“It’s great to be in Libya, free Libya” said Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen as he declared the end of NATO’s air campaign in Europe, ‘the most successful operation’ in its history. Gaddafi is gone. Libya is free, or at least free to be free. Or so we are told. NATO intervention has been a success. If NATO is claiming credit for the success of regime change should it not also accept some responsibility for the less creditable events that have resulted from its intervention?
The West intervened in Libya on 19 March with overwhelming coercive air power. (Formally NATO did not take over the coordination of the operation until 31 March and in the early days France and UK carried out most attacks under overall US command). Within hours of the intervention there were no Libyan aircraft to oppose the attacks and no anti-air capability worth the name. Yet despite 26,000 sorties including 9,600 strike sorties, the Gaddafi forces survived for seven months although losing thousands of personnel and suffering huge material damage in the NATO aerial bombardment. NATO, led by UK and France, exploited the protection of civilians not just to promote regime change but also to target Gaddafi himself and members of his family right up until the leader’s death on 19 October.
UN Security Council resolution 1973 was passed with some urgency (even haste) on the 19 March as Gaddafi forces approached Benghazi. Ten members of the SC supported the resolution including the US, France and UK of the permanent members and also Bosnia, Colombia, Gabon, Lebanon, Nigeria, Portugal and South Africa. Significantly the other five states abstained. Russia and China were no great surprises. However when combined with the other three, Brazil, India and Germany, five of the world’s major powers were not prepared to give their support to the air intervention. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had warned NATO not to use the protection of civilians as an excuse for regime change which is precisely what happened. This will make it much harder to agree future resolutions at the UN allowing intervention by Member States in situations of internal disorder inside another Member State. There are obvious implications here for taking agreed international action on Syria which now looks remote even as the situation there continues to deteriorate with army deserters conducting increasingly effective military operations against the forces of the state.
Even within NATO there has been disagreement. Just 14 out of 28 NATO states participated in the operation with Germany and Turkey particularly vocal in opposition at various times. Three Arab countries, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Jordan participated in various ways as did neutral Sweden.
There will also be distaste throughout the Arab world at the spectacle of NATO killing thousands of Arabs without suffering a single casualty in a seven month ‘war’. Despite playing God, NATO seems to have been able to avoid any responsibility for the chaos and human rights abuses that have flowed from the intervention.
The National Transitional Council has been supported almost unequivocally by the international media as the good guys and their raggle-taggle armies have been presented in a simplistic heroic light. Yet from the beginning the undisciplined nature of their forces was evident from the media footage. Even in the very early days one often wondered who the civilians of Libya most needed protection from. It seemed that the revolutionaries fled whenever they met strong resistance and generally relied on NATO air strikes to break the opposition.
There was great emotion after the death of Gaddafi with many citizens saying they had waited 42 years for this wonderful day. However NTC Chairman Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil spent much of those 42 years working within the Gaddafi system, eventually serving as Minister for Justice from 2007 to February 2011. He was sent to Benghazi by the Gaddafi Government in February to negotiate the release of hostages taken by the rebels. Only on 21 February did he resign and join the rebels although it should be acknowledged that he had a reasonably good reputation for protecting human rights while a minister. Other participants in the revolution had been servants of the Gaddafi regime for many years. Did they all suddenly discover a conscience together in February? Perhaps, but it is also possible that they were assisted in making this decision by other less public influences.
Libya on the map is a big square-shaped country but in reality its population is concentrated in a thin coastal strip 1100 miles long. There are about 140 tribes and clans divided into approx 14 major groups. Tensions are already apparent between these tribal groups within the NTC umbrella with the central Misrata tribes and tribes from the western mountains often estranged from the easterners in Benghazi. There is also a strong militant Islamic element working within the NTC. Huge quantities of modern weapons and munitions have fallen into the hands of civilians and the NTC has been slow to secure ammunition atorage areas. These weapons not only threaten stability in Libya but also in neighbouring countries such as Chad and Sudan.
Finally there is the lynching of Gaddafi on 19 October. As his convoy tried to break out of Sirte it was attacked and dispersed by a French air strike. After the convoy dispersed in different directions the segment with Gaddafi was attacked again by French aircraft. Why? Could this have been a coincidence? Was real-time information being relayed from the ground? How were these air strikes protecting civilians? The second strike is said to have killed about 50 of the70 persons in this convoy segment. The remaining 20 including Gaddafi and his son Mutassim were surrounded by NTC ‘fighters’.
The story of the end of Gaddafi is somewhat confused. It seems likely he was savagely beaten, probably sodomised with a knife or a stick, beaten with shoes and then shot by a fighter with an automatic weapon in the chest and head. There is apparent footage of his son Mutassim alive and well in captivity drinking bottled water. Yet he too ends up dead. The bodies are hijacked by the Misrata faction and treated in an appalling fashion contrary to Islamic practice before being buried in secret, thus preventing any forensic investigation.
However the muted reaction to these outrages is ultimately more worrying than the actions of the undisciplined mob itself. No western government has dared to criticise, let alone condemn, the NTC for these actions. The West has collectively turned the other way because he was a ’bad guy’ and however unfortunate, the actions of the mob seem to be deemed understandable in the circumstances. Is a new threshold being established for extra judicial vengeance? The US chose to execute the unarmed Osama Bin Laden and to flout Islamic ritual before dumping his body at sea. Why then should not the Libyans avoid the difficulties of a trial and unpleasant revelations in dealing with their ‘bad guy’? And where does summary vengeance end? It has been clear since the capture of Tripoli in late August that NTC forces have been engaged in summary executions and torture and have carried out actions approaching genocide against dark-skinned immigrants. There is much evidence of killings of prisoners during the long battle for Sirte including one site visited by Human Rights Watch which may just be the tip of the massacre iceberg.
Of course NATO has not been directly involved in any of these outrages. Nevertheless NATO cannot claim credit for the positive outcomes without accepting some responsibility for the negatives. Even with overwhelming military superiority NATO was unable to dictate the pace of the conflict and was unable to restrain its local allies. Once again it was demonstrated that coercive military power has its limits and that even massive military superiority does not guarantee a desired end state. The US and its allies have launched three very different wars over the past 10 years in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Success was declared in all three cases. In the first two of these, victory was followed by brutal warfare accompanied by considerable human rights abuses. There is a good chance that the Libyan intervention will result in a similar moral muddle.