Arming Proxies

12 Sep

The US ambassador is reported to be killed in Libya. Yet another wasted life. This tragedy points towards a wider issue: the sponsorship and arming of proxies as part of regime change operations. Of course, the arming of proxies is nothing new and many states make a rational calculation that it is often better for someone else to do the dirty business of killing and repressing.
While it may make sense to some to arm proxies in order to sway the battlefield advantage, this is usually a short-term calculation. The long-term implications of arming proxies are rarely taken into account. There are numerous examples. The Israelis left the South Lebanon Army high and dry in 2000 when they withdrew from southern Lebanon. SLA members were faced with an invidious choice: surrender to Hezbollah and be tried for treason by the Lebanese state, or seek refuge in Israel where they weren’t exactly welcome. The CIA ‘local defense initiatives’ in Afghanistan comprise of distributing weapons in a country already awash with weapons. The ostensible aim is to help villagers defend themselves from the Taliban. But this is a society steeped in factionalism, warlordism and ethnic division. What guarantees are there that the weapons will be used exclusively for anti-Taliban operations? None.
And now we have Libya in which the post-Gaddafi dispensation seems a long way from a stable and tolerant polity. A patchwork of militias, some of them briefly sponsored by western and Gulf patrons, seem to be in charge. The central state is weak. It is not yet clear if the militia responsible for the murder of the US ambassador and his colleagues was armed and supported by outside powers in those heady few months when Gaddafi was ousted. But there seem to be no checks on the usage of weapons and on the wider worldview of these militias. This is an abrogation of Responsibility to Protect.
All of this points to a wider problem: the weakness of traditional diplomatic models in making contact with sub-state groups. Diplomatic structures and protocols date from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Overseas diplomatic missions struggle to get beyond the formal strata of their host government and make contact with sub-state groups, minorities, citizens and dissenters. Diplomatic structures are not geared for these sorts of linkages. Over the past few decades we have seen desperate scrambles by western governments attempting to make linkages with dissenters within Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iran and many other places. Many of these dissenters have had – to put it mildly – unsavoury pasts or hold views that are deeply antithetical to the worldview of their sponsoring states.

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