The US administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were set on developing deep “military to military” ties with the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi, classified US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks on 24 August reveal.
The United States was keen to integrate Libya as much as possible into “AFRICOM,” the American military command for Africa which seeks to establish bases and station military forces permanently on the continent.
“We never would have guessed ten years ago that we would be sitting in Tripoli, being welcomed by a son of Muammar al-Qadhafi,” Senator Joseph Lieberman (Ind.-CT) said during an August 2009 meeting, which also included Senators John McCain and Susan Collins.
The records confirm that McCain, the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, strongly supported US arms sales to Libya and personally pledged to Muammar Gaddafi (also spelled “al-Qadhafi”) and his son Muatassim that he would push to get such transfers approved by Congress. McCain also revealed that the United States was training officers in Gaddafi’s army.
While the Americans pursued the relationship vigorously, they met with a cautious and sometimes “mercurial” response from the Libyans. In particular, the mistrustful Libyans wanted security guarantees that the Americans appeared reluctant to give.
“We can get [equipment] from Russia or China,” Muatassim told the visiting senators, “but we want to get it from you as a symbol of faith from the United States.”
In hindsight, given the US support for the NATO war against the Gaddafi regime, it is not difficult to understand why the Libyans wanted these guarantees.
Nevertheless, Gaddafi received high praise for his “counterterrorism” credentials from US officials.
The documents also reveal that the United States was keen to court Gaddafi’s sons, flying them to the United States for high level visits.
And, notably, none of the cables regarding high level meetings quoted in this post made any mention of American concerns about “human rights” in Libya. The issue never appeared on the bilateral agenda.
Does the removal of the Gaddafi regime now clear the way for the United States to pursue the plans for integrating Libya into AFRICOM under what the Americans must hope will be a pliable regime?
“Increased defense cooperation”
In January 2008, US Assistant Secretary of State David Welch met with Libyan Foreign Minister Abdulrahman Shalgam. The classified memo recording the meeting notes:
Welch underscored the importance of increased defense cooperation as a signal of normalcy in the bilateral military relationship, particularly when considering Libya’s relatively recent rescission from the state sponsors of terrorism in June 2006. A/S Welch added that the Libyan government should invite AFRICOM Commander General Ward to Libya to discuss AFRICOM in greater detail.
The Libyans responded positively but somewhat warily:
Shalgam voiced the Libyan government’s interest in discussing AFRICOM and welcomed General Ward’s visit. However, he cautioned, the old guard within the MOD [Ministry of Defense] does not favor closer ties with the USG [US government] (reftel). In particular, General Abubaker Younes, the second in command, is firmly against cooperation and will refuse to meet any American official as he views U.S. coalition forces in Iraq as an occupation force. Nonetheless, Shalgam explained that it is important for Ward to visit and dispel misinformation and mistrust of AFRICOM among the Libyan leadership. He reasserted Libya’s continued, strong objection to U.S. military forces in Africa.
Shalgam also raised the issue of six C-130 military transport planes that Libya had purchased from the United States in the early 1970s, but which were never delivered due to US sanctions that were imposed later on.
Courting Gaddafi and his sons
After President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, it appears General William Ward, the commander of AFRICOM did get his invitation to visit Libya the following March. Before his visit, Ward received a classified briefing document from the US Embassy in Tripoli setting out US priorities and goals in Libya as well as providing insights into the regime.
The American document notes that after Libya settled various claims to do with terrorism cases including the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie bombing, it:
allowed us to move forward on the Mil-Mil MOU [Military to Military Memorandum of Understanding], which was signed in Washington in January. It also increased the number of high-level visits between the two countries including Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi’s two-week trip to the US in November and his brother Muatassim al-Qadhafi’s trip to Washington planned for April.
The memo again notes the mistrust on the Libyan side:
Despite the high-level interest in deepening the relationship, several old-guard regime figures remain skeptical about the re-engagement project and some facets of our interaction remain at the mercy of the often mercurial inner circle.
This was a reference to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, whom the Americans note, often appeared cooler than his sons.
Seducing Libya on AFRICOM
Ward’s brief, according to the classified cable, was to help overcome Libyan suspicion of US military expansion into Africa. The document advises the general:
Since the former Secretary of State’s visit to Tripoli in September, regime officials have slowly come to terms with AFRICOM as we have explained more of your mission. A clear explanation of AFRICOM’s mandate and expected activities on the continent, as well as a two-way discussion on areas of military-to-military cooperation will be welcomed by your interlocutors.
Reiterating AFRICOM’s support and humanitarian roles while allaying their fears about American troops or bases on the continent is another message they will be keen to receive. While Libya is a strong partner on counterterrorism, the Libyans remain wary of initiatives that put foreign military or intelligence assets too close to their borders. They are unlikely to join the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership, due as much to unwillingness to appear subservient to US interests as genuine distrust of U.S. intentions from certain old-guard regime elements. Negotiations on the Mil-Mil MOU [Military to Military Memorandum of Understanding] stalled on Libyan insistence that the language include security assurances on par with our NATO obligations. AFRICOM’s capacity-building component and support for peacekeeping forces may appease some, but we expect your military interlocutors will use your visit as an opportunity to tie their cooperation to security assurances.
Gaddafi is a “Top partner”
The Ward memo states:
Libya is a top partner in combating transnational terrorism. The regime is genuinely concerned about the rise of Islamic terrorism in the Sahel and Sahara and worries that instability and weak governments to their south could lead to a “belt of terrorism” stretching from Mauritania to SOMALIA. Al-Qadhafi prides himself on his recent initiatives with Tuareg tribes to persuade them to lay down arms and spurn cooperation with al-Qaeda elements in the border region; this is an issue worth exploring with him, while being mindful that he will oppose U.S. military activity in what he views as his backyard.
US arms sales to Libya
Throughout bilateral discussions, the Ward briefing memo notes, “Libyan officials have been keen to purchase US military equipment - both lethal and non-lethal.” It adds:
Libyan officials presented “wish lists” in the context of signing the Mil-Mil MOU. Muatassim [Gaddafi] accompanied his father on a high-profile trip to Moscow in October to discuss potential deals, but his father’s trips to Belarus and Ukraine were seen as an attempt to bring the price-point down for weapons deals. Their wish-lists comprise both lethal and non-lethal materiel and we have told the GOL that sales will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, particularly since not all senior USG leaders who would have a say on the subject have been appointed by the new administration.
The Americans were clearly open to selling weapons to Gaddafi, but were noncommital, as Ward was advised:
In effect, the Libyans have made military sales a key litmus of US trust and future intentions. In response, you might say that the U.S. looks forward to developing the bilateral security relationship and this process will take time; the C130s are a commercial matter best pursued with Lockheed-Martin.
The memo to General Ward concludes:
We are confident that your visit to Tripoli will open new doors for continued cooperation. Military cooperation is a key metric to determine the extent to which the Libyan government wishes to engage with the US. We hope your visit will assuage the fears of the more conservative elements of the regime while paving the way for AFRICOM’s continued success.
Senator McCain pushes for weapons sales
During his August 2009 visit to Tripoli, according to the classified record of the meeting, Senator John McCain was frank about his support for Libya’s weapons requests in a meeting with Muammar and Muatassim Gaddafi:
Senator MCCAIN assured Muatassim that the United States wanted to provide Libya with the equipment it needs for its security. He stated that he understood LIBYA’s requests regarding the rehabilitation of its eight C-130s (ref D) and pledged to see what he could do to move things forward in Congress. He encouraged Muatassim to keep in mind the long-term perspective of bilateral security engagement and to remember that small obstacles will emerge from time to time that can be overcome. He described the bilateral military relationship as strong and pointed to Libyan officer training at U.S. Command, Staff, and War colleges as some of the best programs for Libyan military participation.
A blueprint for post-Gaddafi Libya?
Nothing in the leaked documents reviewed here suggests that the NATO-backed removal of the Gaddafi regime was premeditated. On the contrary, the documents show that the United States was more enthusiastic about working with Gaddafi than perhaps Gaddafi was with the Americans – though clearly both stood to gain.
The Americans sought to expand their military presence in Africa and Gaddafi wanted to secure his regime against external threats.
At no point were human rights concerns ever an obstacle to American engagement for either the George W. Bush or Obama administrations.
The documents support the view that the decision to go to war against Gaddafi – in the name of “protecting civilians” was more opportunistic – riding on the back of the “Arab Spring.”
It is likely that after the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents by popular uprisings in January and February respectively, top American and NATO decisionmakers believed that once protests started against it, the Gaddafi regime would be too unstable and unreliable to deal with.
Yet, the regime also fought back against the uprising in Libya with a ferocity that exceeded even the violence of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes. It appears likely that American and allied leaders calculated that with a little push from their bombs, the balance could quickly be tipped in favor of the rebellion.
This mindset is clear from the claim in February – a month before the NATO intervention began – by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, that Gaddafi had already fled to Venezuela.
It was also clear from statements by US military and political leaders, once the bombing began, that the US military role would only last for days.
As it turned out, the war has so far lasted five months, and is not over. The full-extent of atrocities by NATO-backed rebels and Gaddafi loyalists are only now starting to come to light.
But just as the Americans were happy to work with Gaddafi, they will be as keen to work with his successors, who now owe their positions to foreign intervention.
The Americans must hope that the National Transitional Council (NTC) which the US has recognized as the new government will be less mercurial and even more open to “military to military,” and other kinds of ties.