Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

Jihadi jailbreaks raise doubts about US security funding

What do the jailbreaks in Pakistan, Iraq, and Libya have in common? Massive amounts of US assistance to avoid this sort of thing.

Policemen and Ranger soldiers stand outside a prison following a Taliban attack in Dera Ismail Khan, July 30. Taliban fighters disguised as police and armed with bombs and grenades broke 250 prisoners out of the Pakistan jail in a brazen overnight operation that raised serious questions over the new government's ability to combat militancy.

In the past few days Iraq, Libya, and Pakistan have experienced massive jailbreaks involving Islamist insurgents. What all three countries have in common is weak national institutions and massive US efforts to prop them up.

Iraq is where the US spent tens of billions of dollars rebuilding the country after the 2003 invasion, with a special focus on building up the country's military, police, and intelligence units. Pakistan has received about $25 billion from the US in the past decade, with much of that money likewise supposedly dedicated to building the country's ability to police its borders and maintain internal stability.

Libya is something of an outlier. NATO, led by the US, spent more than $1 billion on the bombing campaign that helped drive Muammar Qaddafi from power in 2011, but has since steered clear of reconstruction spending in the oil-rich country.

That's not to say the US hasn't been deeply involved in unfolding events in Libya – consider the massive CIA operation in Benghazi that was the scene of the killings of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other embassy employees in September of last year. The US "consulate" in Benghazi was basically cover for an intelligence operation monitoring jihadi movements in eastern Libya, one of which was involved in the murder.

But the recent experience of all three countries is that massive amounts of money spent don't necessarily lead to desired outcomes. In Iraq, 500 insurgents, many with ties to that country's Al Qaeda and some detained during the US occupation of the country, were able to flee from Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad with the aid of their comrades on the outside. Their rescuers were able to overwhelm the defenses at a heavily militarized prison that was known to be an insurgent target for years.

In Pakistan, likewise, the prison where approximately 250 insurgents escaped this week in the country's lawless northwest was an obvious target for the Pakistani Taliban. In Benghazi, Libya, it's a slightly different story. The roughly 1,000 prisoners that escaped from the jail there were aided by the failure of competent national institutions to emerge since the fall of Qaddafi and the fact that in practice the city is ruled by competing armed militias, some theoretically friendly to the country's nascent national government, some determinedly hostile. But as in the previous two countries, that some of those who escaped are likely to engage in insurgency is highly likely.

The failure to secure prisons is just the latest reminder that US money often fails to buy stability. While of course these countries could be even less stable and weaker than they are without US engagement, the weakness in particular of Iraq and Pakistan after so many billions spent is a reminder that money is often not the answer.

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