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What Post-Qaddafi Libya Has to Learn From Afghanistan
MICHAEL SEMPLE, who has worked in Afghanistan for more than two decades, is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.See more by this author
Sounds of celebration echoed from several quarters yesterday after Libya's interim government announced the death of former leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. The European Union, members of which led the NATO campaign that contributed to Qaddafi's ouster, said that his death marked "the end of an era of despotism." U.S. President Barack Obama said that it brought to a close a "long and painful chapter for the people of Libya." And for the revolutionary rebel forces that fought a grueling two-steps-forward, one-step-back battle for much of this year, the capture of Surt, Qaddafi's hometown and final stronghold, opened the way for a formal "declaration of liberation," underscoring the triumph of the revolution.
As someone who has spent more than two decades working in war-torn Afghanistan, I was eager to visit Tripoli after its liberation in August. When I did, Libyans took great pains to explain how little their country had in common with Afghanistan. But before I even began seriously considering the comparison, contacts from Kabul and the Pakistani city of Karachi began telephoning me to report the ties they had spotted from afar.
For those the media propels to international stardom, the past catches up quickly. Early on in the Libyan revolt, satellite television transformed revolutionary commanders such as Abdul Hakeem Belhaj, who is now the military commander of Libya's National Transitional Council, into larger-than-life political freedom fighters. But my contacts in Afghanistan claimed to recognize Belhaj from his days in their country in the 1990s as a member of Muqatilah, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Others recalled the Libyan fighters who lived on the outskirts of Peshawar in the decade between the anti-Soviet jihad and 9/11, when that town served as a destination for Islamists from across the Middle East. Some recognized cellmates from the United States' post-2001 detention centers. Some even claimed to have been asked to send foot soldiers to Libya.