Coauthored with Isabella Bennett, program coordinator in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.
The violence that has plagued once-stable Mali since late 2011 should have come as no surprise to Western governments, for it is a direct function of NATO’s Libyan intervention. By adopting a “light footprint” approach in Libya, the alliance unwittingly contributed to a security vacuum that allowed countless weapons to stream out of Libya and fuel insurgency, extremism, and crime in neighboring countries. One of these countries was Mali, where the flood of weapons from Libya helped a rebel coalition topple the democratically elected government in Bamako in May 2012 and—until the recent French intervention—allow a jihadist alliance to gain control over the country’s entire northeast. The relevant policy question is why neither the United States nor its international partners did anything to staunch or mitigate the flow of Libyan weapons south.
After all, Western policymakers were hardly ignorant of the danger. A surge in the illegal arms trade is common in postconflict scenarios, and policymakers were well-aware of the threat that Libyan weapons posed in a volatile region of fragile states unable (and a times unwilling) to police their frontiers. The U.S. intelligence community knew that Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, the deposed Libyan leader, had filled “well over a thousand” arms depots. The collapse of his regime left behind “miles of unsecured warehouses filled with rockets, machine guns, ammunition, and antiaircraft systems.” Time magazine reported that within hours after Qaddafi’s death on October 20, 2011, Tuareg fighters from Mali that had served as his mercenaries were speeding home with pickup trucks full of weapons from the dictator’s warehouses.
By January 2012, a United Nations report warned that governments in the Sahel were struggling to address a “spike in weapons proliferation, organized crime, and terrorism.” Three months later, militants armed with the weapons flowing out of Libya orchestrated a coup in Mali. That was only the beginning of the turmoil, however. Taking advantage of the national political chaos, the weak reach of the central government, and their new access to arms, an alliance between jihadists—including the terrorist group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar Dine—with separatist Tuareg rebels, began to carve out a proto-state in the country’s northeast, imposing a draconian version of sharia law. By the end of 2012, these heavily armed elements were within striking distance of Bamako. Alarmed at the prospect of Mali becoming a permanent jihadist haven—and frustrated at delays in getting a UN-authorized force of African troops into the country–France launched an intervention on January 11, 2013.
If observers were so conscious of the danger posed by Qaddafi’s weapons stockpiles, the question is: What could have been done to keep them out of the hands of militants and terrorists, and why wasn’t it done?
From the outset, the Obama administration made it clear that the campaign in Libya would proceed with a “light footprint.” The international coalition would enforce a no-fly zone and conduct airstrikes to weaken Qaddafi’s forces, but let the Libyan rebels take responsibility for ground operations. As the air campaign wound down in August 2011, NATO issued a statement that the alliance would not deploy any troops to the country to help the Libyan National Transition Council (NTC) preserve law and order, stating that “It is a classic case for blue helmets.”
Ian Martin, then the special representative of the UN secretary-general and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, drafted a plan to help stabilize Libya in August 2011. It proposed “up to two hundred unarmed military observers plus an ‘interim protection force’ for the observers.” However, Martin soon informed the UN Security Council that the NTC had “rejected the idea of deploying any kind of international military force.” This resistance to a peacekeeping force was understandable: having come to power so recently, the victorious rebels were loathe to cede authority—and perceived sovereignty—to the United Nations. Unfortunately, the victorious Libyan rebels were also in no position, given their internal rivalries, to provide the basic security and rule of law that the country desperately needed. Implementing thorough security sector reform—including disarming militias, training new police and security forces, and establishing a functioning and accountable judiciary—would be the task of months and years.
In such a context, controlling Libya’s arms depots and borders appears to have been an afterthought. To be sure, U.S. and NATO officials spoke with NTC leaders about securing Libya’s weapons stockpiles, and (according to an anonymous CNN interview with a NATO source) deployed intelligence officers to help the new authorities do so. But these discussions and operations appear to have focused overwhelmingly on securing Libya’s mustard gas and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), rather than its massive stores of conventional arms. The Obama administration also provided a Swiss and a British nongovernmental organization with $1.5 million to prevent the proliferation of SAMs. (Both foundations had been working in the country to clear mines in Libya before the revolution.)
Keeping chemical weapons and SAMs out of the hands of terrorists is of course crucial. But if there is a clear lesson of the Libyan experience for future military interventions, it is that such efforts cannot come at the expense of securing small arms and light weapons—which in this case undermined stability through the Middle East and North Africa.
Moving forward, the United States should work with international partners and the United Nations to develop a new postconflict framework for securing weapons stockpiles—including but not limited to chemical weapons. It should also prioritize border control as a core task in reforming the security sectors of war-torn states. The United Nations should be in a position to offer such niche services and deploy trained personnel to accomplish these tasks, including where new authorities resist a fully-fledged outside peacekeeping force.
More generally, the United States should work more assertively with international partners to control the illicit arms trade and associated criminal activities, that continue to destabilize states around the world. The French intervention in Mali may eliminate terrorist havens there, for example, but it is unlikely to eliminate the many regional pipelines, spanning West and North Africa, that transnational criminals have established to traffic in illicit weapons, as well as drugs and people.
Clamping down on these established trafficking networks will require much better situational awareness, through a combination of remote sensing, investments in human intelligence, and information sharing among national governments. In one controversial proposal, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) hopes to establish a drone base in the region to improve surveillance of illicit activities. But the United States should not ignore potential multilateral options, like having the the UN Security Council direct the UN and its agencies (like the UN Office on Drugs and Crime) to monitor illicit arms flows in greater detail. According to Baffour Amoa, the president of the West African Action Network on Small Arms, third party assessments of legal weapons’ transfers in Niger could have identified stolen weapons from Libya and stopped them from falling into the hands of Malian rebels. Unfortunately, international proposals to tighten monitoring of the legal weapons trade—including through a new UN Arms Trade Treaty—have failed in the face of ambivalence from China, Russia, and the United States.
Finally, the spillover consequences of the Libyan intervention cast a pall over the “light footprint” model, suggesting that would-be intervenors should prepare themselves for regional blowback. Especially given the fiscal crises in NATO countries, leaders should invest in border control and control of weapons stockpiles to prevent the need for future, more costly interventions elsewhere. In the case of Mali, here’s hoping that the French mission includes attention to securing the country’s borders and its arms caches—and that the planned follow-on force of UN-mandated African peacekeepers, with U.S. and broader Western help, prioritizes the same tasks.