The Price of the Libya Intervention: Surface to Air Missiles for All

SAM“In 1979, when Soviet troops swept into Afghanistan, an angry Jimmy Carter organized an unofficial alliance to give the Soviets ‘their Vietnam’ (which Afghanistan became).”
New York Times, 11/9/11

The writer of the above paragraph is Marvin Kalb, a former network correspondent, Harvard professor emeritus, co-author “Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama.”

It is false history.

As Paul Jay of the Real News (and before him, the French publication Le Nouvel Observateur) discovered, the Carter administration made the decision to intervene in an Afghan civil war fully six months before the Soviet invasion. In a July 1979 “finding” the White House authorized U.S. military and intelligence agencies to supply the anti-communist mujahideen fighters with money and supplies.

The “finding” was the beginning of “Operation Cyclone,” a clandestine plan aimed at luring the Soviets into invading Afghanistan. From a relatively modest $23 million down payment, Cyclone turned into a multi-billion behemoth—the most expensive intelligence operation in U.S. history—and one that eventually forced the Soviets to withdraw.

Cynics might shrug and respond that isn’t truth always the first casualty of war? Except in this case the casualties are still coming in as the U.S. marks its 10th year occupying Afghanistan. And when one totes up the collateral damage from that July 1979 memo, which led to the eventual victory of the Taliban, it chills the soul.

When the mujahideen went home, they took the war with them, to Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Central Asia, North Africa, and a host of other places. They also permanently altered the skyline silhouette of New York City. In the annals of disastrous “blowbacks”—unintended consequences flowing from a policy or event—U.S. support for overthrowing the Afghan government and supporting the mujahideen has little competition.

Ancient history?

On Mar. 18, President Obama told the U.S. Congress that U.S. involvement in the war in Libya would be a matter of “days not weeks.” It turns out, lots of days, 227 and counting.

“It’s really quite interesting how resilient and fierce they’ve been,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Ralph J. Jodice II told the New York Times. “We’re all surprised by the tenacity of the pro-Qaddafi forces.”

Besides the rather creepy use of the word “interesting” to describe people you are trying to blow up with 500-pound bombs and Hellfire missiles, the key word in the general’s statement is “surprised.” Aside from destruction, about the only truth of war is surprise. As Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Prussian Army chief of staff, and one of the great military minds of the 19th century, once noted, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

It appears that when the President made those comments, he had been listening to generals, always a very bad idea. President Johnson listened to generals in Vietnam, and they told him some variation of what our current generals obviously told Obama: Piece of cake. We’ll bomb the bejesus out of these Arabs, and in a few days they’ll turn tail and run for the sand dunes.

Except they didn’t.

In the long run the combination of bombing, ground support by British Special Forces, and the unpopularity of the regime will eventually defeat the pro-Qaddafi forces, but because this has turned into a war of some 34-plus weeks, there is going to be some very serious blowback.

For starters, take the 20,000 mobile ground to air missiles, most of which have gone missing. There are two basic kinds that someone—we haven’t the foggiest idea who—has gotten their hands on.

The SA-24 “Grinch,” or Igla-S, is a very dangerous character. It has a range of some three miles, a powerful warhead, and a guidance system that lets it find targets at night. It is similar to the U.S. Stinger that so distressed the Soviets in Afghanistan. Introduced in 1983, it can hit a plane at 11,000 feet. It can also down drones and cruise missiles, and helicopters are toast.

The other ground-to-air is the older Russian SA-7 “Grail,” or Strela-2, originally deployed in the 1968, but upgraded in 1972. It has an infrared detection system—it homes in on an aircraft’s engine heat—and the upgraded model has a filter for screening out decoy flares. The SA-7 is similar, but considerably superior, to the U.S. Redeye. The SA-7 has a range of a little over two miles and can reach up to 16,000 feet.

“We are talking about some 20,000 surface-to-air missiles in all of Libya,” according to Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights emergencies director, who says that “in every city we arrive, the first thing to disappear are the surface-to-air missiles.” According to Bouckaert, “They could turn all of North Africa into a no-fly zone.”

One prediction: Niger has recently been using helicopters to attack the Tuareg-led Movement of Nigeriens for Justice in the Sahara. Tuaregs are demanding compensation for rich deposits of uranium that French companies are currently mining, and the Niger government has responded with military force. The Qaddafi government supported the Tuaregs in their fight with Niger, and supplied them with weapons. Want to make a bet that the Tuaregs end up with some of those missiles and that the Niger military is about to lose some helicopters?

And the fall of Qaddafi may not end the fighting. Libya is a complex place with strong crosscurrents of tribe and ethnicity. For instance, it is unlikely that the Berbers in the south will accept continued domination by the Arab north.

As for false history: journalism, as the old saw goes, is history’s first draft. According to the mainstream media, the U.S. and NATO got into the Libyan civil war to protect civilians, and indeed, one of the reasons the war has gone on so long is that NATO is reluctant to attack targets in Qaddafi strongholds, like Sirte, because such attacks might result in civilian casualties.

Which makes it hard to explain the Agence France Presse story entitled “NATO, NTC [National Transitional Council] deadlier than Kadhafi diehards: Sirte escapees.”

Sirte, Libya (AFP) Oct. 6, 2011-Fine words from NATO and Libyan new regime fighters about protecting civilians means little to the furious residents of Sirte, whose homes are destroyed and relatives killed in the battle to capture Moamer Kadhafi’s hometown.

“Why is NATO bombing us?” asks Faraj Mussam, whose blue minivan was carrying his family of eight jammed in beside mattresses and suitcases as they fled the city this week.

According to the AFP story, the greatest danger civilians face in Sirte is from NATO bombs and shelling by NTC forces outside the city. A Red Cross official told AFP that there are still tens of thousands of residents in Sirte—it was a city of 100,000 before the February revolution—and they are under constant danger from artillery and bombs.

When asked if NATO was fulfilling its mission to protect civilians, one aid worker, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly, replied: “It wouldn’t seem so.”

“There’s a lot of indiscriminate fire,” he said, adding that many of the Sirte residents and doctors he had spoken to had complained of the deadly results of NATO air strikes.

According to AFP, NTC soldiers say that firing artillery and rockets into Sirte doesn’t endanger civilians because they are all gone. It is a contention aid workers heatedly dispute.

The UN resolution that authorized the NATO intervention was supposedly aimed at protecting Libyan civilians. It quickly morphed from saving lives to regime change, and somehow the “protect civilians” only seems to apply to those who are on one side of the civil war. Sooner or later that narrative is going to come out, and the next time “protecting civilians” comes up in the UN, it is unlikely to get serious consideration.

More than 30 years ago the U.S. intervened in the Afghan civil war in order to goad our Cold War enemy into a fatal mistake (and then lied about it). We are still paying for that policy.

Eight months ago the U.S. and its allies engineered an intervention in Libya’s civil war behind the cover of protecting civilians, a rationale that is increasingly being challenged by events in that country.

What the “blowback” from the Libyan War is still unclear, it might be a bad idea to invest a lot of your money in commercial air travel, particularly anywhere in Africa, the Middle East or Central Asia. Qaddafi’s days may be numbered, but those SA-24s and SA-7s are going to be around for a long time.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.