Why America Should Go Slow on Declaring Victory in Libya — Or Making Promises

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Good to be rid of Qaddafi, yes, but what comes next matters more / Reuters photo

[Co-written with Michael S. Smith II of Kronos Advisory LLC]

The demise of Col Qaddafi, a despicable despot who should have met this or a worse fate sooner, will likely give rise to power grabs in Libya by groups whose agendas will often be anything other than what meets the eye. Despite many power holders’ claims of “secularist” and democratic aims, Washington’s policy makers would be wise to exercise great caution when assessing who should be trusted inside Libya. For, at present, it would appear Libya is taking on a political atmosphere that will carry a high Salafist quotient.

The interests of power holders affiliated with the Transitional National Council (TNC), notably those of various prominent rebel military leaders, do not resemble a monolith. While we have shared an enemy and a mutual goal of removing a dictator from power, Washington should not assume many of the rebel factions that played prominent roles deposing Qaddafi are beholden to values which resemble our own. And, given the TNC Ambassador’s recent diplo-wishy-washy response to the question of whether the U.S. should anticipate compensation for the expenses we have incurred helping Libya’s rebels, it would seem likely squabbles will be erupting between the U.S. and Libya’s new leaders soon enough.

Before Washington succumbs to the temptation of picking winners and losers in post-Qaddafi Libya, policy makers should examine opportunities to shape additional, perhaps more important events in the Middle East, such as the genuine possibility of regime change in Syria.

Too many in Washington continue to ignore the long range and utterly anti-American, anti-Semitic, Salafist ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood, a most radical and militant-leaning faction of which is poised to assert substantial influence over Libya from its base in Qatar. Thus, attempting to pick winners and losers in Tripoli will undoubtedly backfire as virtually all of the top political aspirants in Libya – possibly to lure financial support from the Gulf emirates – appear inclined to usher in a form of Islamism acceptable to such patrons.

Compounding MB’s role shaping in Islamist-leaning future for the post-Qaddafi era, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group has been busy carving out roles for its leaders in the post-Qaddafi era. Such developments should also be reviewed with a cautious and discerning eye. The LIFG’s emir, Abd al-Hakim al-Khuwaildi al-Misri Belhadj (one of his many aliases), assumed power of the Tripoli Military Council late in August.

The remarks of a Libyan affiliated with the LIFG a month earlier may be a harbinger of things to come:

We start to question the true intentions of the West in Libya. If they would have wanted to kill Muammar el-Qaddafi, they could have done it several times. I guess this is about making as much money with oil and weapons deals as possible.

In the same July 2011 NYT article, an exiled LIFG military commander quipped that it was very interesting to see the group’s agenda for the Qaddafi regime aligning with those of Western states whose intelligence officials shipped the emir to Tripoli in 2004, knowing he would likely be tortured or killed by Qaddafi.

Weeks before Belhadj emerged as the top power holder in Tripoli, it was alleged that LIFG-affiliated rebels participated in the July 28 assassination of the TNC’s top general, secularist-leaning Abd-al-Fattah Yunus, in order to expand the influence of Islamist elements over the TNC. TNC Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil pledged to conduct a thorough investigation of Gen. Yunus’ death. However, various major media outlets covering events in Libya have indicated no such investigation has yet been conducted. Additionally, days after Gen. Yunus’ death, Chairman Jalil sacked the TNC’s executive committee, whose members provided oversight of the TNC’s financial, military, and communications interests. Ironically, Chairman Jalil cited incompetence underlining the initial efforts to launch an investigation of Gen. Yunus’ death among his reasons for dismissing TNC executive committee members.

Prior to assuming the role of senior military official in Tripoli (and power over one-third of Libya’s populace), LIFG emir Belhadj had played a very limited role in the revolution. Of course, this may have simply been a function of the fact that TNC officials initially sought to distance the TNC from the LIFG. Still, some prominent rebel military leaders have depicted the means by which Belhadj rose to power as an unanticipated and unwelcomed power play.

Previously affiliated with al-Qaeda through a merger announced in November 2007 by AQ’s present day chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and LIFG-member-turned-core-AQ-personality Abu-al-Layth al-Libi (now deceased), in 2009 LIFG leaders issued a 400-page recantation of their affiliation with al-Qaeda and the violent jihadist methodologies employed by it.

Whether LIFG leaders will dismiss their renouncements of al-Qaeda’s philosophies and tactics remains to be seen. Meanwhile, it is important to note that there is ample evidence the LIFG’s emir is presently influenced by other radical Salafist elements closely affiliated with the Global Muslim Brotherhood, including the “spiritual leader” of the Libyan revolution. There is also evidence these very elements, who are indeed well-funded, may be exerting influence over TNC Chairman Jalil, who on August 29 took Belhadj with him on a trip abroad to Qatar.

In the wake of Qaddafi’s death, we’re likely to see power grabs made in Libya by groups whose agendas will remain opaque. Therefore, until the dust settles in Libya, London, Paris and Washington would be wise to avoid formalizing alliances with any faction therein. Until words are replaced by actions, it is quite conceivable that such formal ties could one day be viewed in the same light as America’s support for the anti-Soviet mujahidin – today known as the Taliban.