Afghanistan and Libya: Similarites and Differences
Mar 27, 2011

Afghanistan and Libya: Similarites and Differences

A decade after bombing began in Afghanistan the internationals have launched a new campaign in Libya.There are both considerable similarities and a few important differences between the bombing campaigns of the early part of the Afghanistan war and the bombing in Libya. This comparison provides us with some perhaps useful insight into how the nature of the campaign in Libya and how it might go.

Let's take similarities first. At the most general level, both campaigns consist of choosing a local fighting force that is on one side of a civil war, siding with them, and using western bombing that significantly tips the balance of the civil war towards the favored local force that does the ground fighting to (hopefully) achieve victory. In Libya, the favored fighting force is the rebels - a somewhat disparate group of people from the east including defected military men from Qaddafi's regime. In Afghanistan, the factored fighting force was the Northern Alliance of various regional warlords of Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and other non Pashtun ethnic groups who had been fighting a civil war with the Pashtun Taliban. In both cases, the forces were losing with the Libyan rebels essentially surrounded in their stronghold of Benghazi while the Northern Alliance had been pushed out of all but the north of Afghanistan with many warlords keeping their operations based out of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other central Asian countries.

All of the ground fighting was (or is) to be done by these local forces. They receive an advantage from covering by western bombing campaigns which take out the offensive weapons such as planes, tanks and artillery in Libya (the Taliban didn't have weaponry this advanced but conveys, armament sites, troop locations and the like were bombed). As the rebels in Libya regain cities from Qaddafi's forces, the bombing has moved out with it. There must be no lack of clarity that this campaign has moved significantly beyond the ostensible humanitarian goals of a no fly zone and is instead aiding and abetting the rebel advance as it reclaims territory.

In both cases the action was rushed into very quickly triggered by unpredictable events. In Afghanistan it was 9/11  which saw the invasion merely weeks later. In Libya it was the protests, the crackdown and the flash eruption of a civil war to the point that the bombing started as Benghazi was literally surrounded. There was little opportunity for public debate and what debate there was was poorly focused. In Afghanistan, the major discussed purpose and goal was the capture of Osama bin Laden with little discussion in the first weeks after 9/11 that a massive nation building effort and occupation was about to occur. In Libya, until the UN passed the resolution authorizing force the major discussion was exclusively that of a no fly zone (even the bombing of air defenses aspect was downplayed until internal divisions in the Obama administration brought this to light). That it would have a wider mandate and that this mandate would be used seemingly to assist the rebels in their advance across the country to what end we can only speculate was certainly not given a reasonable chance of public debate (nor congressional approval of a declaration of war, although precedent shows this being routinely ignored).

Finally, the Libya action is a continuation of the Bosnia and Afghanistan predecessors surrounding the model of UN sanctioned multilateral air based interventionism centered around the US and her European allies (notably Germany abstained with the BRIC bloc on the Libya action while involved in Afghanistan). The truly multilateral nature using token planes and ships from Canada and several smaller European powers besides the UK and France along side the US dominance represents a willingness and a competence to engage in timely and decisive military action as long as it is limited to embargoes and bombing campaigns (low risk, pressing their uncontested military advantages).

There are, however, some important differences. Perhaps most obviously is that Qaddafi is a firmly entrenched power for most of the lives of any of the fighters while the rebels are but weeks old as a force. In contrast, in Afghanistan the Taliban and the Northern alliance were engaged in a prolonged civil war already and the Taliban while in de facto control had few of the institutions of state that Qaddafi has. Secondly, the Northern Alliance were backed far more than the Libyan rebels are by the west with considerable sums of cash paid to the warlords within days of 9/11, large amounts of weapons dispersed and small number of US SOF physically on the ground to essentially direct the bombing campaigns. None of this can be definitively stated to be happening in Libya.

The question turns to speculating to what extent the similarities have predictive validity. The bombing campaign and Northern Alliance take over of Afghanistan happened quickly. But a decade latter the war is still being fought among a large nation building effort and faces an unrelenting Taliban opposition. Many of the problems that exist in Afghanistan today consist of issues with regards to the former warlords which segregate the country into local regions of control that prevent development, security or economic growth outside of the control of the warlords. I think it is fair to accept that the result in Afghanistan is undesirable, so the question is whether there is a reasonable chance of it occurring in Libya.

Firstly, there is some legitimate question as to whether the rebel force will be able to actually displace Qaddafi on the ground  in Tripoli as the Northern Alliance displaced the Taliban in Kabul. Reports suggest perhaps as few as a thousand former military men are in the group. Should this not happen, then there is a considerable likelihood of a more protracted civil war with no clear victor or really a reliable ability to predict the outcome. Incidentally, if preventing humanitarian conflict is the ostensible goal then having the rebels not fight would be a natural objective. While there was certainly grounds that a slaughter was possible in Benghazi without action, as the rebels move out from Benghazi under western bombing protection this is encouraging a conflict, not discouraging it. Let us assume for the rest then that having the rebels win this civil war and displace Qaddafi is to be the claimed objective.

In Afghanistan, after the Northern Alliance took Kabul the international ground forces moved in and began a significant policing and national building effort as well as directly fighting the Taliban who moved from de facto rulers to guerrilla resistance. In Libya, the UN resolution does not afford this possibility as of yet and the partners have been more than clear about a lack of a desire for western troops on the ground. So we are forced to ask: if the situation in Afghanistan remained in conflict a decade after starting when western forces were there to police and fight and build a nation on the ground, what is the likelihood the conflict would quickly end in Libya without the western troops? While there are arguments that it is precisely western presence that extends the conflict, promotes anti-western sentiment and the like, from a perspective of security it is hard to imagine the new, unorganized, small and motley (and as yet nameless) group of rebels in Libya being able to easily establish order in their country. Indeed, one of the largest problems with the early years of Afghanistan (assuming one wants to overturn the Taliban and occupy the country) was that the internationals did rely too heavily on local warlords and as the focus quickly turned towards Iraq largely the security situation in Afghanistan was ignored which paved the way towards the Taliban resurgence. The tepid involvement in Afghanistan is being replaced by a scenario in Libya and order of magnitude less involved.

Assuming the rebels manage in securing Tripoli and removing Qaddafi, the biggest source uncertainty is what happens with the forces and people of western Libya who are loyal supporters of Qaddafi if he left. Would a guerrilla resistance form? Would the eastern forces not be able to take and hold the western cities? Would a continuing civil war ensue with no end in sight? This last question is the same question that is as yet unanswered if the rebels do not manage to take Tripoli. Ultimately, we know as little about the rebels and whether they would be an improvement as we did about the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Recall that Qaddafi was once heralded by the west as a modernizer for Lybia and the Taliban formed out of western influence in the Soviet-Afghanistan war.

This post does not attempt to argue for a set of policies in Libya. However, it does note that there are significant similarities between Libya and Afghanistan that are not encouraging and even the differences - such as the unwillingness to put western troops on the ground and the new and small scale of the rebels - are perhaps factors in the wrong direction. Ultimately, the fact that the outcomes of this conflict are so uncertain makes it very difficult to judge appropriately whether an action like the western bombing is going to be the humanitarian one that saves the most lives and gives the best quality of life to future Libyans. What we can say is that the bombing will continue and entrench the conflict and the best we can hope for is that it entrenches it to the point that "our" side wins and that this outcome will be beneficial. That hopeful end is, as yet, very much uncertain. 

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