America's Libyan Intervention is Now Fueling an African Humanitarian Crisis


In the wide history of American interventions, the recent participation of America’s aircraft in coordinated bombings in Libya seems hardly the most misguided or unjustified. There was a humanitarian crisis occurring in Libya, and the U.S. and some of its allies were in a position to prevent mass murder with virtually no risk to their own military personnel. Largely in part to the allied bombing raids the insurgents were able to overthrow Gaddafi in an uprising that eventually led to his death. Compared to American adventures in Somalia, Iraq, and Vietnam, the American intervention in Libya looked initially as amongst the more successful. The Center for American Progress created the graphic below to illustrate just how more effective our campaign in Libya was when compared with Iraq.

Yet months later, it seems that non-interventionists are having their concerns justified.

The non-interventionist argument, put briefly, is that foreign interventions (no matter how well motivated) have the tendency to create undesirable effects that are very difficult to predict or contain. In the 1980s, the U.S. assisted the Afghan Mujahideen in fighting the Soviets, providing them with equipment and training. Years later we are now fighting some of the same people we armed and trained years before when we considered communism a worse threat than radical Islam. In the 80s the U.S. installed the Shah in Iran, a decision that has lead to a situation that is dominating our contemporary political scene. American behavior in Latin America is responsible for not only problematic diplomatic relations today, but also the deaths of thousands of civilians.

It turns out that the Libyan intervention is not the exception to this historical tendency. During the Libyan conflict, it was widely reported that Gaddafi had enlisted the assistance of foreign mercenaries, mainly from nearby countries such as Chad, Mali, and Niger. The Tuaregs, a group of nomadic Berbers who have helped Gaddafi in the past, were among the mercenaries who came to Gaddafi’s aid. During the conflict, the Tuaregs who volunteered were paid $10,000 to join Libyan government forces, and an additional $1,000 a day. After the fall of Gaddafi the Tuaregs fled, many of them back to Mali, where they have been engaged in what has been described as “the worst human rights crisis in northern Mali in 20 years.” While the Tuaregs have been known in the past to fight government forces, they are now armed with weaponry that was left over after Gaddafi fell. Drew Hinshaw of the Wall Street Journal has reported that - “...they [Tuaregs] have rarely been so well armed. Rocket launchers, missiles,  and machine guns capable of downing aircraft are circulating in the desert region, say U.S. and West African defense officials, after mercenaries plundered Gaddafi's arsenal at the end of Libya's conflict.” This most recent Tuareg uprising has displaced over 170,000 Malians, who have fled to Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Niger, causing something of a refugee crisis. Not only is there a refugee crisis, but military escalation in the region is not unlikely, with the head of the Ivory Coast’s army, Gen. Soumalia Bakayoko, saying that military action is being considered as a means to stem the Tuareg uprising.

This is a particularly worrying situation even after one has considered the humanitarian implications. The region of Africa where this crisis is happening is a region where Al-Qaeda has been active for some time. Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans Sahara (OEF-TS), an American-led operation, has been targeting terrorists in the region for years through military and police training, intelligence sharing, and equipment sales, with limited success. This situation in Mali and other neighboring countries is one that Al-Qaeda could use to their advantage. In the coming months it is not unlikely that we will see an increase in foreign kidnappings and a reinvigoration of the illegal weapons and drug trade in the region while government forces are distracted and stretched thin.

I would argue that the situation developing in Mali is one that demonstrates why we should be hesitant to get involved in foreign affairs. Not everyone agrees. Writing for the Weekly Standard Roger Kaplan argues that Mali is the “lynchpin” of American strategy in the region, and that the recent occupation of Tessalit in the north of Mali is a “stunning setback” to the U.S. counter terrorism policy in Africa. It might well be the case that the most recent Tuareg uprising is damaging to what our strategy is at the moment, but it is exactly that strategy that needs revising. One of Al-Qaeda’s chief complaints is that the U.S. is too involved abroad, and becoming too entrenched in a conflict that has only been exacerbated by our bombings in Libya in order to quell Al-Qaeda seems ill judged to me.

That the Libyans are better off as a whole without Gadaffi is still not clear. Militias threaten to pull the nation apart, and an environment that will foster extremism and instability has flourished. As well intentioned as our actions might have been in Libya their repercussions have spread across Libya’s borders and are now spurning a situation that will affect the U.S. as long as we remain in the region.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons