The uprising against Qaddafi began in February 2011. A few weeks later NATO decided to intervene, and started providing air cover to the armed opposition. Few experts would dispute, I think, that that help from the West was crucial to the ultimate success of the resistance. Qaddafi, after all, had at his disposal enormous arsenals of artillery and armor, resources denied to his foes. Without NATO's leveling of the playing field it's hard to imagine how the rebels could have won.
Qaddafi was finally captured and killed on October 20. Three days later the National Transitional Council, Libya's interim government, declared the "liberation" of the country -- even though the NTC was incapable of asserting centralized control over a country awash in weapons. And it was just a few weeks after Qaddafi's demise that the Tuaregs launched their campaign in northern Mali.
Precisely how this Tuareg force materialized is still a bit of a mystery, but what's beyond dispute is that most of its fighters came from Libya. Deeply distrustful of the Libyan military, Qaddafi was known to hire mercenaries from other African countries to provide security to himself and his government. Tuaregs were certainly among them. Qaddafi also sponsored a variety of insurgent movements around Africa as a way of ensuring influence. But the experts agree that he also kept those groups on a tight leash. Alex Thurston, author of Sahel Blog, points out that it was actually Qaddafi, of all people, who mediated a ceasefire in the Tuareg rebellion in 2009.
With their sponsor and protector gone, the Libya-based separatists no longer had any reason to stay where they were. And they must have seen the sudden availability of heavy weapons in now unguarded arsenals as a chance too good to pass up.
So it seems clear enough that the civil war in Libya was a proximate cause for the success of the Tuareg rebellion. But to what extent are the West's actions specifically to blame? Did the well-meaning intervention against Qaddafi unleash the forces that have now led to the downfall of democracy in Mali?
The answers may not be entirely clear -- especially considering the difficulties of getting reliable information from one of the most remote regions on earth. But the timing is certainly suspicious. Libya was in turmoil for eight months until Qaddafi's death, but the Tuaregs launched their attack only a few weeks after that. "Come January the balance of power does shift," says Naunihal Singh, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame. "And one of the reasons is the influx of men and weapons [from Libya]."
And that raises the issue of whether Washington and its European allies did enough to anticipate and predict the possible regional knock-on effects of intervention. Policymakers should have been aware of the risks, says Singh -- not least because of fears that a power vacuum in the north might create a safe haven for militants from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. (For the record, FP was already writing about the dangers of Tuareg mercenaries returning to Mali in March 2011.) But NATO planners were clearly focused on their primary tasks of preventing Qaddafi from killing more Libyan civilians and supporting the resistance.