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31 March 2011, Gateway House

A New Taliban in Libya?

The fundamental problem when supporting an anti-regime opposition is to ascertain the identity and purpose of the rebels. It is a question –which M.D. Nalapat discovers –is never asked by the United States, no stranger to shoring up rebels in far-off countries.

Director, Department of Geopolitics, Manipal University

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Amidst the rejoicing over NATO’s fight for the ‘liberation’ of Libya from Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s four-decade-long rule, few have bothered to ask the dark question: who are these rebels, apparently without a face or organization? How did they ‘win’ the support of NATO’s military might, and find a way of closing in on Gaddafi and his supporters?

How did Al Qaeda and fundamentalist involvement quietly surface amidst the mayhem? And what does this mean for the West and for the rest of the Middle East?

The answer lies in the events of 1994, when the US backed the Taliban to defeat the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Had the Clinton administration not backed them from 1994 to their takeover of Kabul in 1996 and beyond, the Taliban would never have taken over more than three-fourths of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda would never have become a global organization, and the history of the world in this 21st century would have been different.

The players in this grim game are well known. It is no secret that the elements that later coalesced into the Taliban, had their fairy godmother in the former US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Robin Raphel. She even demanded, as far back as 1997, that Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance resistance leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud (later assassinated by Al Qaeda operatives on September 9, 2001) surrender to the ISI’s favoured militia.

Thus far there has been no negative blowback for her career. Instead, another US president, George W. Bush, utilised her services in Iraq, and Hillary Clinton ensured Raphel’s return to Afghan affairs in 2009 as a team member of the late Richard Holbrooke, US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Throughout her tenure in the newly-created South Asia desk at the State department in the early years,  Raphel batted for the Pakistan army, getting her reward in the form of a lobbying assignment for that country in 1997 after she stepped down from her diplomatic post.

Raphel, backed by the oil giant Unocal, touted the Taliban as a band of “reliable” and “moderate” individuals who could be expected to side with the West in the Afghan Great Game, unlike the Northern Alliance, which – largely by default – was close to Russia, India and Iran. Laudatory articles on the “corruption-fighting” militia began to appear in outlets such as the International Herald Tribune from 1994 onwards, and soon afterwards in other US and European publications.

Only by around the end of 1999, when the medieval quality of their rule became too obvious to conceal, did the hosannas stop. Soon after came 9/11, an atrocity in which the Taliban played a significant role. Even then (perhaps because Vice-President Cheney’s favourite Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad too had been a backer of the ultra-Wahabi militia), there was no effort made to step back and internalize the policy error which led to the US ensuring the ascent to power of the Taliban, a process in which cash played by far the most significant role

Such a re-evaluation of policy, had it been made, may perhaps have ensured that the pell-mell rush of France, the UK and the US to neuter Colonel Gaddafi and replace him with a band of insurgents from the east of Libya, may have been avoided. Instead, several “wise men” of European academe have rushed to Benghazi and certified the eastern insurgents as exactly the sort of people deserving of backing from NATO, unlike the theatrical Gaddafi.

Such misreading of the facts seems to have led to yet another glandular –  rather than cerebral  –  reaction from French President Nicholas Sarkozy, rapidly followed by UK Prime Minister David Cameron. The next in this procession of the gullible has been US President Barack Obama, although to his credit, it appears to be clear that the Libyan adventure is less his choice than one of his secretary of state and spouse of the former US President who enabled the Taliban to come to power in Afghanistan in 1996.

Hillary Clinton is much more a European than she is an American, and it shows in the way she allows herself to be led by the major powers of that Continent in her foreign policy

Unfortunately for those in favour of sane policies towards a volatile region, the lead is being taken by elements who have urged the muscular response from NATO in Libya and who are clearly ignorant of Arabic. These policy-makers, it seems, have yet to access the numerous samizdat tracts against Colonel Gaddafi that have been authored by the very individuals that NATO is helping to come to power in Libya. These tracts do indeed call for a jihad against Gaddafi, but not because he is a dictator. Rather, he is excoriated for the crime of allowing women to come out in public without the veil and even – what could be more degenerate? – work in close proximity to men. He is chastised for not following such examples of enlightenment as Saudi Arabia in imposing ( the Wahabbi version of) Sharia law in Libya. Reports from refugees fleeing the region talk of the Wahabbi core of the insurgency brutally exterminating secular Libyans, facts as yet unreported by the cheering Western media.

Is this what NATO is working so hard to ensure, a Libya where women are forced into the veil, and where Sharia law prevails? Given the Wahabbi propensities of the Bannu Ismail and the four other tribes hostile to Colonel Gaddafi, it is no surprise that Qatar and Saudi Arabia want the “apostate” out. But what they regard as crimes is hardly seen as such by the populations of the NATO powers. Predictably, the media in North America and Europe has taken its cue from Sarkozy, Cameron and Clinton, and are repeating the mantra of the  insurgents being “moderate” and even “democratic.”

There is no doubt that several Middle Eastern donors to the Clinton Foundation regard the veiling of women as “moderate,” and the imposition of a Wahabbi version of Sharia law as “democratic.”

They have clearly carried the day in the chancelleries of NATO.

As in 1994-96, when a band of fanatics were empowered by the West against brutal but secular opponents, a similar mistake is taking place in Libya. And as with 9/11, this too will have a blowback.

M. D. Nalapat is vice-chair of Manipal Advanced Research Group and UNESCO peace chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University, India.

This feature was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive features here.

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