The Oil and the Glory

In Libya, echoes of when the CIA’s Afghan funding went wrong

In Libya, echoes of when the CIA’s Afghan funding went wrong

For six months — ever since the rebel movement took shape in Benghazi — one of the liveliest guessing games in Libya has been deducing the whys of Qatar’s deep intervention in the uprising. After all, for the last decade or so, Qatar ruler Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani’s main preoccupations have been the accumulation of a fabulous natural gas fortune, and the creation of a wondrously successful all-news TV channel. But now, Sheikh Hamad has deployed jets, military and political emissaries, and tens of millions of dollars to project the influence of his ultra-tiny sheikhdom.

This sudden high profile has generated concern, particularly among those familiar with how similar well-meaning Arab largesse went wrong in 1980s Afghanistan, leading to that nation’s long period of jihadism.

Conjecture about Sheikh Hamad’s motives has included a desire for regional cachet and an economic payoff (the BBC); a hope to "secure influence and make good friends" (Bloomberg BusinessWeek); and an aim to be a leading voice in Arab nationalism (the New York Times).

But, in a piece this week, the Wall Street Journal delivers contextual reporting that appears to be better anchored. The WSJ story, by Sam Dagher, Charles Levinson and Margaret Coker, describes the Qatari activities in a way reminiscent of the direct Saudi aid that — in parallel to covert U.S. assistance to the anti-Soviet mujahedin — went to then-little known Afghan leaders like Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbedin Hekmatyar.

In one scene, a former Islamic fighter named Abdel Hakim Belhaj disrupts a meeting of the Libyan uprising’s leaders by arriving with Major General Hamad Ben Ali al-Attiyah, chief of staff of Qatar. Much as Haqqani and Hekmatyar often managed to prevail because of their Saudi and Pakistani intelligence connections, Belhaj (pictured above) told the others: "You will never do this without me."

With the knowledge of Western intelligence agencies, Qatar had been flying arms shipments directly to Belhaj and other Islamic-led militias, bypassing the Benghazi-based National Transition Council, also echoing the Afghan practice that neutered mujahedin efforts to coalesce into a ruling body.

The similarities are the more striking since Belhaj cut his teeth fighting in Afghanistan during the rise of the Taliban in the mid-1990s.

Qatar argues that it is neither out to dominate Libya nor install a theocratic government there. Instead, reports the WSJ:

one of Qatar’s main goals in supporting popular uprisings in the region … is to promote its political vision — that in a Muslim-majority region, Islamic political figures can help build modern, vibrant Arab nations by being included in new democracies.

Sheikh Hamad thinks that, given a chance under genuine democracy, some of the region’s most radical Islamic forces could turn to electoral politics.

It is true that Qatar itself, though an absolute monarchy, has one of the region’s most liberal governing styles, with al-Jazeera TV and satellite campuses of numerous U.S. universities and think tanks. Moreover, Libya is not Afghanistan. For one, Libya has a source of serious legal income — its oil and natural gas. It also has a well-educated population, and much infrastructure.  

Yet the CIA also thought it could control any after-effects of the massive assistance in Afghanistan. Among the lessons there is that it is hard to export a way of governance to another country, and to stop the jihad once it is started.