Tuesday, March 22, 2011
WASHINGTON — http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/30/world/africa/30diplo.html?partner=rss&emc=rss
The Obama administration is engaged in a fierce debate over whether to supply weapons to the rebels in Libya, senior officials said on Tuesday, with some fearful that providing arms would deepen American involvement in a civil war and that some fighters may have links to Al Qaeda.
The debate has drawn in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, these officials said, and has prompted an urgent call for intelligence about a ragtag band of rebels who are waging a town-by-town battle against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, from a base in eastern Libya long suspected of supplying terrorist recruits.
“Al Qaeda in that part of the country is obviously an issue,” a senior official said.
On a day when Libyan forces counterattacked, fears about the rebels surfaced publicly Capitol Hill on Tuesday when the military commander of NATO, Adm. James G. Stavridis, told a Senate hearing that there were “flickers” in intelligence reports about the presence of Qaeda and Hezbollah members among the anti-Qaddafi forces. No full picture of the opposition has emerged, Admiral Stavridis said. While eastern Libya was the center of Islamist protests in the late 1990s, it is unclear how many groups retain ties to Al Qaeda.
The French government, which has led the international charge against Colonel Qaddafi, has placed mounting pressure on the United States to provide greater assistance to the rebels. The question of how best to support the opposition dominated an international conference about Libya on Tuesday in London, attended by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other coalition leaders.
While Mrs. Clinton said the administration had not yet decided on whether to actually transfer arms, she reiterated that the United States had a right to do so, despite an arms embargo on Libya, because of the United Nations Security Council’s broad resolution authorizing military action to protect civilians.
But some administration officials argue that supplying arms would further entangle the United States in a drawn-out civil war because the rebels would need to be trained to use any weapons, even relatively simple rifles and shoulder-fired anti-armor weapons. This could mean sending trainers. It was not yet clear how that debate was breaking down, though the Pentagon has been most reluctant about any military action in Libya.
The question of whether to arm the rebels underscores the difficult choices the United States faces as it tries to move from being the leader of the military operation to a member of a NATO-led coalition, with no clear political endgame. It also carries echoes of previous American efforts to arm rebels, in Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and elsewhere, many of which backfired. The United States has a deep, often unsuccessful, history of arming insurgencies.
President Obama pledged on Monday that he would not commit American ground troops to Libya and that the job of transforming the country into a democracy was primarily for the Libyan people and the international community. But he promised that the United States would help the rebels in this struggle.
In London, Mrs. Clinton and other Western leaders made it clear that the NATO-led operation would end only with the removal of Colonel Qaddafi, even if that was not the stated goal of the United Nations resolution.
Mrs. Clinton — who met for a second time with a senior opposition leader, Mahmoud Jibril — acknowledged that as a group, the rebels were largely a mystery. “We don’t know as much as we would like to know and as much as we expect we will know,” she said at a news conference.
In his testimony, Admiral Stavridis said, “We are examining very closely the content, composition, the personalities, who are the leaders of these opposition forces.”
The coalition members discussed other ways to help the rebels, like humanitarian aid and money, Mrs. Clinton said. Some of the more than $30 billion in frozen Libyan funds may be channeled to the opposition.
But a spokesman for the rebels, Mahmoud Shammam, said they would welcome arms, contending that with weaponry they would already have defeated Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. “We ask for political support more than arms,” Mr. Shammam said, “but if we have both, that would be good.”
So far, the rebels have obtained arms from defecting Qaddafi loyalists, as well as from abandoned ammunitions depots.
A European diplomat said France was adamant that the rebels be more heavily armed and was in discussions with the Obama administration about how France would bring this about. “We strongly believe that it should happen,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he had had conversations with two senior administration officials about this issue. Mr. Levin said he was most concerned about how the rebels would use the weapons after a cease-fire. “Would they stop fighting if they had momentum, or would they be continuing to use those weapons?” he asked.
Gene A. Cretz, the American ambassador to Libya, said last week that he was impressed by the democratic instincts of the opposition leaders and that he did not believe that they were dominated by extremists. But he acknowledged that there was no way to know if they were “100 percent kosher, so to speak.”
Bruce O. Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said some who had fought as insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan were bound to have returned home to eastern Libya. “The question we can’t answer is, Are they 2 percent of the opposition? Are they 20 percent? Or are they 80 percent?” he said.
Even if the administration resolves these concerns, military officials said it was unclear to them how an effort to arm the rebels would be carried out.
They said the arms most likely to be of use were relatively light and simple shoulder-fired anti-armor weapons for defense against tanks, as well as rifles like Soviet AK-47s and communications equipment. Although these weapons are not especially sophisticated, months, if not years, of on-the-ground training would still be necessary.
“You can’t just parachute crates of weapons and ammunition to them,” said Nathan Freier, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an Army strategist in Iraq in 2005 and 2007.
Even with training, Mr. Freier said, anti-armor weapons and rifles would only allow the rebels to consolidate their gains and hold the territory they already have. “In order for them to expand those gains and move on to Tripoli,” he said, “they would need much more robust and sophisticated military capabilities.”
One crucial voice, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, has experience in the unintended consequences of arming rebels: As a C.I.A. official in the late 1980s, he funneled weapons to the Islamic fundamentalists who ousted the Soviets from Kabul. Some later became the Taliban fighting the United States in Afghanistan.
Mark Landler and Elisabeth Bumiller reported from Washington, and Steven Lee Myers
Socialist Say CIA Commander of Rebels
A CIA commander for the Libyan rebels
28 March 2011
The Libyan National Council, the Benghazi-based group that speaks for the rebel forces fighting the Gaddafi regime, has appointed a long-time CIA collaborator to head its military operations. The selection of Khalifa Hifter, a former colonel in the Libyan army, was reported by McClatchy Newspapers Thursday and the new military chief was interviewed by a correspondent for ABC News on Sunday night.
Hifter’s arrival in Benghazi was first reported by Al Jazeera on March 14, followed by a flattering portrait in the virulently pro-war British tabloid the Daily Mail on March 19. The Daily Mail described Hifter as one of the “two military stars of the revolution” who “had recently returned from exile in America to lend the rebel ground forces some tactical coherence.” The newspaper did not refer to his CIA connections.
McClatchy Newspapers published a profile of Hifter on Sunday. Headlined “New Rebel Leader Spent Much of Past 20 years in Suburban Virginia,” the article notes that he was once a top commander for the Gaddafi regime, until “a disastrous military adventure in Chad in the late 1980s.”
Hifter then went over to the anti-Gaddafi opposition, eventually emigrating to the United States, where he lived until two weeks ago when he returned to Libya to take command in Benghazi.
The McClatchy profile concluded, “Since coming to the United States in the early 1990s, Hifter lived in suburban Virginia outside Washington, DC.” It cited a friend who “said he was unsure exactly what Hifter did to support himself, and that Hifter primarily focused on helping his large family.”
To those who can read between the lines, this profile is a thinly disguised indication of Hifter’s role as a CIA operative. How else does a high-ranking former Libyan military commander enter the United States in the early 1990s, only a few years after the Lockerbie bombing, and then settle near the US capital, except with the permission and active assistance of US intelligence agencies? Hifter actually lived in Vienna, Virginia, about five miles from CIA headquarters in Langley, for two decades.
The agency was very familiar with Hifter’s military and political work. A Washington Post report of March 26, 1996 describes an armed rebellion against Gaddafi in Libya and uses a variant spelling of his name. The article cites witnesses to the rebellion who report that “its leader is Col. Khalifa Haftar, of a contra-style group based in the United States called the Libyan National Army.”
The comparison is to the “contra” terrorist forces financed and armed by the US government in the 1980s against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The Iran-Contra scandal, which rocked the Reagan administration in 1986-87, involved the exposure of illegal US arms sales to Iran, with the proceeds used to finance the contras in defiance of a congressional ban. Congressional Democrats covered up the scandal and rejected calls to impeach Reagan for sponsoring the flagrantly illegal activities of a cabal of former intelligence operatives and White House aides.
A 2001 book, Manipulations africaines, published by Le Monde diplomatique, traces the CIA connection even further back, to 1987, reporting that Hifter, then a colonel in Gaddafi’s army, was captured fighting in Chad in a Libyan-backed rebellion against the US-backed government of Hissène Habré. He defected to the Libyan National Salvation Front (LNSF), the principal anti-Gaddafi group, which had the backing of the American CIA. He organized his own militia, which operated in Chad until Habré was overthrown by a French-supported rival, Idriss Déby, in 1990.
According to this book, “the Haftar force, created and financed by the CIA in Chad, vanished into thin air with the help of the CIA shortly after the government was overthrown by Idriss Déby.” The book also cites a Congressional Research Service report of December 19, 1996 that the US government was providing financial and military aid to the LNSF and that a number of LNSF members were relocated to the United States.
This information is available to anyone who conducts even a cursory Internet search, but it has not been reported by the corporate-controlled media in the United States, except in the dispatch from McClatchy, which avoids any reference to the CIA. None of the television networks, busily lauding the “freedom fighters” of eastern Libya, has bothered to report that these forces are now commanded by a longtime collaborator of US intelligence services.
Nor have the liberal and “left” enthusiasts of the US-European intervention in Libya taken note. They are too busy hailing the Obama administration for its multilateral and “consultative” approach to war, supposedly so different from the unilateral and “cowboy” approach of the Bush administration in Iraq. That the result is the same—death and destruction raining down on the population, the trampling of the sovereignty and independence of a former colonial country—means nothing to these apologists for imperialism.
The role of Hifter, aptly described 15 years ago as the leader of a “contra-style group,” demonstrates the real class forces at work in the Libyan tragedy. Whatever genuine popular opposition was expressed in the initial revolt against the corrupt Gaddafi dictatorship, the rebellion has been hijacked by imperialism.
The US and European intervention in Libya is aimed not at bringing “democracy” and “freedom,” but at installing in power stooges of the CIA who will rule just as brutally as Gaddafi, while allowing the imperialist powers to loot the country’s oil resources and use Libya as a base of operations against the popular revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.