In Egypt, Have the People Overthrown Themselves?

This week’s blog post is at The Huffington Post

In Egypt, Have the People Overthrown Themselves?

“Many of the same protestors who two and a half years ago risked their lives to chant ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam (the people want to overthrow the regime) were now calling for immediate political change in a democratic system outside of the electoral process they had fought so hard to achieve.”

Read the article here

Please leave your comments on The Huffington Post website below the article.

Why Islamists Lost in Libya and Why Nobody Should Be Surprised

This week’s blog post is at The Huffington Post

“Why Islamists Lost in Libya and Why Nobody Should Be Surprised”

“Those who have criticized me for my participation as an armed combatant in the Libyan revolution, saying that I had helped deliver a country into the arms of Islamists and al Qaeda, have now been proven wrong.”

Read it by clicking here

Please leave comments at The Huffington Post website below the article!

Report on My June 2012 Trip to Libya

Report on My June 2012 Return to Libya

Spoiler alert – Libya is nothing like this: 

The Warriors movie poster

Contrary to media reports, Libya doesn’t look anything like this.

In June, 2012 I returned to Libya for the first time since the war ended. The primary purpose of my trip was meeting with Libyan government officials and mental health professionals in Libya on behalf of After The Revolution, the non-governmental organization (NGO) I created in 2012 to provide PTSD and other combat-related mental health training for Libyan mental health professionals and counselors who treat Libya war veterans.  In addition, I was taking photos and video for, an innovative startup company who I have signed an endorsement deal with because their services show considerable potential for helping the Arab Spring.

And of course, I also wanted to see my fellow veterans from the war with whom I had fought for months to overthrow the Gaddafi regime and bring freedom to Libya.

Almost as much as I wanted to see my friends and comrades, I also wanted to see for myself how Libya, which so many of us had sacrificed so much for, was faring as a post-revolutionary country.  The media had been portraying Libya as unstable, dangerous, and even precariously close to another civil war.  Opponents of intervention in Syria were using these reports to strengthen their arguments against applying the Libya model to Syria.  A few days after my arrival in Libya I was approached by a friend of mine who works for one of the most prominent and recognizable international NGOs in the world, who, in the safety of the opulent Blue Radisson Hotel cafe, told me how bad the security situation was in Tripoli, and how she would soon file a report back to her NGO to that effect.

Yet my Libyan friends were not complaining, and they live there.  They were happy to be free, optimistic about their future, and going about their lives as usual.

I did not come to Libya on assignment to cover a specific story.  I wasn’t under pressure by an editor to produce an eye-catching headline or confirm the well-established media narrative on the security situation in Libya.  I didn’t stay in hotels, I stayed with Libyan friends, as always.  Other than getting one coffee with some Libyan friends, I didn’t spend time trolling around the café at the swanky Radisson Blue hotel with other NGO executives and journalists, transitional government officials, or foreign businessmen.  I didn’t mingle with men in suits and I didn’t travel with private security or any entourage other than my friends.

My time was spent on the streets and in the houkha cafes, talking about life and Libya with a wide variety of characters – former rebel fighters, revolutionary musicians, Tawerghans and Misratis, Islamists, the wealthy and poor, dual-nationals, both a Human Rights Watch employee monitoring torture and an interrogator who admits to torturing prisoners and defends it as necessary, and occasionally a few of my journalist friends who happened to be in Libya covering stories or holding photo exhibitions.

So, what is really going on in Libya?


The security situation in Libya is, contrary to the false impression left by sensationalized headlines of incidents here and there, mostly good.  I left my guns in storage the entire time and routinely stayed out in Tripoli and Benghazi as late as 1 or 2am.  Without my combat gear, thick beard, and suntan I didn’t look half as Libyan as I did during the war and now clearly stood out as a foreigner.  Furthermore, I was occasionally recognized by Libyans as the American who had fought with the rebels during the war.

Yet, I had no concerns for my security.  I did not witness any violence, wasn’t so much as inconvenienced by a militia checkpoint, and felt safer walking the streets at night than I do in my own hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.

There are not roaming gangs of trigger-happy militia everywhere.  There are not routine gunfights in the streets of Tripoli.  There are not widespread kidnappings, terrorist bombings, criminal activity, or any of the other post-conflict mess that characterized places like Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years (as I can attest to, having travelled extensively throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan.  It was, in fact, a little boring at times.


Libyans remain optimistic about their future, and although they complain about politics, the fact that they can complain at all means that democracy is alive and well in Libya.  People no longer walk around looking over their shoulder, but rather they feel comfortable enough to voice their complaints openly and engage in political protests without fear of reprisal.

Some are dissatisfied with the elections, complaining that they know little about the candidates and that most people are just going to vote for family names or tribes.  One Libyan told me “thousands of people didn’t die in this war so I could vote for my cousin.” And he’s right – that isn’t what I fought for either.  But as I argued in my Huffington Post article Why Islamists Winning Elections Is Good for Democracy and the War on Terrorism, whoever wins these first elections (and they will mostly likely be moderates, not Islamists in the case of Libya) will fail to meet voters’ expectations and be voted out of office in a subsequent election.  Some of my good friends in Libya who have political ambitions and actually served in the war and deserve to win, are playing it smart and watching the power-hungry first election candidates walk into the fire of post-revolutionary disillusionment.

Generally speaking, however, Libyans are excited about voting in the election and being the masters of their own destiny for the first time.


Federalism is gaining popularity, not only in the East, but in the West as well.  I believe that some variation of federalism will be a part of Libya’s future, though to what extent remains to be seen.  The allocation of seats in the General National Congress, purportedly by population, greatly favors the West and has left many in the East feeling that they will effectively have little influence in the new government and remain under the domination of Tripoli.  There is talk in Benghazi of another war if Eastern federalist ambitions are not respected by the West. 

The federalists have made a major tactical error in choosing to boycott the elections rather than run and campaign for federalist candidates.  Turnout in the East will be high enough to make a boycott meaningless.


The Islamists are running in the elections, and they will win some seats in the General National Congress.  This result should not be feared by the West – even some of the Islamists recognize and appreciate the US and Europe’s help in overthrowing the Gaddafi regime (I know because I’ve spoken with some of them), and most are pragmatic and calculating enough to appreciate the need to have good relations with the West in the future.

Human Rights

As a former prisoner of war I am especially disturbed when I hear of prisoners being tortured in Libya.  I am also in the somewhat unique position of being both friends with an official tasked with reporting on torture in Libya for Human Rights Watch and a Libyan who has overseen or engaged in the torture of prisoners himself during interrogations and believes that it is necessary for the security of the country.

There is no excuse for torture.  That moral and academic argument aside, torture does and will occur in Libya for the foreseeable future, and much to the chagrin of those of us opposed to it, torture has undoubtedly contributed to the security and stability of the country.  There is no counter-revolution and no significant terrorism or other activity by Gaddafi loyalists.  Why?  Because anyone who was presumed to be a threat is in prison and when tortured they gave up other people, plots, and the location of weapons caches.  I know this for a fact from my friend who has participated in extracting this information from prisoners, and even though he and I had heated arguments about torture, I cannot deny that it has produced valuable intelligence that has helped to snuff out any potential of a counter-revolution.

Despite my belief that torture should be forbidden under virtually all circumstances, the fact that it is producing results in Libya, that it is ingrained into the psyche and life experience of Libyans after 42 years of Gaddafi, and that militias who engage in torture generally could care less what Human Rights Watch or any other outsider says, torture and other human rights violations will persist in Libya for some time.

Tribal Conflict

During my time in Tripoli there was fierce fighting between Zintan and the Mashashia tribe in Western Libya.  There was even a rumor going around Tripoli that chemical weapons had been used, perhaps white phosphorous, perhaps mustard gas – neither has ever been confirmed.  Additionally, the Toubou and Zwai tribes have been shooting each other in Kufra for months. 

The root causes of these conflicts pre-date the revolution and many of them cannot be resolved.  Eventually the tribes will reach an agreement among themselves and a fragile peace will be restored in these areas.  These isolated conflicts are not a substantial threat to the stability and security of Libya as a nation.

That is the truth about Libya.  Tripoli doesn’t look like a scene from the film The Warriors and Al Qaeda hasn’t taken over the East of the country.  The Muslim Brotherhood won’t do nearly as well in the elections as uninformed commentators and analysts in the West fear.  And Libya isn’t going to fracture into fiefdoms and city-states.

Most importantly, Libya is a success story of historical proportions and should be viewed as the most compelling argument for international intervention in Syria to ensure that next year Syrians cast their votes in a free, democratic country also.

Libya election poster with a post with bulletholes in it in the foreground

Photo I took at Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli, Libya in June, 2012 of a High National Election Commission poster, with a signpost riddled with bulletholes in the foreground. These elections came at a great cost in lives and I wish Libya the best as Libyans take the next step in achieving democracy.

The Wonderful Disaster That Is Egypt’s Presidential Election

The Wonderful Disaster That Is Egypt’s Presidential Election

My article this week is at The Huffington Post. Click below to read it:

“The lapdog of a brutal dictator versus an Islamist in Egypt’s presidential elections sure makes our Presidential elections look boring.”

Read more at The Huffington Post HERE

How to Run a Revolution: The Success of Libya and the Failures of Syria

How to Run a Revolution: The Success of Libya and the Failures of Syria

My article this week is at The Huffington Post. Click the text below to read it:

How to Run a Revolution: The Success of Libya and the Failures of Syria

“Syria is far more complicated than Libya because of sectarian divisions, but if an American Christian like myself can fight in the same Libyan rebel army as Abdel Hakim Belhaj, surely Syrians can put aside their differences long enough to overthrow Assad.”

Read more at The Huffington Post

The Failure of the United Nations in Syria

The Failure of the United Nations in Syria

Today has proven that the United Nations is powerless to stop the Syrian civil war.

Kofi Annan says he’s “shocked” by the surge in violence and atrocities leading up to the April 10th deadline for Syrian regime forces to cease military operations. Journalists are writing stories that should have been written last week and saved in a folder for publication today – the outcome of this fiasco was that predictable.

The only thing “shocking” about the latest failure of the United Nations is that anybody is shocked by it.  The United Nations is a deeply flawed organization unable to accomplish its stated purposes, much less meet the needs and expectations of the multitudes of oppressed and suffering around the world who look to it in desperation as their last and only hope.

The Purpose of the United Nations

The United Nations charter lists four purposes of the organization (I have paraphrased them for brevity) in Chapter 1, Article 1.  Unfortunately, some of these purposes are mutually exclusive:

  1. Maintain international peace and security. The United Nations was founded in 1945 with the primary purpose of preventing a third world war, and to this day peace and security remains the paramount concern of the UN.  Everything else is a secondary consideration.
  2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples. With this second purpose the scheme begins to unravel – a large number of UN member countries do not represent the self-determination of their population, nor does the UN make any substantial effort to demand self-determination among its members.  Only 78 of the 165 UN nations that are included in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index are democracies, and 52 of the 165 members are authoritarian regimes (the remainder are hybrid systems of government). This creates a situation where a UN vote by the United States represents the interests (through democratic elections) of its 312 million people.  Syria, by contrast, represents the interests of one man – Bashar al-Assad, not the 20 million people of Syria.  The “friendly relations among nations” are based on respect for the self-determination of a single person in 1/3 of the member nations, not on the self-determination of peoples.  In other words, of the nearly 7 billion people represented by the United Nations, the 3.39 billion of them who live in democratic or flawed democratic countries have their interests represented in the UN, while 2.6 billion people suffer the will of 52 despots and their supporters who use UN membership for their own interests.
  3. To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems and promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms. The UN seeks international cooperation to achieve these goals and has a mixed record of success doing so.  The reason is obvious – when 1/3 of the member states are authoritarian regimes with little respect for human rights or fundamental freedoms, how much cooperation can there possibly be on these issues?
  4. To be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends. Kumbaya.
The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index

2011 Democracy Index - The United Nations (Dark green countries are the most democratic, dark red countries are the most authoritarian)

The UN Security Council

The UN Security Council is where the power lies with regards to conflicts like Libya and Syria and it is arguably the most malignant cancer infecting the United Nations.  The Security Council consists of five permanent members with veto power: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China.  The latter two countries are the problem.

How did Russia and China find themselves on the Security Council?  The council members were the countries that won WWII.  This meant the Republic of China and the Soviet Union, not the People’s Republic of China and Russia.  The Republic of China was a democratic country exiled to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War in 1949, and the communist victors of the war took over the seat at the Security Council in 1971.  Russia inherited its seat on the Security Council after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

For the past 65 years Russia and China have been a force of oppression by acting as the primary backers of authoritarian regimes around the world.  Wherever you find a dictator killing his own people you’ll find him using Russian weapons to do it.  I was on the receiving end of Russian bullets, rockets, and mortars while fighting in the Libyan civil war.  China boosts authoritarian state economies with foreign investment (and supplies them with weapons as well.)  Both Russia and China also protect authoritarian regimes through obstructionism on the UN Security Council.  In recent years they have successfully shielded Iran, North Korea and now, Syria.

A Security Council with a Communist, authoritarian China and a deeply flawed, quasi-democratic Russia whose foreign policy is focused on supporting authoritarian regimes around the world as permanent members with veto power makes the UN charter’s stated purpose #2 (self-determination) and #3 (human rights and freedom) impossible to achieve.

The United Nations has become like a Superhero who consults the villains before deciding whether to save the city.

Reforming the United Nations

If the United Nations wishes to remain relevant in a 21st century world as an organization that can achieve the goals stated in its own charter, it is imperative that one of two things happen.

  1. The UN charter is re-written to remove provisions #2 (equal rights and self-determination) and #3 (promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms).  Both of these purposes are impossible to achieve with Russia as a permanent member of the Security Council, so the existence of these two stated purposes makes the UN doomed to perpetual failure as an organization.
  2. Russia’s permanent membership on the Security Council is revoked

The second option is clearly preferable.  Many arguments can be made to support revoking Russia’s permanent membership on the Security Council, but three of them stand out as most prescient:

  1. There is no provision for succession in the UN charter, so the legality of Russia inheriting the seat of the Soviet Union is in question.
  2. The Soviet Union was given permanent status as a world superpower.  Russia represents not only a fraction of the former Soviet Union territory and people, but is far from a superpower – it is an aspiring world power (at best).
  3. Russia has a pattern of obstructionism through the Security Council that endangers world peace and security, thus undermining the very purpose of the Security Council.  Furthermore, Russia’s support of authoritarian regimes makes fulfillment of UN purposes #2 and #3 impossible.

The case for revoking the People’s Republic of China’s membership as a permanent member of the Security Council is more complicated.  The People’s Republic of China did succeed the Republic of China as a UN member following their conquest of mainland China in the Chinese Civil War, but United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758 in 1971 put an end to any effective legal argument against China’s status on the Security Council.  Furthermore, China is inarguably a world superpower.

However, China has never vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on its own; China so far has only vetoed when Russia does.  Removing Russia as a permanent member of the Security Council would at least encourage China to abstain on some Security Council resolutions it disagrees with rather than be a lone veto.

Unfortunately, the chance of Russia losing its permanent member status is about the same as Assad surrendering himself to the International Criminal Court.  The only possible reform of the Security Council is expanding the permanent membership to include additional countries (democratic ones), a proposal that has been gaining support in recent years.  This would dilute the perceived legitimacy of vetoes by Russia or China by having more countries opposed to such vetoes.

The Way Forward

Failing to enact necessary reforms that begin with changes in the Security Council, the United Nations will continue to be largely irrelevant beyond its primary mission of maintaining international peace and security, for which it has a mixed but acceptable record of success.  For this purpose the UN should be supported.

After today’s deadline on Syria nobody should remain under the delusion that the United Nations can advance freedom, self-determination, or human rights.  If anything, the fact that the primary mission of the UN is stability and peace means that it will often be diametrically opposed to the cause of freedom around the world since in many cases, Syria included, freedom and self-determination can only be achieved through war.  Peace and freedom are often mutually exclusive concepts and throughout history it has often been revolutions and civil wars that paved the way to freedom and liberty.

Stability means preserving the status quo, and for 1/3 of the world’s population the status quo means living under authoritarianism.

Was Kofi Annan really “shocked” that Assad’s regime intensified military action as the deadline for a ceasefire drew near?  Did Annan really believe that he would achieve anything other than helping Assad by delivering a public relations victory and providing the regime with some diplomatic cover as it escalated violence against the Syrian people?  Was he just leading the United Nations through the motions of diplomacy, having the UN act to save face so the diplomats could say they tried something?  Or is Annan suffering from delusions of grandeur so profound that he really believed he could successfully negotiate the beginning of the end of civil war in Syria and pave the way for the voluntary departure of Assad and a transition to democracy?

Did Kofi Annan, with all his experience and past success, really believe that the Syrian regime, which tortures children, summarily executes its own citizens, and has mocked the international community for decades, could be an honest and reliable partner in negotiations?  Could he not predict that the regime would ruthlessly press their advance against the opposition in the days leading up to April 10, taking a deadline as a greenlight for action in advance of it?  Is Annan (and the UN at large) so incapable of empathizing with both the Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army that he believed the two sides would negotiate after a year of revolution that has claimed 10,000 lives and left both sides in an all-or-nothing, irreversible position?

But it really doesn’t matter what Annan and the UN was thinking – the end result is very clear.  The Syrian civil war will continue, Assad will remain in power, and nothing short of a military victory by the Free Syrian Army is likely to remove him and bring peace and security, and most importantly freedom and self-determination, to Syria.

It is also clear that Russia and China will continue to protect Assad as permanent members of the UN Security Council.

The UN has only one opportunity left to play a role in Syria – persuade Russia that Assad cannot be reasoned with and must be removed from power.  It is possible that Kofi Annan knew that Syria would fail to honor the April 10 deadline all along, which would allow him to show Russia that their preferred strategy would not work with Assad and that other measures were needed. The problem with giving Annan and the UN the benefit of the doubt in this case is that Russia should have been able to exert more influence on Assad if they really felt that their ability to support him was in jeopardy, and because it is highly unlikely that Russia will ever back down on Syria; the Russians believe Assad’s rule can survive and they have already invested considerable political capital supporting him.

The United Nations has its uses.  The chance of world war is virtually non-existent, partly due to the existence of the UN.  Occasionally positive agreements are reached and the UN has managed to extinguish some conflicts before they spiraled out of control.  But the UN should never be expected to fulfill any mission of advancing freedom, human rights, or self-determination – it can rarely do so effectively with 1/3 of its members being authoritarian regimes and 2/5 of the Security Council willing to protect many of those regimes using their veto power.

The United Nations is focused on peace, stability, and diplomacy.  There is no role for any of this in Syria.  Any organization that has peace and security as its primary mission is an obstruction to the cause of freedom in Syria, and any actions by the UN other than military intervention will only serve to strengthen Assad and prolong the suffering of the Syrian people.  For every action like today’s expired deadline, the UN will only soil its hands with more Syrian blood by prolonging the war and strengthening Assad’s grip on power.

The time has come for the nations of the free world to act unilaterally in the cause of freedom and human rights in Syria. Let the United Nations be where the democratic countries meet with the 52 authoritarian ones to discuss matters of peace and security. But have NATO do what it can to eliminate as many of those 52 as possible when the opportunities present themselves, as in Syria now.

At the very least, it is time to provide the Free Syrian Army with what is required to win the war. The Gulf Cooperation Council should send arms, Turkey should help establish a buffer zone in Syria, and the West should continue to provide equipment and intel to hasten the fall of the regime.

When the UN is comprised of democratic countries that actually do represent the principles of freedom and self-determination, then we can focus on achieving world peace.

Why Islamists Winning Elections Is Good for Democracy and the War on Terrorism

Why Islamists Winning Elections Is Good for Democracy and the War on Terrorism

My article this week is at The Huffington Post. Click the text below to read it:

Why Islamists Winning Elections Is Good for Democracy and the War on Terrorism

“Journalists, pundits and politicians seem increasingly obsessed with fears that Islamists winning elections in the wake of successful Arab Spring uprisings will prove detrimental to democracy, regional security, and the War on Terrorism.

Nothing could be further from the truth…”

Read more at The Huffington Post

The Tuareg Rebellion in Mali

The Tuareg Rebellion in Mali

(also available in French here)

Matthew VanDyke wearing a Tuareg tagelmust in the Sahara desert

Matthew VanDyke wearing a Tuareg tagelmust in the Sahara desert

I admittedly had some mixed feelings when deciding whether to write about the Tuareg rebellion because of my experience as a freedom fighter in the Libyan civil war.  Thousands of Tuaregs were serving in Muammar Gaddafi’s army during the Libyan civil war and others went to Libya as mercenaries to join them.  If I had encountered any of them on the battlefield they would have been in my crosshairs like any other Gaddafi fighter.

But I never saw a Tuareg during the war and with good reason.  Most had already fled back to Mali before I escaped from prison and returned to the front lines.  They weren’t Gaddafi loyalists, they were Gaddafi opportunists – they came for money – and while I consider this even more deplorable than actually believing in Gaddafi and being a true loyalist, it at least suggests that their participation in the Libyan civil war was morally but not ideologically corrupt.

The Tuareg desire for self-determination cannot be dismissed despite the desire of many to do so for the past hundred years.  This is a conflict that has been ongoing since 1962 and is just the latest of four Taureg rebellions in Mali.  The Tuareg, the fabled Blue Men of the Desert, have demonstrated repeatedly that they won’t disappear quietly into the Sahara.

The current Tuareg rebellion, by far the most organized, equipped, and successful of them all, has given the Tuaregs the best opportunity for self-determination that they have ever had.  They may never be in this position again, flush with arms and ammunition and their ranks dominated by veteran fighters returning from war in a neighboring country.  The military wing of the movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad(MNLA), has learned the mistakes of past Tuareg rebellions and will not repeat them.  This time they have also learned some lessons of the Arab Spring and are supported by a virtual army of Tuareg activists around the world who use social media to communicate, coordinate, and propagandize the conflict to carry it far beyond the sands of the Sahara.

Azawad Calling

The Tuareg want to establish their own country, Azawad, in northern Mali.  Their traditional homeland in the Sahara was carved apart by the French during the Scramble for Africa and divided among Mali, Niger and Algeria, all of whose borders were carefully drawn by France to pursue its own interests in Africa.  The Tuareg of Mali, a nomadic desert people, were lumped into a country twice the size of France and quickly fell under the dominance of their former slaves, the black Africans living in tropical Mali south of the Niger River.  Like many of the colonial borders drawn in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia by European powers in the 19th and 20th centuries during the period of New Imperialism Mali was destined for perpetual strife.

Unlike many other intrastate conflicts, the Tuareg aren’t fighting for resources or valuable land.  The conflict is primarily ideological, a matter of cultural pride to a people with simple needs and interests.  Mali is already one of the poorest countries in the world and Azawad would be even poorer, at least for the first several years.  However, the geology of the Taoudeni Basin in northern Mali suggests that significant oil and gas reserves may lay beneath the sand.  Companies have been unable to conduct adequate surveys of the area due to poor security in the region, but there is little doubt that there is enough oil to allow Azawad to survive as an independent nation.  Cynical observers with no sense of history have suggested that those oil reserves are behind the current rebellion, an argument that doesn’t stand when one considers that the Tuareg have been fighting for independence in Mali for 50 years.

Resistance by the West, Mali, and its Neighbors

The arguments in favor of preserving Mali’s territorial integrity at the expense of the Tuaregs are difficult to justify.  The West’s primary interest in Mali is fighting Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and preserving Mali’s 20 year history as a democratic country and stabilizing force in West Africa.  Mali is active in several programs, initiatives, and organizations in the region and has been a valued and reliable partner of the West.  The US and EU are also concerned that unrest in Mali could spread and that a lack of central authority in the Azawad region could lead to a safe haven for Al Qaeda as existed in Afghanistan prior to 2001.

Algeria and Niger believe that the creation of Azawad would incite Taureg rebellions in their own countries (and in the case of Algeria, perhaps a Tuareg-inspired Berber rebellion as well).  This is similar to the arguments made by Turkey and Iran about Kurdish independence – that it would inspire the Kurds in their own countries to also seek independence.  Like Turkey and Iran, Algeria and Niger will do everything they can to crush the aspirations for self-determination in a neighboring country in the pursuit of crushing them at home.

The government of Mali is panicked, despite enjoying the overwhelming support of non-Tuareg Malians (and a limited number of Tuaregs as well).  The Tuareg rebellion has been so successful that it prompted a coup d’etat by military officers desperate to stop it, ending 20 years of democracy in Mali.  The Malian government and most of its citizens believe that preserving their multi-ethnic, territorially vast, democratic country is in the best interest of everyone.  They also don’t want to lose whatever natural resources might lay hidden beneath the sands of northern Mali.

Intelligence and Policy Failure

The scandal in all of this was that the Tuareg insurgency of 2012 was entirely predictable and could have been prevented by Mali and its allies.  Tuareg fighters were able to haul a massive arsenal of weapons and ammunition over a thousand miles from Libya to Mali, through Algeria or Niger, without interference by Mali’s allies in the West, Algeria, or the Malian government.  It was an extraordinary display of incompetence by all involved.

That a Tuareg insurgency would follow the Libyan civil war was entirely predictable.  The Mali civil war (1990-96) was begun by Tuareg fighters supported by Libya, including Tauregs who returned to Mali after serving Gaddafi in his war against Chad.  A veteran of the civil war,  Ag Bahanga, led the failed 2006 uprising and was forced to flee to Libya in 2009.  He became a close confident of Muammar Gaddafi.  Another Tuareg leader, Mohammed Ag Najm, became a commander of one of Gaddafi’s elite desert units, and many Tuaregs enlisted in the Libyan army.

Bahanga and Najm waited for their opportunity to act.  Once the Libyan civil war began to turn against Gaddafi in early summer 2011 Bahanga and Najm led the Tuaregs to raid the arms depots and then headed southwest back to Mali.  They were in command of elite desert units that had the men, equipment, and knowledge of the desert necessary to transport their massive stockpile of weapons over a thousand miles through three countries.  It was a time-consuming and difficult operation that allegedly took several trips over a period of months and is rumored to have had the consent of the Libyan rebel government (the NTC) because it reduced Gaddafi’s arsenal and took Tuaregs off the battlefield.

The United States clearly had an interest in preventing this through either direct action or by coordinating with the Algerian or Niger authorities to stop it, especially since Bahanga and Najm’s arsenal may have included surface to air missiles.

Once again the US intelligence community has dropped the ball despite overwhelming technology and funding simply because they lacked the ability to think a few steps ahead and have the wrong people (with the wrong type of experience) working as analysts.

What happens next?

This time the proverbial genie is out of the bottle and it isn’t getting put back.  The Mali government strategy, if one can call it that, appears limited to waiting for the Tuaregs to run out of ammunition.  This is unlikely to happen anytime soon as the MNLA will successfully negotiate for the surrender of towns and garrisons as they proceed south and capture the weapons left behind.  Tuareg soldiers from the Malian army have also defected to the rebels bringing with them vehicles, weapons, and ammunition.

The coup d’etat, intended by the conspirators to better enable the military to crush the rebellion, will at least for now have the opposite effect.  The government is weaker than ever, which will hurt the morale of government forces and lead to more surrenders and defections from army ranks.

Years of cooperation between the US and Malian government are going down the drain and analysts are typing away on their keyboards generating assessments of what the latest Tuareg rebellion means to the United States and the War on Terrorism.  A determination will likely be made that short-term regional stability trumps all other concerns, as usual; even the right to self-determination which is part of our national ethos.

The State Department will frantically start pulling the levers of diplomacy to find a negotiated solution to end the conflict – a negotiated solution that will certainly not allow for the creation of Azawad as a new country.  The US military may even cooperate with the Malian military to crush the rebellion which will do far more than anything to push Tuaregs, who have historically shown little affinity for AQIM, straight to their neighborhood jihadi recruitment office.

Red, White, and Blue Men of the Desert?

The current situation presents a historic opportunity for the United States.  The coup d’etat was counterintuitively fortuitous by giving the US government an excuse to withhold support for the Malian government.  This will provide more time to assess the situation, avoid angering the Tuaregs, lessen AQIM’s ability to capitalize on the insurgency with propaganda against the West, send the message that coup d’etats against democratic governments will not be tolerated, help the US walk the fine line of not angering Algeria and Niger, and most importantly allow the Tuaregs to achieve their goal of establishing Azawad.

How is the creation of Azawad possibly in the interest of the United States?  The time to stop this from happening was when Bahanga and Najm set off from Libya.  Tracking their movements and having the Algerians stop them, or alternatively, making sure those convoys mysteriously disappeared in the desert with nothing but charred, smoking wrecks of vehicles left behind, would have solved this before it started.  Now, it is too late.

Within the next few weeks Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu will fall to the Tuaregs.  With the acquisition of the three capitals of the three regions that will compose Azawad the territorial aspirations of the Tuaregs will be largely complete.  Entrenched in favorable terrain and enjoying the support of the local population, the Tuaregs can defend Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu against any counter-offensive by Mali’s small army of 7,000 (now likely only 4,500 if estimates of casualties and desertions are accurate).

The war is lost.

If policymakers in Washington have learned anything from the Arab Spring (and they appear to be learning, slowly) they should realize this and will soon begin tapping every connection they have with the Tuaregs to convince them to stop at the Niger River, to negotiate a ceasefire with Mali, and to guide the Tuareg leadership towards democracy, self-governance, and further cooperation with the US against AQIM in exchange for political and economic support.  They’ll push for the federal solution to the conflict that grants the Tuaregs semi-autonomy over northern Mali, which might not be acceptable to either side.  The Tuaregs have been burned before by the Malian government refusing to honor the terms of previous agreements.

The US government will be reluctant to support the creation of Azawad as a new country.  Those working at the State Department, Pentagon, and the intelligence agencies have never understood this part of the world, as revealed by Wikileaks documents on Mali.  A career government analyst will have a hard time wrapping his head around how dispersed desert nomads would be better partners in the fight against AQIM than the government of Mali.

The reason why should be obvious even to those who haven’t spent time among the people of the Sahara.  Mali has never had any real control over the Azawad territories.  The Tuaregs are culturally, racially, and politically foreign to the central government, and the Sahara is hostile territory to the vast majority of Malians.  They have never been able to tame it, understand it, or function in it.  Mali was never going to be a truly effective partner against AQIM.

Azawad, on the other hand, will be.  Nobody knows the desert better than the Tuaregs.  They have lived there for two thousand years, know every route and every track in the desert, are connected by tribal and family ties that make it impossible for someone to join AQIM without others knowing, and most importantly have shown little desire for either radical Islam or terrorism in the past.  The MNLA has made it very clear that they intend to create a secular, democratic state. With no history of radical Islamism, the majority of Tuaregs opposed to the imposition of sharia law, and a matrilineal society that respects the rights of women, there is no reason to doubt their intentions.

Most importantly for the United States, the Tuareg are the only people who can effectively police that region of the world, and since the Tuaregs are dispersed over 5+ nations their reach and potential as a partner in the War on Terrorism should not be underestimated.

The Sahara is their sandbox, and they know everyone who plays in it.

Fighting AQIM is the only significant strategic interest the United States has in this fight, other than maintaining good relations with Algeria and Niger or preventing instability from spreading beyond Mali’s borders.  Every effort should be made to reach out to the Tuaregs and gain influence and favor with them to ensure that the United States has influence in Azawad when this war is over.

It won’t be easy.  The Tuareg are fiercely proud and independent.  Whatever we do they won’t ever love us – they even fight among themselves.  They’ll always question our intentions and the Sahara is notorious for conspiracy theories that will only bolster their suspicions.  However, the Tuareg relationship with Gaddafi should serve as a model for a US-Azawad relationship.

The Tuareg can be bought.  They have replaced their ancient camel caravans transporting salt across the Sahara with Toyota pickup trucks smuggling cocaine, weapons, and migrants.  They’ve been involved in kidnapping foreigners for sale or ransom.  Corruption and criminality have spread among the Tuaregs as the Mali and Niger governments have failed to integrate them into modernity and the rest of society.  When Gaddafi stepped into this void by funding development projects, employing Tuaregs in his armed forces, declaring support for a Tuareg state, and identifying himself with the Tuareg by sleeping in tents and various other displays of tacky showmanship, the people loved him for it.

Therein lies an opportunity for the United States.  Obama doesn’t need to sleep in a tent, but supporting the Tuareg’s Azawad aspirations would go a long way if accompanied by economic development projects.  Stepping into the void left by the removal of Gaddafi would position the United States to have real influence in the region and monitor a part of the world that is often obscured in darkness.

This might be achievable through the likely outcome of this war: the federal solution of Tuareg semi-autonomy in Azawad, while remaining part of Mali.  This would resemble the situation of Kurdistan in Iraq and might satisfy enough Tuaregs to take the steam out of their rebellion.  Regardless of whether the Tuaregs achieve semi-autonomy or independence (and one of these outcomes will be the result of this successful rebellion) the United States must position itself as a friend of the Tuaregs and aggressively support the region with aid and development to buy the support of the people.

The United States cannot risk Azawad resembling Afghanistan pre-2001, where American reach was so limited that Al Qaeda was able to operate with impunity.  If the US reaches out to the Tuaregs now we will gain influence over the emerging Azawad government and create bonds that could be among our most significant victories in the fight against Al Qaeda.

The Founding Fathers, The Declaration of Independence, and The Arab Spring

The Founding Fathers, The Declaration of Independence, and The Arab Spring

Muslim woman with American flag face paint

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – The Declaration of Independence

All men.  When Thomas Jefferson penned these famous words in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 he didn’t write “the people of the British Colonies.”  He chose the words “all men” for a reason.  The two principle beliefs articulated by the Declaration of Independence – Natural Law and the Right of Revolution, were not stated in narrow terms.  America was setting an example for the world.

Many Americans, especially those who are quick to wrap themselves in the flag and proclaim their patriotism while at the same time criticising the Arab Spring, have forgotten what our nation’s founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence.  It was not a policy statement derived in a cubicle at the State Department involving careful calculations of the economic consequences of British trade policy.  It wasn’t written after consultations and Powerpoint presentations by Pentagon officials.  The 56 visionaries who signed the Declaration didn’t take a poll to see what popular opinion was before signing it.

If such approaches had been deployed in 1776 as they are now when determining American policy towards the Arab Spring we’d be living on scones and tea, soccer would be popular, and this blog posting would be full of “jolly good” and “blimey.”

The Founding Fathers were stating unequivocally that freedom is a right given by nature (or God) to every human being, a principle termed Natural Law by John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government  and expounded upon by Thomas Paine in Common Sense.  As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature.”  The Declaration of Independence coupled this belief in Natural Law with the Right of Revolution, which held that the people have the right to overthrow a government that acts against their interests.

That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundations on such Principles and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to Them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness – The Declaration of Independence

The authoritarian regimes of the Arab world do not derive their powers from the consent of the governed, and in the view of the Founding Fathers the people have the Right of Revolution – the Right of the Arab Spring – to overthrow their governments and create new ones that respect Natural Law.

But the Declaration of Independence goes even further:

When a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government.

The Founding Fathers clearly state in the Declaration of Independence that revolution against tyranny it is not only a right, but a duty.  Since mankind is given unalienable rights by God, it is a duty – a responsibility and a necessity – to overthrow any government that violates Natural Law.

Anything short of support for the Arab Spring by the United States is clearly a betrayal of the vision and values of the Founding Fathers and contrary to our very own Declaration of Independence.  The words of the Founding Fathers leave no doubt as to what their view of the Arab Spring would be.  There is no ambiguity about the fact that a tepid response to the Arab Spring, and even worse the obstruction of its progress, would cause the signatories of the Declaration of Independence to turn over in their graves.

It is idealistic, but perhaps not practical, to take the position that the United States must always follow the vision of the Founding Fathers.  If we did we wouldn’t have an income tax or a standing army.  But the extent to which we’ve strayed from the core principles that our nation was founded upon is alarming, and when we’ve done so it has often been to our peril.

One example is American support for authoritarian regimes in the Arab world.  We supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and cooperated with Muammar Gaddafi in the 2000s only to later find ourselves militarily removing them from power when they proved uncontrollable.  We supported Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Ben Ali of Tunisia, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen only to be forced into embarrassing backtracking that hurt our credibility in the international community.  Our support has not been forthcoming to the freedom fighters of Syria and the protestors in Iran.  We have consistently supported authoritarian regimes in the Arab world because of short-sighted interests usually centered on regional stability and our capacity to influence authoritarian regimes more easily than democratically elected governments.

It is very clear what the Founding Fathers would say about these policies as there is no way to reconcile them with a belief in Natural Law and the Right of Revolution.

And it is equally clear what the Founding Fathers would say about the Arab Spring.

In their own words:

“God grant that not only the love of liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say: This is my country.” – Benjamin Franklin

“I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in providence, for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.” – John Adams

“Natural liberty is a gift of the beneficent Creator, to the whole human race” – Alexander Hamilton

“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” – Thomas Paine

“Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God” – Thomas Jefferson

Only Regime Change Will End Iran’s Nuclear Program

Only Regime Change Will End Iran’s Nuclear Program

Matthew VanDyke with a mural of Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran

Matthew VanDyke with a mural of Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran

As happens so often in politics, the complex issue of how to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been diluted into two simplistic, opposing viewpoints. A decade of negotiations and diplomatic wrangling have produced few results, leading to the emergence of two camps: those who want even tougher sanctions, and those who want a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Neither of these options will stop Iran from acquiring the capacity to build nuclear weapons.


The diplomats, led by the United States, point to the effects that the current sanctions have had on Iran’s currency, inflation rate, and oil production. Iranians are certainly feeling the impact on their lives. But is the regime?

Not really. Many countries won’t enforce the oil sanctions (including China), which leaves Iran with more than enough customers to sustain its government. Iran has been under sanctions before, and the regime is quite adept at weathering the storm.

As with any authoritarian system Iran is concerned about preserving the regime, not about the people of Iran. As long as sanctions don’t lead to an uprising that threatens to violently overthrow the government, they will endure them. Sanctions that inflict some pain on the citizens of Iran would work quite well in a democratic system, but will have little effect in an authoritarian one.

Military Strike

A military strike by the United States or Israel is becoming increasingly likely. At some point Israel will have to make a decision about whether to bomb Iranian facilities before Iran begins building them so deep underground that Israel’s bombs cannot penetrate. Given domestic politics in Israel, Netanyahu’s history, and the stakes – Israel’s very survival – they aren’t going take a back seat on this issue.

There will be two consequences of bombing Iran. First, the nuclear program will be set back by a few years. Second, Iran will surely bury their new facilities deep enough underground that not even American weapons can destroy them.

Iran Will Never Give Up Its Nuclear Program

US and EU policy towards Iran is based on the erroneous assumption that Iran is a rational actor that will modify its behavior in response to hardship and incentives. This is a fundamental tenet of diplomacy. Unfortunately, it does not apply in the case of Iran for numerous reasons:

  • Iranian leaders have a history of acting irrationally. During WWII Reza Shah stubbornly refused to allow supplies to be shipped to Russia through Iran, and Britain and Russia were forced to invade the country to use the railroads. In the 1950s, Prime Minister Mosaddegh nationalized the oil industry despite the certainty that the British and American response would be harsh; two years later he was overthrown in a British-American orchestrated coup d’etat. The taunts, threats, and public statements of defiance from the current regime suggest that little has changed.
  • Part of the reason for the stubbornly defiant attitude of the regime is Iranian culture and national psyche. During my travels by motorcycle in Iran I was struck by the undercurrent of a superiority complex in the society. I hadn’t been in the country for long before I heard talk of Iran’s Aryan ethnicity, their superiority to Arabs, and a proud heritage dating back thousands of years. Add to this the megalomania of authoritarian rule and a belief that compromise projects weakness, and most rationality goes out the window.
  • Even if Iran wanted to act rationally, its leaders may lack the necessary information to make rational decisions. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, doesn’t take criticism well (the regime sentences critics to imprisonment or death); it is unlikely his inner circle is vocal in challenging his decisions or being the bearer of bad news. The information that does seep through to inform his decisions probably isn’t even accurate given the general incompetence of authoritarian governments, especially Middle Eastern ones.

The Underlying Rationality of a Nuclear Program

Despite all the signs that Iran doesn’t act rationally, their central motivation for acquiring a nuclear weapon is rational. Nuclear weapons are the only way to protect the regime against external threats. Nukes are the ultimate deterrent against Iran ending up like its neighbors Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is also an element of Persian pride at work. As one of history’s great powers, Iranians believe that their country deserves to be a member of the nuclear club, and the public supports the pursuit of nuclear technology.

Regime Change

How do you deal with an irrational regime run by religious fanatics with a cultural superiority complex and a history of bad decision making?

You don’t. Negotiations with Iran have produced little in 10 years. Nuclear weapons have been around for 70 years – any nation that is determined and resourceful enough can acquire them. It is inevitable that Iran will develop the capacity to build nuclear weapons, barring a persistent campaign to repeatedly bomb every underground facility that Iran attempts to build in the future (which neither the US nor Israel will have the stomach for since it would be illegal under international law).

This leaves only one option: remove the regime. The US and EU must place the toughest possible sanctions on Iran and pull every diplomatic lever to get the international community to enforce them. This will cause widespread dissatisfaction among many of Iran’s 75 million citizens as inflation coupled with unemployment makes life under the regime unbearable.

The covert war between Israel and Iran should continue, and the target list expanded beyond nuclear facilities and assassinations of nuclear scientists. Numerous covert actions, including sabotage of prominent government facilities in full view of the public and the exposure (or manufacture) of regime corruption and misdeeds must be undertaken to make the regime look weak, vulnerable, and incompetent in the eyes of the Iranian people.

Support should be given to Iranian opposition groups and a PSYOP campaign waged to show the Iranian people how dramatically life will improve in a post-revolution Iran.

Over 60% of Iranians are under 30 years old, and the number of Iranians on Facebook is estimated to be several million. The literacy rate in Iran is above 80%. The majority of the population was born after the Islamic Revolution and do not identify with the regime the same way their parents did. Mobilizing them through covert action should be a top priority.

A military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities that lacks the steps to encourage regime change is a short-term solution that will need to be repeated again in the future. However, a military strike that is coupled with a comprehensive, long-term campaign to incite a revolt in Iran will signal to the Iranian people how incompetent the government of Ayatollah Khamenei really is. The overthrow of Bashar Assad in Syria will further isolate and weaken Iran, and if the conditions are right when that happens, the Iranian people may take it as a sign that the time for their own revolution has come.

The potential for popular uprising is already present in Iran, as evidenced by the Green Movement in 2009. Sanctions and military action must be part of the larger strategic goal of regime change, not temporary fixes to set the Iranian nuclear program back by a few years. The seeds of revolution are still present in Iran, and they’re not buried too deep. With encouragement the Iranian Spring will come.

Matthew VanDyke on his MZ Kanuni motorcycle in front of a Ayatollah Khomeini and Khamenei billboard in Iran

Matthew VanDyke on his MZ Kanuni motorcycle in front of a Ayatollah Khomeini and Khamenei billboard in Iran