As President Obama and officials from his White House and administration intensely debate whether to arm the Libyan rebels, memories of “freedom-fighters” past loom large.
History has shown time and time again that today’s heroic mujahedeen are tomorrow’s Taliban or al Qaeda; a policy that today seems a silver bullet could end up becoming quite a different ordnance in the long term.
Here are some of the questions the Obama administration is trying to figure out about the rebels:
1. Who are they?
The Obama administration at this point seems to regard the formal representation of the opposition a credible body. But serious questions remain about who the rebels on the ground in different cities are, made up as they are by a ragtag stew of tribes, students, guys who hate Gadhafi, with some bad guys tucked in there.
A 2007 study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point looked at 595 fighters who entered Iraq to fight against the US. Almost 19% of them were from Libya — the 2nd most common country of origin. The study suggested "The apparent surge in Libyan recruits traveling to Iraq may be linked the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group's increasingly cooperative relationship with al-Qa'ida…"
As Luis noted yesterday, NATO's top commander was this week asked about the opposition, and Adm. James Stavridis said “the intelligence that I'm receiving at this point makes me feel that the leadership that I'm seeing are responsible men and women who are struggling against Colonel Gadhafi. We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential al-Qaeda, Hezbollah.”
2. What do the rebels want/need?
There’s not exactly a lack of small arms in Libya, so the question is what do they want – and most relevant to that is what weapons are Gadhafi’s forces using.
For instance: If tanks are the biggest threat to civilians and the rebels right now, anti-tank weapons would be the need.
The US is also trying to figure out what other countries are providing to the rebels so there would be some coordination if additional steps are taken.
3. What training would be associated with that?
You can’t just mail anti-tank weapons to Benghazi. These are complex weapons that require training. Those trainers WOULD count as “ground troops” – which President Obama has said he would not send into Libya – so someone else would have to train the rebels in how to use the weapons, possible military officials from countries in the region such as Egypt.