By C. J. CHIVERS and JOHN ISMAY
Logo of the a precursor to the U.S. Agency for International Development on ammunition packaging found by The New York Times in Libya, pointing to the period, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the United States helped create and arm the military that overthrew King Idris.
The history of how Libya became a bunker state reduces readily to short-hand. After overthrowing King Idris in 1969, Muammar el-Qaddafi, a young army officer, used his nation’s oil revenue to underwrite a decades’ long arms-purchasing spree, stockpiling weapons from the West but principally from Russia, China and the Eastern bloc. As his holdings grew, he used his arsenal to supply his expanding army and internal security units, as well as a source of items to export to guerrilla or terrorist groups in Chad, the Palestinian territories, Ireland and beyond. This was one of the many ways that Libya became a menace and regional scourge. Libya’s growing arms stockpile was also a means by which the colonel’s hold on power remained secure, at least until the uprising that toppled him and cost thousands of lives, including his own.
This abbreviated chronicle is of course true. It also has its limits. It picks up the story of the arming of Libya after the process was well under way. The fuller story is darker and richer, and points to the persistent and often unacknowledged risks of arms transfers to developing states. This blog has said it often: Time and again arms passed between states outlive the governments and people who orchestrate the transfers, to be put to use in ways the exporters once insisted were not grounds for worry, or against which they said they had responsibly put safeguards in place.
Take a look at the photograph at the top of this post. That cheerful logo – two right hands in a firm handshake within a crest bearing stars and the colors of the American flag — was the product of another era. In the 1950s, it served as the logo of the U.S. Mutual Security Agency, a precursor to the Agency for International Development. The label used to find its way onto, among other things, sacks of wheat.
Why does it open this post? Because last year, as troops loyal to Colonel Qaddafi and his sons were being beaten back by the combined effects of a popular uprising and a NATO air campaign, this logo turned up on weathered ammunition packaging scattered about the North African battlefield. Its appearance was a clue to the time, many decades back, when the United States and Britain were the principal suppliers of Libya’s military equipment.
In the case of the photograph above, the sticker had been affixed to a storage tube for an 81-millimeter white-phosphorous mortar round with a point-detonating fuze. The tube, with many others, was found by a reporter for The New York Times in an abandoned government munitions depot that in the summer of 2011 had fallen under the control of anti-Qaddafi fighters. It had been packed, according to the yellow stenciling on its side, in November 1944 — late in World War II, as the United States contemplated the invasion of Japan. Wooden crates containing rifle and machine-gun ammunition, seen below, bore that same label, suggesting an acknowledged state-to-state transfer of ammunition in an aid program.
These old labels stoked natural curiosity. With time, analysis of the ammunition-packaging markings and a review of declassified American cables and intelligence documents helped trace the munitions back to their sources and to the programs and foreign-policy choices that carried them to North Africa. By the evidence available now, the stickers had been put on roughly a decade after the end of World War II, when surplus arms stocks were thought to have another currency — in securing cold-war friends.
Declassified Intelligence Memorandum, prepared by the CIA in 1970, available via Department of the Historian, State Department. Read the full report here.
The study of arms and ordnance often is not just about arms and ordnance. These items can tell of other things. In this case, the battlefield finds were valuable because they pointed to a little mentioned chapter in Libyan history, when the United States actively worked to increase the size and capabilities of Libya’s military, which became the source of the coup that cast the country into despotism, brutality and enduring disarray.
They led, in other words, to a case study of American military engagement gone awry, and a military-aid program having exactly the opposite of its intended effect. And they potentially carry lessons for the present day, when the United States has busily helped equip and train the security forces of other fragile and immature states, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia and many more, and as various commentators call for the arming of would-be allies elsewhere, including in Syria.
Arms for Libya: “Opportunity Too Good to Miss”
The Libya of three generations ago bore little resemblance to Libya today. After World War II, the country did not yet know of the huge reserves of oil beneath its desert sands. It was emerging from colonialism as one of the most impoverished nations in the world.
The initial American interest in Libya centered on something else: a former Italian and Luftwaffe air field now known as Mitiga International Airport, located just outside Tripoli, the capital. Built by Italy when it was a colonial power in 1923 and renamed Wheelus Air Field in 1945 by the American military, the base was considered so vital to military plans that early in the cold war, strategic bombers stood ready on the flight line to attack the Soviet interior. Tankers and fighters supporting those aircraft were kept there, too. American Matador missile units did exercises as well, training for nuclear war. The access had been made possible by postwar agreements between King Idris and the United States that gave the Pentagon permission to operate Wheelus until 1970.
Why did the Pentagon deem Wheelus important? The answer was in part related to Europe’s gray weather, which all too often grounded planes. And so American fighter and bomber pilots stationed in Europe were rotated through Libya, taking advantage of the fine flying conditions presented by the arid North African air. While in Libya, air crews also trained on aerial gunnery and bombing ranges, the use of which was eased by the lopsided power dynamic between the White House and Idris’s palace. Libya was too poor to complain.
In keeping with the times, Washington was not alone in courting the Libyan monarch. Idris was a new king, assuming power when the country declared independence of foreign administration in 1951. As a leader of a nation just stepping onto the world’s stage, he received Soviet delegations willing to look past their ideological opposition to monarchies to expand Kremlin influence across Africa.
In 1956, the Soviet Union opened an embassy in Tripoli. From this competition a familiar contest played out. Idris was Western-leaning.
Hoping to secure this loyalty and deny Moscow a possible ally, the American Embassy in Tripoli asked Secretary of State Allen W. Dulles to free financing under the Mutual Security Program to pay for aid to Libya. The program, which extended the ideas of the Marshall Plan beyond Europe, had been signed into law by President Harry S. Truman in 1951. It allowed the United States to offer food, economic and agricultural training to impoverished nations; it also made available weapons, ammunition and military training intended to help keep anti-Soviet leaders in power.
President Truman had framed his arguments for the program in language that mixed anti-Kremlin sternness with the bitter aftertaste of World War II. “The Mutual Security Program is a positive program for peace. It is absolutely essential to the security of the United States. At a time when one nation is bent upon world conquest — as the Soviet Union is today — other nations, large or small, have but two real choices: To pay the ransom of appeasement or to pay the price of building together sufficient strength — military, economic, political, and moral strength — to keep the peace. The United States and other free nations have chosen to build up their strength. That is what the Mutual Security Program is all about.”
Managed by the State Department and the Pentagon, in time it would distribute billions of dollars in aid worldwide. (Eventually, after a series of changes, it would morph into the U.S. Agency for International Development.)
Aid for Libya started small. American assistance teams trained Libyans in agriculture and animal husbandry, and the United States shipped in tens of thousands of tons of wheat. By 1955, however, new possibilities were in play. Libya’s loyalist army had been founded in 1953, and King Idris had repeatedly asked John L. Tappin, the American ambassador, for more military engagement, saying he feared his country’s provincial police forces. With 5,000 men under local control, the police forces outnumbered the king’s army by almost three to one, and possessed the real authority in the land. (Libya’s army had grown to 1,800 soldiers equipped with basic armaments and trained by soldiers from the British garrisons in the country, which numbered several thousand.) Idris wanted a more imposing guarantor of his throne. He urged Ambassador Tappin to help raise a loyalist force of 5,000 men.
If the king saw a way to strengthen his position, the ambassador, an unabashed champion of Libya’s monarchy, saw a chance to pull far ahead of the Soviets, and to prevent Libya from slipping, as Egypt had, toward becoming a Soviet proxy, replete with Soviet military goods. He argued to Secretary Dulles in May 1957 that a $10 million investment then would “do more good than $100 million elsewhere or too late.” Ambassador Tappin closed his comments by saying “Libya can be put solidly in U.S. camp now. Opportunity too good to miss.”
Congress required recipient countries to agree to use the military equipment responsibly, and to return unused weapons as deemed necessary by the president. With these stipulations, the National Security Council decided in 1957 that the United States would help the Libyan Army expand to 4,500 men and would train these soldiers to maintain internal security and resist guerrilla raids. In turn, Libya rebuffed much of the Soviet advance.
Thus began a classic, implicit arrangement in military-to-military engagements. The United States, with Britain, provided weapons and know-how with the hopes of cementing a relationship and securing a friend and the basing rights he granted.
Guns, Oil and Internal Security
The program found traction. Total American aid in 1960 reached $24.6 million, and by the early 1960s, the Libyan Army had grown to 4,200 men. Then a new factor emerged: oil.
Big strikes of crude in Algeria had excited Idris’s government, giving grounds for the United States to fear losing its base. Libyans by then viewed Wheelus as a nuisance and a threat to their security. The American presence had been tolerated because of the need for aid and because it provided the tiny country a degree of leverage over the United States. Libya’s newfound wealth was changing the equation. Libya’s oil revenue hit $40 million in 1962. It was expected to reach $200 million per year by 1965. Washington’s position was eroding, and with it, control of Libya’s military aspirations and influence over its appetite for arms.
Earlier reasons for helping Libya were eroding, too. By 1962, Idris, who suddenly had arms-purchasing power that did not need to be vetted by foreign defense attaches, wanted an air force of his own. And the United States was interested in expanding the army even more, both to keep pace with Libya’s provincial police forces, which had not been disbanded, and to be more able partners. An American Army survey team recommended in 1962 that Libya’s army should grow to 8,500 men, at a cost of $9.8 million over five years.
Momentum from this point forward could not be stemmed. Soon Libya was asking its American military sponsors for M-48 tanks and 155-millimeter howitzers. Washington turned down the requests, saying these weapons were unnecessary for internal defense. But in other ways, the United States was open to helping Libya sharply enhance its military capabilities. The calculus was clearly being recalibrated.
In 1964, the Joint Chiefs presented President Lyndon B. Johnson with an assessment that Wheelus was necessary for American national security, so much so that covert action should be considered to retain it. President Johnson chose another course. He agreed in principle to close the base, but began a stalling campaign. The administration feared being seen as acceding too quickly to a host nation’s desire for the United States to reduce its forward military footprint. What would that mean elsewhere, if other nations’ leaders changed their stances? Could the United States be pushed around and compelled to leave, even by a “non-country” like Libya? A new enticement was worked up: a plan to convert Wheelus into a sprawling international airport, with both the American and Libyan air forces as tenants — a process the Johnson administration called “Libyanization.”
(Followers of the latest Afghan war will hear an echo of this thinking in the common use in recent years of the term “Afghanization” by Pentagon planners.)
The changes in Libya driving Washington’s new thinking were accelerating, but another force was quietly gathering influence. The army the United States and Britain had helped equip, train and multiply had signed on a new officer candidate – Muammar el-Qaddafi, who began studies at the military academy in Benghazi in 1961. He graduated in 1966, and immediately was part of the West’s engagement with its Libyan protégé. The photograph below hints at an arrangement soon to sour.
Courtesy of Michael CockerellMuammar el-Qaddafi in Great Britain in 1966. It shows then-Lieutenant Qaddafi walking the streets of London, on break from a five-month course at the British Army’s School of Education in Beaconsfield. The instructors there, according to an article by Michael Cockerell in Standpoint magazine, took note of Lieutenant Qaddafi’s intense nationalism and were suspicious of him. They also found him to be not especially remarkable.
A senior officer, who later served at the Ministry of Defense, said: “Gaddafi certainly wasn’t the most ghastly hooligan we’d seen at Beaconsfield.” He added with a rueful smile: “He gave us no reason to poison him while he was there.”
Lieutenant Qaddafi was moving quickly. Just three years later, he led the coup that deposed King Idris. The army the United States had helped build to protect the monarch had instead unseated him. The local police forces had been eclipsed as the primary threat to the throne. The solution, in retrospect, proved to be worse than the problem.
Adding to the Stockpiles, Which Would Help Topple the Throne Again From here the well-known tale resumes. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s contempt for the United States was clear; he was not open to negotiation on extending an American military presence at Wheelus. In June 1970 the U.S. Air Force handed the base back to Libya. The last American airmen left. Libya, holding billions of dollars in oil money, started buying arms at a scale not previously seen.
It now had the means to buy that which had previously been denied: offensive weaponry. It struck a $400 million deal with the French for modern equipment, including 110 Mirage fighter jets. A $40 million purchase from the the Soviet Union in 1971 brought in 130 tanks, 24 self-propelled guns, 90 artillery pieces and 100 armored personnel carriers. Another 120 similar vehicles were delivered by Czechoslovakia, a satellite the Kremlin sometimes used as a cut-out for arms transfers. In April 1971, a National Intelligence Estimate placed the size of the Libyan armed forces at 19,000 men; it had grown more than ten-fold in the 15 years since the United States decided to underwrite and equip it. The following year, rising anti-American sentiment forced the United States to withdraw its ambassador in Tripoli. In 1979, the United States shut down its embassy entirely. Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya by then was an open state sponsor of terrorism.
Arms buys continued throughout the cold war and after the Soviet collapse, including from China, North Korea and post-Soviet Russia, and, among others, Belgium and Spain. With time, Mr. Qaddafi managed to acquire napalm bombs, which his air force was accused of using in the 1980s in Chad. The napalm and the batteries of ground-to-ground rockets showed just how far Libya’s military had come from the original American plan. And the old stock remained, and still had martial use.
That brings us back to that logo at the top of the post. The white-phosphorous mortar rounds in that photograph were not alone. The United States had also provided stocks of American rifle ammunition, most notably M2 ball ammunition, commonly called the .30-’06, that was used in American military rifles and machine guns until being abruptly phased out in the 1950s, replaced by the 7.62×51-millimeter NATO round. The photograph below shows several cases that remained last year.
Samuel Aranda for The New York TimesAmerican-made rifle cartridges, shipped by the United States to Libya in the 1950s, stored for more than a half-century and looted by anti-Qaddafi fighters in 2011.
Markings on the boxes conform to the standard used in the United States from 1949 to 1975. Staff members at the Joint Munitions Command at the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois said this ammunition was made at Lake City Army Ammunition Plant and at Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant.
Now look at the photograph below. This was another storage tube for an 81-millimeter mortar round, found by The New York Times beside a mortar used by anti-Qaddafi forces skirmishing last summer with loyalist forces on the desert flatlands north of the Nafusa mountains. The packaging indicates that this, and many other rounds fired by the tube, were M57 white-phosphorous (vol. 3, pg. 85) and M301 illumination rounds, manufactured in Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.
All of these munitions bore the same hand-in-hand logo. Adopted in 1953 as the symbol of the new Mutual Security Agency, it remained in 1955 with that agency’s successor organization, the Foreign Operations Administration, which was absorbed by the International Cooperation Administration in 1957 — the year military aid to Libya began. The presence of the sticker bearing this logo appears to date the transfer of these munitions from American to Libyan custody to sometime between 1957 and 1961 — during the optimistic period of American military engagement with King Idris.
These munitions, today 60 years or more old, along with high-explosive squash-head and high-explosive antitank rounds for M20 and M40 American-made recoilless rifles, were used to overthrow the dictator who overthrew that king. The recoilless rifle ammunition was particularly interesting. To see one of these weapons in use, go here. This was one of the most important weapons used by the anti-Qaddafi forces in the siege of Misurata, and helped change the course of the ground war. Many of these rounds were manufactured, according to their markings, at the Milan Army Ammunition Plant and the Beaumont Precision Product Machining Inc. The photograph below shows one round for an M20 in the bed of a pickup driven by anti-Qaddafi fighters in spring 2011. That round, according to its lot number, was manufactured in the Iowa Ammunition Plant in 1953 – suggesting that it was almost new when shipped to Idris’s army, and almost six decades old when it was used in the ouster of Colonel Qaddafi.
All of these were once part of stocks of weapons of American provenance that are now loose, with many crates or storage tubes displaying a handshake signifying an opportunity, as one long forgotten American ambassador said, that was too good to miss. They stand as marooned, lethal junk from a period of Pentagon and State Department cooperation with a nation that has since endured decades of repression and bloodshed, and been a supplier that transferred its weapons far and wide. When the Pentagon discusses ramping up the military engagement with Libya anew, they serve as warnings, once more, of the law of unintended consequences, and the value of using history to understand decisions being considered today.
C.J. Chivers, a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer, is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. John Ismay (@johnismay), a former U.S. Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer, is an independent arms researcher. Supplemental information can be found on ww