Arming Rebels: Danger Ahead

The president is trying to find a way to help arm the Libyan rebels by sending a CIA team to investigate.  Unfortunately, there could be consequences to this action.  Besides the debate about whether this would be legal under the current U.N. Security Council resolution in which an arms embargo exists, there could be dangers to this action.  Daniel Byman provides two good reasons why arming the rebels could be problematic.  First, it could fracture the NATO alliance:

The risks of arming and training Libyan forces, however, are also considerable. Civilians are not trained to fight overnight, so the NATO air operations will have to continue as the Libyan forces prepare to stand up. In the short term, of course, the violence would increase; essentially, NATO would be helping one side win a military victory, and that victory could be bloody. Even a bloody victory might avert greater suffering over time, but as casualties mount, opposition from skeptical NATO members like Turkey will grow. In the Arab world, latent suspicions about Western motives are likely to become manifest.

Second, the rebels could have an Al-Qaeda infiltration:

 The rebels are also a political as well as a military question mark. Their leaders, their numbers, and their goals are not yet known—and, indeed, their ability to stick together and avoid infighting is also untested. Some rebel commanders admit that al-Qaida-linked fighters are within their ranks, admissions that seem to confirm the remarks of NATO’s commander, Adm. James Stavridis, that the United States had “flickers” in its intelligence suggesting an al-Qaida presence. “The question we can’t answer,” Brookings analyst Bruce Riedel points out, “is, Are they 2 percent of the opposition? Are they 20 percent? Or are they 80 percent?” For NATO, keeping an arm’s-length relationship with the rebels makes it hard to know the political dynamics within the opposition movement, let alone manipulate it. From the rebel point of view, working with al-Qaida is logical. Both groups hate Qaddafi, and the jihadists are willing to put their own lives at risk, as opposed to helping out from 30,000 feet. As one Libyan commander put it, “members of al-Qaida are also good Muslims.”

Finally, as the U.S. has learned from Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, training groups of soldiers is not easy:

 Nor does the slippery slope necessarily end after rebels are armed and trained. As the United States has learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, training local forces is difficult and time-consuming at best, and wasteful and futile at worst. The rebels may remain ineffective militarily, or the pace of the killing may exceed the speed with which they can be trained. Yet if the United States goes farther down the road of involvement, and arms and trains the rebels, it becomes even harder to step back should further problems develop.

Certainly this listed is not the full extent of problems, but all of these are critical issues the U.S. and NATO will need to consider as they move forward with operations.

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Filed under foreign policy, independent internationalist, Libya, NATO, Obama, U.N.

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