention, here is one way fallout from Libya could change Malians’ lives dramatically: the French have taken a too cavalier attitude. Too reckless not to getting into Mali but in how they will get out.

    Getting in, they’re frankly not facing much. Estimates of the conventional power of these Islamist fighters is way overblown. For all the power implied above, they’re power only relative to the Malian or Nigerien state. What’s not approached seriously enough is at what point this is liberation of northern Mali is settled. What are they trying to set up in the north?

    Because in parts of the north (Kidal Region, Ber and north in Tombouctou, Bourem and Ménaka circle in Gao Region) things had gotten so bad that there was not any real government. Corruption up to the highest levels in Bamako, political expediency, and a western driven policy of decentralization are to blame as much as anything. Romantic bullshit about Tuareg nationalism has prevented a lot of folks who should have been from reporting how dysfunctional these communities have become. Creating peaceful and legitimate local governance here will involve getting in the middle of a whole series of local (not necessarily ethnic) conflicts; conflicts Malian governments since 1991 have pointedly refused to face. Conflicts which have in fact been inflamed, sharpened, by just these policies. The reconstitution of civilian rule in northern communities at the barrel of a gun, especially a French gun, could be a disaster. I fear the French/NATO narrative of their Libya success (perhaps we can air-quote “success”?) may make them screw this up something royal.

    This is a Malian problem. This was a crashing together of the mishandling of 30 years of governance; the really bad advice/meddling of westerners from World Bank economists to romantic NGOs and anthropologists; the neocolonial networks especially active in the Sarkozy government (who supported the MNLA and a variety of shady mercenaries scuttling around the Sahara after the AREVA kidnap); the prospecting of northern resources that stalled at the incredibly destabilizing “prospecting contract auction” phase; the utter lack of anything approaching democratic governance at the local level (especially amongst those who are now political backers of the rebels); the introduction of party-less presidential rule; the fact that most believed ATT really would step down in April 2012 leaving a huge vacuum. But crucially. I blame for the utter disaster of 2012 the fact that ATT — unlike Biya or others — was willing to operate a Françafrique style regime while blanching at the crucial point of being an actual dictator (intimidation, violence, fixing elections, these horrors provide the stability amid injustice such leaders have, and ATT lacked all but the injustice). ATT didn’t create the dysfunctional Malian state. He might have even survived it. But he honed a rule based on all the manipulation of a Compaoré without a stomach for any of the dirty work.

    The best illustration of this is how the 22 March coup took place. No one, not even ATT himself, was willing to lay down his or her life to face a few hundred undisciplined ill armed rear guard troops. Not one person was willing to die for the system of governance so lauded since 1991, a system of governance which hundreds of civilians died for, and for which ATT himself risked his life to rend from the maw of the dictatorship twenty-one years before. It explains why the howls from Western observers — myself included — were echoed in Bamako by a collective shrug.

    I don’t want to accuse one writer of the crimes of others. But there’s a lot of opinions pressing down on us at this moment that are blithely misinformed. This is not a good climate in which to raise an argument tying Libya to Mali. Foundations built on others’ bullshit are eventually liquid.

    Only by ignoring all this, something that the western scribbling class from the Heritage Foundation to Workers World have shared, can we make the Mali debacle about Libya. We in the west like making these things about us, about our arguments over the foolish Libya intervention or 9/11 or what Bush and Obama have screwed up. The French like making it about Foccart and Mitterrand and Sarkozy and Hollande. Many of the underlying causes of the 2012 crisis must certainly shine light upon the neoliberal world system, French neocolonialism, the current scramble for commodities, the dangerous realpolitik of the Cold War and the War on Terror, all the way back to the effect the Atlantic slave trade had on the rise of slave economies in states like Segou. But when these analyzes involve other societies as blank slates upon which our arguments are projected, we’ve taken a serious wrong turn. So watch your step.

    • I really appreciate you writing this and agree with almost all of it. You really ought to post this somewhere as its own piece, with whatever modifications are necessary. Also hope too that you’ll make some parts of your database of photos etc. publicly available at some point.

      Not sure I’m headed in the direction you anticipate, or at least not as strongly as you might expect. Looking forward to your reaction to part 2.

  7. Hi everyone, I want to thank each of your for your thoughtful responses. I read every comment on this thread. The perspectives, disagreements, and questions everyone has offered have certainly made me re-examine my positions, and they will be very useful as I work on the next installment. Unfortunately I can’t respond to everyone individually, because various projects and trips are just killing me this month, but I want to underscore how much I appreciate everyone weighing in on this.

  8. Pingback: Hope and many obstacles in Mali « The Long Gone Daddy

  9. Personally I believe that any conflict in an African country is bound to have a knock on efffect to all the neighboring countries. If you take the Kony rebellion in Uganda or the Boko Haram insurgency both of these conflict now are international. Africa’s borders are so porous and the border communities intertwined, such that a conflict in one country will always spill over into its neighbor’s territory.
    It’s not regrettable that the Western powers intervened to oust Gaddafi. What’s regrettable is that leaders like Gaddafi blindly went on assuming they were still part of the solution, rather than part of the problem in their countries. Whatever is happening now in Libya, Egypt, etc can be blamed on these country’s former selfish leaders.

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