By R. S. Kalha*
Just before he was overthrown, former Libyan ruler Gaddafi warned the West that his ouster would result in chaos and holy war overtaking North Africa. His forebodings, now so accurate, were at that point in time dismissed by western governments as the ranting of a megalomaniac. It is now admitted that “Gaddafi’s overthrow broke all kinds of local ethnic, tribal and commercial bargains and power broking arrangements that we never understood”.
Similar had been the warnings before President George W. Bush decided to intervene in Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003. Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to the first President Bush, had warned in an article widely perceived to be written with the blessings of the elder Bush and published in the Wall Street Journal on August 16, 2002, that “an attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counter-terrorist campaign we have undertaken”.
George W. Bush did not pay heed to such sage advice, with horrendous consequences that all are too familiar now. The people of Iraq, in particular, are still paying a heavy price for that folly.
What followed in Libya on the ouster and killing of Gaddafi was the inevitable outcome of lessons still unlearned. The fury of clan, ethnic and jihadi violence has been unleashed. The murder of U.S. Ambassador Stevens has still not been solved nor have the perpetrators of that ghastly crime been apprehended.
But what has happened is that the lid that Gaddafi kept on Libya’s various ethnic and tribal factions has been removed without a corresponding firm alternative. The borders of most North African states, once controlled by forceful authority, are now open and porous to assorted jihadis of different denominations, including al Qa’ida elements, which, together with criminal gangs, now terrorise the North African countryside.
The cause was the spread of the madrasah, “built, staffed and indoctrinated by Saudi money and theology”. Added to this toxic mixture are the lethal weapons stolen by the jihadis from Gaddafi’s armouries which they are now using to threaten local communities. Meanwhile, the ineffective government put in place by the western powers looks on with utter helplessness. There is no administration, no army and no police force worth the name that the helpless government in Libya can seriously task for maintaining law and order.
The French would dearly like to present their military action in Mali in altruistic terms as fighting the spread of terror linked jihadis; but the origins of the French intervention are much deeper and by no means altruistic.
Poverty stricken Mali is a very poor country. What the French fear the most is the malaise of jihadi sponsored terror spreading to other West African countries, particularly Niger, a neighbouring country to the east of Mali and immediately to the south of Libya. Niger is one of the main uranium producing countries in Africa with about 7.5 per cent of the world’s output from two high grade mines at Azelik and Arlit, the bulk of which is exported to France.
France is a major producer of nuclear power and it requires about 10,500 tonnes of uranium per year. Its 58 operational nuclear power plants produce nearly 75 per cent of the total power requirements of France, thus largely freeing it from dependency on imported fossil fuels. Areva, a French state owned nuclear power company, is perhaps the largest in the world. Consequently, France can ill afford to let Niger slip out of its orbit.
President Hollande has also been egged on by relentless right-wing pressure at home that have let no opportunity pass to criticize him for letting France become ‘internationally isolated’ and for “lack of preparedness”. But for France and other European countries the harshest blow has been the lack of U.S. military involvement.
For the United States, the issue of securing oil and gas supplies from the Middle East and North Africa is no longer that important. As the United States moves towards becoming increasingly self-reliant with shale gas production and oil extracted by the new ‘fracking’ technology, it will show less and less enthusiasm in getting involved in European military ‘adventurism’ in North Africa and the Middle East. For all of PM David Cameron’s verbal blustering, all that the United Kingdom has been able to cobble up to support the French effort have been two RAF transport planes; and one of these broke down at Paris airport!
It is therefore beyond comprehension why the two European powers, France and the UK, supported by the United States, are so adamant about overthrowing Bashar Assad of Syria and replacing him with an assorted group of mercenaries some of whom have very ill repute?
This is not to suggest that Assad’s high handedness is of any less concern. But to unleash sectarian conflict in the heart of the Arab world is fraught with unforeseen consequences. Even Israel seems to have had second thoughts and Israeli calls for the overthrow of Assad have become considerably muted in the recent past. Once Assad played the Kurdish card by withdrawing Syrian troops from north-east Syria where the Kurds mainly live and letting them set the agenda there, Turkey saw the writing on the wall and seems to have retreated behind the NATO shield provided for its security. The emergence of an independent Kurdish state is a continuing Turkish nightmare.
For the western powers the replacement of Assad by Saudi theology in the form of extreme Wahabism would be a poor bargain. It would only foster even more militant Islam. The western powers are learning the hard truth in North Africa, where nearly 40 foreign hostages were massacred at the BP In Amenas gas facility by rogue elements of the al-Qa’ida in Islamic Magreb [AQIM]. Full details of that horrible massacre are only now slowly emerging. The western powers are now scrambling to provide security to their other economic assts in North Africa.
What has happened in North Africa with the overthrow of Gaddafi and the fall of Mubarak in Egypt should induce re-thinking particularly in London and Paris. The strategy followed so far of effecting regime change in the garb of overthrow of dictators (no matter how odious) has been extremely short sighted.
As a corollary, democracy and democratic governance have not automatically followed. All that the western powers have achieved is to propel into powerful positions an assorted lot of Islamists as well as autocrats with medieval beliefs and a penchant for terrorism. And the cause of human rights for women, in particular, seems to be lost for the foreseeable future. The time for a rethink of this strategy has arrived.
*R. S. Kalha is a former Secretary in India’s Ministry of External Affairs. This article first appeared in the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) on January 23, 2013 with the headline With Eyes Wide Shut: The Continuing and Inexplicable Pursuit of Regime Change. Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.