Tag: tribal divisions

Another Suspect in the Libya Attack

Almost before the embers had cooled in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that took the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other staffers, suspicion centered on Ansar al Sharia and the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, two North African radical Islamist factions loosely affiliated with al Qaeda. One of those groups is most likely the perpetrator, but we need to at least consider other possibilities.

A few facts are clear: The assault was not a spontaneous demonstration in response to the notorious video mocking the Prophet Mohammad—a demonstration that simply spiraled out of control. Even the nasty, but less violent, demonstrations in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, and other Muslim countries do not fully fit that description, and the Libya attack was fundamentally different from all of those other incidents. The assault in Benghazi had all the earmarks of a well-planned, well-coordinated, professional military operation.

It is possible that either Ansar al Sharia or the Abdul Rahman Brigades had the capability to carry out such a sophisticated attack, but another faction was even more capable: former security personnel from Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. And that group had a strong motive for assassinating Ambassador Stevens: He had been the U.S. envoy to rebel groups in Libya, helping to coordinate U.S. and NATO aid to the insurgents who eventually overthrew Qaddafi. “As the conflict in Libya unfolded, Chris was one of the first Americans on the ground in Benghazi,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed on Wednesday. Indeed, one report asserted that he had “wrangled a ride on a Greek cargo ship” early in the conflict to get into Benghazi, the initial rebel stronghold.

Pro-Qaddafi elements were undoubtedly aware of his none-too-subtle role in the revolution. The attack on the consulate could have been payback. Indeed, Libya’s ambassador to the United States, Ali Aujali, insisted that his government had intelligence that “Qaddafi’s associates” were involved in the attack. It is tempting to summarily dismiss that thesis, since the new Libyan government is prone to blame every unpleasant development on remnants of Qaddafi’s regime, much as Iraqi and U.S. officials had the lazy habit of blaming all attacks during the first few years of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq on “Saddam dead-enders.”

But it’s possible that the Libyan ambassador could be right in this case. As I’ve written elsewhere, Libya is a deeply divided tribal society, with the main political fissure running north-south roughly through the middle of the country. Eastern tribes dominated the revolution (and previous unsuccessful rebellions against Qaddafi), while western tribes were the bulk of his supporters. Qaddafi’s death did not erase those divisions, and opponents of the new regime had ample reason to hate Stevens as an architect of their new, inferior status.

Although Islamic extremists were the most likely perpetrators of the attack and assassination, we should not be blind to other possibilities. Libya is a turbulent snake pit into which the United States has wandered. There are a lot of nasty actors—and more than one suspect in the consulate murders.

Afghanistan: Complicated, Confusing, and Tragic

Kabul, Afghanistan—Malou Innocent and I have been interviewing a range of people in Afghanistan’s capital.  Getting around isn’t easy.  The traffic is horrendous: automobile ownership has grown on roads built for a different era.  Street upkeep is not one of the city government’s strong suits.  Police checkpoints and traffic barriers dot Kabul.

Arriving at your destination is merely the start.  Military bases, government ministries, Western embassies, luxury hotels, and large businesses are fortified with tall walls, barbed wire, concrete barriers, reinforced gates, and guard posts.  Armed personnel man entrances and patrol grounds. 

As so often is the case, it quickly becomes evident on the ground that foreign conflicts are far more complicated than commonly advertised.  Afghanistan is a diverse and complex land.  Parts of it are stable and peaceful.  Ethnic and tribal divisions run deep, but vary around the country.  Although rural illiteracy is high, many urban Afghans are as educated and sophisticated as the Westerners who have flocked to Kabul.  And most everyone evinces a desperate desire for peace and security.

An overwhelming sense of tragedy hangs over this beautiful land.  The evidence of war and instability is everywhere.  The old royal palace still stands, abandoned and wrecked years ago.  The casualties of endless conflict are visible—adults and children hobbling along on only one leg, legless beggars by the road.  “Poppy palaces,” many constructed with drug money, continue to rise while the streets teem with people struggling to find work.  Afghan women covered by burqas walking outside of hotels and restaurants serving alcohol to foreigners.  Westerners abound, fighting the war, running NGOs, advising government ministries, and otherwise attempting to re-engineer Afghan society.

Individual stories remind us how blessed we are to live in America.  As frustrated as we might grow with U.S. government policy, we live in a nation that is prosperous, peaceful, democratic, stable, and still relatively free.  One 27-year-old Afghan, who currently works for a government ministry, told us about how his family decided to flee Kabul after his neighborhood was bombarded as the city was being fought over by various mujahedeen factions.  They returned home from Pakistan after the ouster of the Taliban; now he worries about the future.

The overwhelming message that we have heard so far is that the Afghan government is incompetent and corrupt; as such, it is a poor partner to Western nations seeking to create a functioning state.  Moreover, Western nations, and especially the U.S., are commonly unrealistic in their assumptions, objectives, and tactics.  We have yet to encounter many optimists about allied policy.

Although many foreigners of good intentions are working in Kabul, the flood of money to consultants and NGOs is often wasted or misspent.  Afghans themselves have grown cynical after decades of war; many focus on the short-term and are happy to manipulate Western aid agencies and militaries alike.  At the same time, those who have come forward to idealistically work for a better future are vulnerable and worry about the consequences of an allied retreat.

Every conversation makes it more evident how little we know and hard it is to understand this complex society and conflict.  Malou and I don’t expect our time here to turn us into experts.  But we do hope that we will learn enough to better participate in the Washington debate over U.S. and allied policy towards Afghanistan.