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Would arming rebels in Libya end up helping al Qaeda?

By Alexis Crow, Special to CNN
  • Arming rebel force carries with it clear moral predicament in facilitating the act of killing
  • U.S. has reputation for propping up unsavory dictators while arming opposition groups
  • The longer conflict continues, the longer the country can be used as launch-pad for opportunists

Dr. Alexis Crow is Research Fellow at Chatham House's International Security Programme.

(CNN) -- As the Western coalition considers the option of whether or not to arm the rebel opposition in Libya, one word immediately comes to mind: "Blowback."

Coined by author Chalmers Johnson, it is now often referred to specifically as the unintended consequence of the U.S. decision to arm the non-Afghan Arab fighters -- or 'mujahideen' -- in their fight against the Soviets. Little did the CIA know that the very same fighters would one day form the backbone of al Qaeda.

Yet in contrast to "Charlie Wilson's War" in Afghanistan, and indeed other CIA missions throughout the Cold War -- particularly in Latin America -- the current decision is being debated in the open. On whether or not to arm the rebels, President Obama announced: "I'm not ruling it out but I'm also not ruling it in."

Why such a cautious tone? Primarily, arming a rebel force carries with it a clear moral predicament in facilitating the act of killing. This is something to be carefully debated by all of the Libya coalition partners.

Furthermore, since the start of the Cold War, the U.S. has garnered quite a tarnished reputation for propping up unsavory dictators on the one hand, and giving arms and materiel to opposition groups, on the other.

Notwithstanding, since the start of the intervention, the U.S. and its allies have had to seriously consider the option of arming the Libyan opposition, in the event that the conflict becomes a stalemate between a loosely-organized rebel group and Gadhafi's well-equipped loyalist forces.

But the resounding questions are: Who are the rebels, and do they represent a coherent democratic alternative to Gadhafi's regime? Or, will arming the opposition fuel a tribal conflict?

A case could be made that Gadhafi's autocratic rule is comparable to that of Marshal Tito in the Balkans: Only a dictator could hold different tribes or nationalities in place in one political entity. When Gadhafi came to power by military force in 1969, he united three separate territories, divided by the former king Idriss I -- hence, the argument goes, a representative democracy couldn't hold them together again.

However, there are reports of a considerable population of the Warfalla and Tarhuna tribes -- those loyal to the Gadhafi regime -- residing in the east of the country, as well as many Benghazis living in the west. If they form some sort of united front against Gadhafi and in the name of democracy -- spearheaded by the rebels -- there may be hope for change.

Yet how quickly could a new government become stabilized -- especially in a region rocked by Islamist revolt? How long might that government stay in power?

With hindsight, what national interest might justify supplying arms to rebels in a volatile and unstable region?
--Alexis Crow

The longer an armed conflict continues, the longer the country can be used as a launch-pad for opportunists seeking to wield non-state power, and accordingly, the more time afforded for such groups to raid arms depots or caches potentially provided by the West. After all, the Kalashnikovs and M-16s used during the Soviet war in Afghanistan have remained serviceable for decades -- and are even employed against ISAF forces today.

Looking back to CIA's support of the mujahideen, "Charlie Wilson's War" was somehow justified by the national interest of containing the Soviets -- by ensuring their military defeat in south Asia, we might have hastened their ideological defeat in Europe.

Yet with hindsight, what national interest might justify supplying arms to rebels in a volatile and unstable region, populated by spin-off groups from the al Qaeda franchise, ready to capitalize on a potential civil war? In what way can this befit any national security interest of a coalition partner?

Therefore, even more than the moral dilemma of giving arms to groups, the option at hand may pose a greater strategic dilemma, with unintended consequences for decades to come. These questions merit serious consideration in the coming days -- before any option is "ruled in."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alexis Crow.

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