Monday, March 07, 2011

Libya puts China in world stage spotlight

Libya puts China in world stage spotlight....
By M K Bhadrakumar

Launcelot Gobbo told his elderly father in a poignant moment in William Shakespeare's play Merchant of Venice, "Truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long." But the tragedy of life is often that by the time "truth is out", Gobbo would have become sand-blind and would no more be able to see his son.

For the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who perished since 2003, it is no consolation that the "truth is out" - that the war was a phony one bred by greed and imperial arrogance. Which is why it becomes important that the United States' proposed intervention in Libya shouldn't turn out to be another sojourn in yet another unknown land of killings.

A report in the London Sunday Times that a British special forces unit had been captured in the east of Libya underscores that "truth" is once again at a premium. Anyone who follows events in Libya would know that Muammar Gaddafi's hold over the eastern provinces of his country, especially Benghazi, was tenuous at the best of times. Libya is a complex tribal mosaic and Western intelligence exploited Gaddafi's Achilles' heel.

War option is the only option
British Defense Secretary Liam Fox wrote an article in the London Sunday Telegraph recently in which he argued that the impact of the Middle East uprising would be far-reaching and would resonate for many years and it raised the question of how British forces could respond to crisis situations. Fox actually pledged to strengthen Britain's special forces in response to the Arab revolt. These are excerpts:
The events over the recent days may produce a strategic shock and change in how we view the world. The speed of events in North Africa has shown how quickly circumstances can change and how quickly the UK can be drawn in. An island like Britain, with so many interests in so many parts of the world ... is inevitably affected by global stability ... If required, we could field a force of 30,000, including maritime and air assets for a one-off intervention. Although I cannot go into detail, our internationally respected and battle-tested Special Forces will receive significantly enhanced capabilities.
Clearly, the "intervention option" is propelling the Anglo-American juggernaut. A little behind, France tags along not to miss out on the "peace dividends" that follow the intervention - Libyan oil. The parallel with the Iraq war is striking, except that things are on a fast-forward mode.

United States senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman forcefully outlined the blueprint for President Barack Obama immediately after their return to Washington last week after consultations in Tel Aviv. They urged that Obama needed to take tougher action against Gaddafi. Lieberman demanded, "The fact is now is the time for action, not statements."

McCain spelt out specific steps: "Libyan pilots aren't going to fly if there is a no-fly zone and we could get air assets there to ensure it. Recognize some provisional government that they are trying to set up in the eastern part of Libya, help them with material assistance, make sure that every one of the mercenaries knows that ... they will find themselves in front a war crimes tribunal. Get tough."

Indeed, Obama got "tough". The chief military correspondent of Politics Daily, David Wood, reported from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, four days ago:
With orders from the White House to prepare "all options", military planners across the armed services are scrambling, from the XVIII Airborne Corps and 82nd Airborne Division headquartered here, to the U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., down to the future operations cell of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, embarked on the USS Kearsarge, an ambitious assault carrier headed toward Libya from the Red Sea ... None of the US planners involved will talk on the record.

Privately, though, planners, strategists and analysts describe a range of potential missions from imposing "no-fly" and "no-drive" zones ... to launching limited and short-duration humanitarian and relief operations. And because operations planners must consider worst-case situations, some are also looking at larger-scale armed intervention.
Agence France-Presse reported from Athens on Friday that the USS Kearsarge and another warship, the USS Ponce, had already set anchor at the US naval base on the Greek island of Crete and that the amphibious ready group included 800 marines and a fleet of helicopters. The American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (which has fighter jets that could enforce a "no-fly" zone) is also on call for the Libya crisis.

Defining a historical moment?
In short, the attempt by Washington to portray that its Libya plans are molded by events does not add up. Clearly, the US is defining a historical moment: if the Western world's vital economic interests come under threat, it is only the US that can salvage them, even when the theater is Europe's immediate neighborhood.

Unlike in the case of the Iraq war, Europe is solidly backing the US. There are no dissonant voices like France's Jacques Chirac or Germany's Gerhard Schroeder's mocking at the impending US intervention. Europe's vital economic and business interests are at stake in Libya.

But Obama's sail is also getting wind from two other quarters. First, Russia's "cooperative" stance. Russia is not opposing US plans, which makes things easy for Obama in the United Nations Security Council - and avoids the stigma of "unilateralism". Russian diplomats worked hard to push the unanimous Libya resolution through in New York, which was no mean contribution to US diplomacy.

Clearly, Obama's "reset" with Moscow is coming into play. Obama has successfully pandered to Russian demands to be treated as an "equal power". Now, there could even be more US-Russia tradeoffs in the coming months in the wake of the Middle East crisis. Iranians already voice disquiet that Moscow is again playing hide-and-seek on the commissioning of the Bushehr nuclear power plant.

Anyhow, coincidence or not, US Vice President Joseph Biden is visiting Moscow this week and Washington has held out missile defense and Russia's World Trade Organization membership as two priority areas in US policies in 2011.

In any case, all this business of democracy and "Arab awakening" never quite excited Russia. In Russia's "de-ideologized" world view, with 100% accent on self-interests, there is no requirement to promote democracy abroad. In fact, democracy can spread like a contagious disease and, after all, the Greater Middle East and the "Muslim world" also encompass the Caucasus and the Central Asian steppes.

For China, too, such uneasiness about the democracy virus probably exists. But that's a peripheral concern and probably a nuisance. But China is always a unique country and its behavior in New York was highly unusual in voting for the US resolution imposing sanctions on Libya and a referral of that country to the International Criminal Court.

Non-intervention has been a core principle for China. Over Myanmar, Zimbabwe or North Korea, China's stance has been consistent. Was it the specter of Gaddafi trampling on the holiest of Chinese principles - stability? Obviously, China has high stakes in the Middle East's stability and its economic interests happen to coincide with Eastern interests.

But that alone is insufficient to explain the novel Chinese stance on national sovereignty. One reason could be that China found itself on the defensive through much of last year by being pilloried (rightly or wrongly) as an "assertive" power and 2010 turned out to be China's annus horribilus in foreign policy. Libya presents an opportunity for China to be a "stakeholder" with Western countries.

The fashion in which China evacuated its nationals out of Libya is also relevant. A Chinese frigate was needlessly pressed into the mission and four Chinese military transport planes lifted off from Xinjiang and appeared in the Mediterranean skies in an unprecedented move. Besides, by not only evacuating its own nationals, but also lending a hand to rescue hundreds of Europeans, Bangladeshis and Vietnamese, China probably displayed its willingness to carry the burdens of a world power.

However, the big question still remains: Is this a one-off or has China's defining moment come as a collaborator of the US in securing the "global commons". We will know when and if the US presses the UN Security Council for the establishment of a "no-fly" zone over Libya.

From the fact that the US and its partners are discussing the "no-fly" zone option outside the UN if need arises to do so, it appears Obama isn't quite sure how far China is willing to go to concede its red lines.

A precedent of immense significance for international security is taking shape, and China has every reason to introspect. As Launcelot Gobbo posed to his blind father, "Do I look like a cudgel or a hovel-post, a staff or a prop? Do you know me, father?"
Fly me a Tuareg on time....
By Pepe Escobar
In the standoff - not civil war - between state power in Tripoli and a tribal-based parallel government plus "irregular militias", identifying key players in Libya gets increasingly murky. It's a long (1,000 kilometer), windy, desert road from Benghazi to Tripoli, or from uprising to victory, with a crucial midway stop in Sirte - Muammar Gaddafi's Tikrit (Saddam Hussein's home town) - until something emerges out of the final battle in a Tripoli encircled by a ring of steel. There's no evidence Gaddafi is about to embrace the daring, brand new Barack Obama administration Middle East strategy of "regime alteration".

Let's try to survey the battlefield. As much as tribes in Cyrenaica - eastern Libya - were always his number one strategic nightmare, Gaddafi's notorious co-option of tribal leaders is now history.

He still can count on some western and southern tribes, including

his own and Magariha, the tribe of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi. But most - but not all - tribes remain against the bunker (see
The tribes against the bunker Asia Times Online, February 25), including the top one, Warfallah (influential in the army), plus Zawiya (based in the oil-rich east), Bani Walid (they stopped collaborating with the security services), and Zintan (formerly allied with Gaddafi's own tribe).

If - or when - Gaddafi falls, Libya's provisional government will almost certainly be a mix of tribal leaders, with once again the more developed Tripolitania clashing with neglected Cyrenaica (one can't forget that Gaddafi's "modernizer" son Saif al-Islam blamed the uprising on tribal factions). Libyan tribes indeed have fought each other for centuries - much like in Afghanistan; but now the difference is that most are united against the common king of kings enemy.

The battle of Algiers
The military in Algeria is in dire need of pacemakers to keep up with events in Libya. No wonder; if Gaddafi falls, Algeria may be next (it's placed ninth in The Economist's shoe-thrower index - which aims to predict where the scent of Jasmine may spread next - ahead of already fallen Tunisia). Both are oil/gas powers - a wealth that does not trickle down to their increasingly desperate populations.

Rumors abound of Algeria being one of the only governments in the world practically supporting Gaddafi (Serbia is a different case; it's silent because of an array of juicy of military and construction contracts). So far the closest instance of Algiers directly helping Tripoli has been provided by the exiled human right group Algeria Watch, which insists Algiers has facilitated the air link for mercenaries from Niger and Chad to reach Libya (see
here). Algeria had done the same thing before - transporting troops to Somalia to help a US-backed puppet government fight rebel ''terrorist'' Somali tribes.

What's creepier, but still unconfirmed, is that one Colonel Djamel Bouzghaia - the "war on terror"-minded key security adviser to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika - may be the designated smuggler of deposed Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's private security forces and Republican Guard to, where else, Libya. Among these nasty types are the snipers who killed Tunisian demonstrators in three different cities, and may now be killing Libyan civilians.

Tuaregs to the rescue
If Gaddafi can count on Tunisian snipers for his dirty work, what to say about the nomadic Tuaregs from the Sahel?

Historically, Gaddafi always wreaked havoc among his neighbors - and Tuaregs were always instrumentalized by his megalomaniac strategy of carving out a Grand Sahara nation around Libya. He could not but profit from Tuareg secession dreams.

Ten years ago, on the road in Timbuktu in Mali, Tuareg friends provided me a crash course on Tuareg rebellions and the secession movement. In the early 1970s, many Tuaregs enlisted in Gaddafi's Islamic Legion - an outfit that would in thesis fight for a unified Islamic state in northern Africa. At the time there was absolutely nowhere else to go in a drought-stricken Sahel-Sahara. The legion lasted till the late 1980s, and then dissolved.

Gaddafi also propped up Tuareg rebellions, especially in Mali and Niger. He paid for installations in Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in Mali, opened a consulate in Kidal, and turned on the petrodollar charm. Tuaregs from north Mali simply abhor the central government in Bamako. The nomadic Tuaregs obviously don't trust any form of central government; essentially what they want is autonomy, or at least more investment in sanitation, health and education in the towns and desert villages they live.

Bamako and the Tuareg rebellion finally signed an agreement in July 2006, under Algerian mediation, leading in theory to peace and development in the Kidal region. The rebellion officially laid down their weapons in February 2009. Only one of the rebel leaders, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, did not agree with the whole set up. He is exiled in Libya.

There are Tuaregs living in the southwest Libyan desert. But Bamako is now spinning that at least 800 Tuaregs from Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Algeria have already joined Gaddafi's forces; how to resist an offer of $10,000 in cash to join, plus a $1,000 day-rate to fight, when you are a young, unemployed Tuareg?

The difference now is that Gaddafi seems to be creating not only a secession between the Tuaregs and the countries they live, but a secession inside the Tuareg communities themselves - especially in Mali, Niger and Chad. Some Tuaregs already worked for him in Libya for years; some have been members of the Libyan armed forces, with Libyan nationality; as for the new ones, they are being recruited by the force of the petrodollar - to the despair of many Tuareg communities.

That's' exactly what Abdou Sallam Ag Assalat, the president of the regional assembly in Kidal, told Agence France-Presse, "These young people are going en masse to Libya ... the regional authorities are trying to dissuade them, particularly former rebels, but it's not easy because for them there are the dollars, and weapons to be recovered ... One day they will be back with the same weapons to destabilize the Sahel."

The Tuaregs leave from north Mali, cross to southern Algeria and then cross to southern Libya; it's a grueling 48-hour trip, usually in convoys. Of course these desert "borders" are mirages. The operation, according to Algerian media, is organized by a former rebel Tuareg leader from Mali, now in Libya; he could well be Ibrahim Ag Bahanga. And if there's an air link involved - either from Algeria or from Chad - that's where the Tuaregs meet the Algerian security facilitators.

One of his Ukrainian nurses, Oksana, now says that Gaddafi is a "great psychologist". He's a fine sociologist as well, because he has noted - and immensely profited from - the fact that there are no real nation-states in the Sahel-Sahara, from a sociological, political and juridical point of view. Blaming the Tuaregs is not the point. Both Algeria and Libya have done nothing to at least repair the ravages of colonialism - which has scattered nomadic Tuaregs among four countries. Algeria always benefited from - and repressed - Tuareg fragmentation. As for the African king of kings, he can always count on his nomadic reserve army.