NEW YORK - There's something about Libya that makes normally sober American security officials go off the deep end. This week, we were treated to the latest, and certainly one of the weirdest, manifestation of Libophobia. Call it "Colonel Khadaffi's Secret Tunnels of Death."
According to a report planted in the media by US intelligence, the ever nefarious Libyan leader is building 2,000 miles of tunnels, disguised as a irrigation project, designed to shelter troops and armor, allowing them to strike suddenly at Libya's neighbors.
In 1984, oil-rich Libya embarked on a gigantic irrigation project, known as the "Great Man-Made River." This pharonic undertaking was designed to tap the Saharan aquifer in far southern Libya, an enormous body of ancient, underground water. A vast system of 13ft diameter pipes and powerful pumping stations is being built to send the water north to Libya's fertile Mediterranean coast, then west to the Tripoli region, and east around Benghazi. The total construction cost of this monumental undertaking, conducted by South Korean and European firms, is a whopping US$25 billion.
I examined part of the project in 1987 when I went to Libya to interview Col. Khadaffi. It didn't make economic sense to me then, and still doesn't. Wags called it the "Mad-Man River." Libya has only 5.8 million people, spread along the coast. Food could be flown in from "Fauchon" in Paris at a fraction of the price of the Man-Made River. Pumping distant Saharan water costs almost as much as using bottles of "Perrier" for irrigation.
But Col. Khadaffi is a genuine eccentric, and told me he was determined to make Libya independent of threats of foreign food embargos, no matter the cost. So the project went ahead, in spite of ever-tightening American trade sanctions designed to cripple Libya's economy and bring down the unloved Khadaffi, who was, until Saddam Hussein, Washington's favorite villain.
Now that the pipeline is nearing the coast, US security officials are raising a hue and cry that the Man-Made River is really a gigantic version of North Korea's tunnels under the DMZ, built to shelter troops from air attack and launch surprise attacks. Washington claims the tunnels are designed to allow Libyan forces to suddenly debouche on the borders of Egypt, Chad and Tunisia. Libya, asserted the US, had also built huge, underground storage areas to hold armor, artillery and munitions.
This system is directly linked, said Washington, to Libya's alleged underground chemical/biological weapons complex at Tarhunah, south of Tripoli. From this hollowed-out mountain, the Libyans would ship containers of poison gas and toxins to smite their enemies, safe from US air attack.
All this sounds straight out of Flash Gordon. Col. Khadaffi has become a later-day Ming the Merciless, complete with his barrels of Purple Death powder to be rained down on the United States. Washington also claims Libya has stockpiled a vast, Soviet-supplied arsenal of weapons, ready to be unleashed against Israel.
Col. Khadaffi does indulge in extreme zaniness, and was involved in a few acts of terrorism in the 1980's. Still, these recent charges seem as preposterous as the panic that gripped Washington a decade ago about teams of non-existent Libyan assassins, skulking in the White House Rose Garden.
Tiny Libya is hardly a world-class threat. Libya is so backwards it imports Egyptians to bake bread. When an elevator breaks down in Tripoli, technicians must be flown in from Europe. Claim that Libya can produce nuclear weapons, or long-ranged missiles, are nonsense.
Libya's rag-tag armed forces amount to 65,000 poorly trained men. Assertions the 35,000-man Libyan army threatens US ally Egypt, which can field over 400,000 troops, are ludicrous. So are claims about Libya's "secret" arsenal. Libya has about 1,000, 1960's vintage Soviet tanks, mainly T-54/55's,70% broken down. Another 1,040 inoperative T-54's are rusting in storage. These are the Libyan "legions" Washington claims are poised for a blitzkrieg into Egypt or Israel.
Most of Libya's 420-plane air force is grounded by lack of maintenance, spare parts, and pilots. Khadaffi's little navy is sinking at its moorings. The last time Libyan troops went into action - in Chad, during the late 1980's - they were routed and sent fleeing by a handful of French Foreign Legionnaires, disguised as Chadian tribesmen.
The much ballyhooed Libyan poison gas program at Tarhunah is primitive. Gas and germs are easy to produce, but extremely difficult to use effectively. Libya has no means of delivering them. Even so, the US is still developing deep-penetrator bombs designed to destroy Tarhunah and Khadaffi's personal bunkers.
One suspects the Pentagon is again building up the threat of Libya to justify defense budgets and new weapons. Foreign villains are in short supply these days. Col. Khadaffi, who was helped into power by the CIA, remains one of our few dependable bogeymen. His attempts in recent years to be good as gold, and patch relations with the west, are rejected by Washington, which remains determined to overthrow him. Khadaffi is not to be forgiven for challenging the US Mideast Raj, and getting the Arabs to raise the price of oil back in the early 1970's.
[As word of secret US backing of Khadaffi leaked out, Wilson and
Terpil were cut adrift and proclaimed outlaws. They fled to the
Mideast. In 1982 Wilson was lured by American agents to the
Dominican Republic, kidnapped to the USA, and charged with
gun-running.--Eric Margolis, "Edwin Wilson, America's Man in the
Iron Mask," November 10, 2003]