While NATO forces pummel Libyan targets, rebels are making territorial gains one day only to lose ground the next – and devising an end-game strategy remains an urgent problem for the West without an easy answer. The U.S. army is overextended. Appetites are low for a new exercise in nation-building, with decade-long experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan still a drain on the American-led coalition. At the same time, all Western leaders are haunted by the specter of Al Qaeda in North Africa, a new and growing threat.
At a recent hearing of the Congressional Committee on Homeland Security, Counterterrorism, and Intelligence, counterterrorism expert Rick Nelson testified that Al-Qaeda fighters are among the rebels in Libya. Americans reasonably fear that arming the Libyan rebels, probably a must-do in order to achieve regime change, risks creating an Afghanistan-like situation in which American weapons support and training for the Mujahideen against the Soviets in the ‘80s led to Al Qaeda terrorism against the West in the ‘90s and ever since.
Given American and European military fatigue, a viable solution to the Libya conflict requires regional participation. I’m not talking about the largely symbolic type of political support proffered by the Arab League or modest military support granted by the likes of Qatar. I mean that the countries in Libya’s neighborhood – specifically Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia – need to figure prominently into the coalition’s unfolding work. That means not just diplomatic cover but also military and intelligence support, as well as an unflinching commitment to annihilating Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. This is of course easier said than done. Achieving this goal means uniting the three players, who alas are mired by political differences. Some of those differences arise from the recent wave of revolutions across the Arab world, while others stem from a longstanding conflict in the Sahara whose resolution is long overdue.
It is now well known that Qaddafi has been using non-Libyan mercenary troops for mission-critical assistance in brutalizing his own population. Contrary to a widespread belief, many of these troops are not individual soldiers of fortune; they are organized brigades deployed to Libya by some of Qaddafi’s long-term allies. Prominent on this list is the Polisario paramilitary junta. Backed by Algeria for the past 30 years, the Polisario lays claim to a 103,000-square-mile strip of Saharan desert which has been held by Morocco since 1975. A bloody war was fought between Morocco and the Sahara in the seventies.
Since that time, there has been a state of cold war between Morocco on the one hand and Algeria and the Polisario on the other.
Qaddafi, meanwhile, has exacerbated the conflict by arming and training Polisario troops. It was therefore hardly surprising that a few weeks ago Qaddafi, according to Western intelligence sources, asked Polisario leader Muhammad Abdelaziz for military support in his struggle against rebels and the West. The latter heeded the call, sending hundreds of well-trained fighters together with weapons and supplies to the Libyan front. For weeks Algeria was believed to have facilitated the transfer of these soldiers and materiel. This week, the French foreign ministry confirmed as much, and went so far as to say that Algeria is secretly backing Qaddafi in a variety of ways. Meanwhile Morocco has understandably served the Western coalition as a quiet but prominent partner in the push to end Qaddafi’s rule, providing intelligence support as well as diplomatic cover.
Moroccans believe that Algeria would be better off as an ally in the struggle against Qaddafi and Al Qaeda. After all, Algeria, like Morocco, has long suffered from the scourge of terrorism. But in order for Morocco and Algeria to truly form a partnership, Western pressure needs to be brought to bear: the US and Europe should use a carrot and stick approach with Algeria, pressuring the country to stop enabling the Qaddafi crackdown while incentivizing it to join in the coalition. Meanwhile, the Saharan conflict needs to be brought to a swift conclusion. That means fast-track U.N. negotiations with American support on the basis of Morocco’s offer of political autonomy on all 103,000 square miles of Saharan territory, an offer that has been endorsed by the United States, Western Europe, and the U.N. itself. Diplomats have been shuttling between Algeria, Morocco and the Polisario camps for years without success. But the urgent situation in Libya provides the United States and its allies with an irrepressible need to resolve the conflict once and for all.
The Tunisian side of the equation is a different matter. Since the Libya conflict began, the country has been used as an intelligence listening post as well as a transit point for Libyan refugees, not to mention that it is a safe transit point senior Libyan officials defecting to the West. (Alas, the movement of mass numbers of Libyans to Europe through Tunisia is a major and growing problem for European countries, notably Italy.) Tunisian contributions thus far have been important, but the country can do more: it should be pressed, particularly given a newly-formed Moroccan- Algerian coalition, to provide intelligence support as well as boots on the ground. This entails complex Western-led negotiations with a nascent Arab government whose leadership is in a state of flux. The United States and France have the opportunity to leverage much-needed foreign and military and aid to Tunisia in exchange for a measure of support.
These goals will be hard to achieve, but pursuing them is a no-brainer. It’s a matter of expending diplomatic capital, not military resources – and at a time when military resources are spread thin to an unprecedented degree, who can afford not to try?
Ahmed Charai is publisher of the Moroccan Weekly Magazine L’observateur as well as the French edition of Foreign Policy magazine. He sits on the board of trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.