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They jumped in feet first

india Updated: Sep 13, 2012 23:07 IST
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The assassination of Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya, is an appalling act - and one foreseen by his employers. On August 27, the State Department warned US citizens against travel to Libya, painting a picture of a country beset by instability.

Exactly who is responsible for Wednesday's incident is unclear. Libyan officials blamed pro-Gaddafi loyalists linked to the bombings in Tripoli. Salafists, ultra-conservative Muslims who besieged the Benghazi consulate overnight, seem to be the more likely culprits. But in truth, responsibility may also be traced back to those in London, Paris, Brussels and Washington who launched last year's Nato intervention in Libya with insouciant disregard for the consequences. It was clear then, or should have been, that toppling Muammar Gaddafi was the easy bit. Preventing an Iraq-style implosion, or some form of Afghan anarchy, would be much harder.

Yet this is exactly what Stevens's death may presage. Once again, the western powers have started a fire they cannot extinguish. Do not be misled by the fig leaf of this summer's national assembly polls. Post-Gaddafi Libya lacks viable national political leadership, a constitution, functioning institutions and security. The east-west divide is as problematic as ever.

Effective central control, meanwhile, is largely absent. And into this vacuum have stepped armed groups, all claiming sectional suzerainty over the multitude of fractured fiefdoms that was, until Nato barged in, a unified State.

Research published in June by the Small Arms Survey suggested that the emergence and influence of armed groups challenging national government and army was accelerating rapidly. The survey identified four types including experienced revolutionary brigades accounting for up to 85% of all weapons not controlled by the State and myriad militias.

A power struggle is now under way between the Libyan army and these various groups, and while some play a constructive role, others threaten the future of the Libyan state, the survey said.

In its weakened condition, politically and economically, Libya appears vulnerable to extremist ideology and foreign influence. In an echo of Taliban depredations, the Salafists who besieged the Benghazi consulate have also been involved in a wave of attacks on historic Sufi mosques and libraries and attempts to intimidate female university students who eschew the hijab.

Stevens was a respected diplomat who was helping hold Libya together in the wake of last year's upheavals. Maybe it was always an impossible task. But it was rendered all the harder by western politicians who, just as in Iraq, jumped in feet first into a complex situation without sufficient care or thought for the future.