Keeping your eye on the ball; the case of Mali and Algeria

When I was in business school, we did a lot of case studies. I don’t know about military academies, but I really hope they do the same. Certainly the following cautionary tale should be added immediately to any military curriculum that trains its students in strategy and decision making.

The rise of Islamists is an old story now, and has caused far more pain and suffering to every day Muslims than it has to the US. From Central Asia to North Africa, this radical and intolerant variant on Islamic tradition is unwelcome to most. But still it persists. Like a pillow, you push down on it in one place and it pops up in another. And it seems to feed off failed states like Afghanistan and Mali and Somalia, like the flu which can kill the elderly or a lion who takes down the weakest of the herd. So what’s different now? Why did all this flair up so recently in Mali and Algeria? In short, it is the increased availability of weapons.

libyaWe now know the Arab Spring had unintended consequences, especially in Libya. Countries like Egypt and Tunisia have millennia of national identity giving them a sense of unity. But Libya was a construct of European colonialism and was a new country, created by foreigners, drawing lines on the map. The identity and loyalty of Libyans was to their clan, not nation. And there were no national institutions to give stability during the collapse of the central government in the way that Egypt’s army gave continuity and control. Weapon caches in Egypt never were open to pilfering, since the Army was always in control of them. But in Libya, the weapon armories were maintained by mercenaries and the weapons themselves just disappeared.

Evidence is scant but some of it is clear and disturbing. It turns out that much of what is being used by Islamists in Mali seems to have come from Libya. Even the raid on the oil refinery in Algeria which caused the death of more than 90 people involved former Libyan arms. In January 2013, the UK newspaper The Guardian reports “In one striking case, Belgian-manufactured landmines originally supplied to Gaddafi’s army appear to have been used by the jihadi militants who attacked BP’s In Amenas gas facility in Algeria last week.”

During the fall of Gaddafi, Britain, France and the US were perhaps overly focused on securing shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. One can perhaps forgive this error since we were supporting the revolution from the air, so anti-aircraft missiles were perceived to be the greatest threat. But there were impassioned pleas from various non-governmental groups in both the security fields and human rights organizations, telling the US to secure all the other types of weapons. Unfortunately these pleas went unheeded. The Guardian quotes Peter Bouckaert, of Human Rights Watch as saying, “”The arrival of new weapons changes the game. One day the rebels fight with AK47s and the next day they show up with anti-aircraft guns and other weapons and it’s a completely different conflict.

“In a lot of these conflicts the focus is on the most exotic weapons, whether chemical weapons in Syria or Manpads [anti-aircraft missiles] in Libya, but we have to go back to Iraq in 2003 and look at the carnage caused by much more conventional weapons in the aftermath of the war.

“Two artillery shells can make a car bomb, and there are hundreds of thousands of them missing in Libya. For 10 years the US and its allies lost soldiers in Iraq to the weapons that they failed to secure in 2003, and now the same thing has happened on a more massive scale in Libya.”

Our own military’s increasing use of exotic weapons perhaps distorts our view, making us blind to the threat of conventional weapons. Whether in business or war, being able to correctly identify anything that has the potential to create or destroy future value will govern the sustainability of one’s current strategy. Twice now, we’ve gotten this wrong in the fight against Islamists. Hopefully, it’s the last time.

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