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A protracted endgame in Libya?

Commentary, 14 July 2011
International Institutions, Europe, Middle East and North Africa
NATO's engagement in Libya moves into its fourth month with the prospect of success looking more realistic. Such an achievement would be a long-time coming, and total success will not be assured.

NATO's engagement in Libya moves into its fourth month with the prospect of success looking more realistic. Such an achievement would be a long-time coming, and total success will not be assured.

By George Joffé, Director, RUSI Qatar 

Libya Rebels Blast

As NATO's engagement in Libya moves into its fourth month, questions are being increasingly asked in Europe's capitals as to what will happen once the Qadhafi regime has gone.  Of course, nobody can say how the regime will end or when but the fact that it will end is now increasingly accepted as an inescapable reality.  Not surprisingly, Colonel Qadhafi and his close associates dispute that such an outcome is inevitable but the news, in late June, that rebel forces in the Jabal Nafusa had finally cut the pipeline from the oil fields to the south of the mountains into the refinery at Zawiya was a warning of the slow economic strangulation of Tripoli and its district.  It is not only that traffic, whether civilian or military, will gradually grind to a halt. It is also the fact that the distribution of essential supplies to the population and the generation of electricity will also come to an end that is significant, for once that happens, popular anger will no longer be constrained by fear alone.

Different War Aims

For NATO itself, such an outcome cannot come soon enough.  The growing unpopularity of its Libyan mission, in Europe at least, underlines the fact that the alliance stumbled into a new military intervention for which it really was not prepared, politically at least.  The three dominant states within the Coalition quite clearly had different agendas from the start. For the United States, the priority was to avoid a heavy military commitment after operations had begun. For France, there was the need to compensate - at least, in domestic eyes - for the embarrassment of its mistakes in Tunisia at the end of last year.  Indeed, President Sarkozy's new-found enthusiasm for disciplining North African dictators even eventually involved dropping weapons to rebel forces, despite the fact that this contravened United Nations principles and resolutions.  For Britain, meanwhile, Mr Cameron's excess of moralistic zeal overlooked the consequences of his own Strategic Defence Review some months earlier.  Thus British forces soon ran out of ammunition - admittedly rapidly rectified -as the costs of the operation far exceeded Chancellor George Osborne's initial estimates of "a few tens of millions" of pounds.

The United States had another agenda, too, in which it called into question the assumptions of the seventy-year-old Transatlantic Relationship upon which the NATO alliance is based. America's Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, lambasted European NATO members in his valedictory address for relying on the United States to guarantee their security too.  The United States, he pointed out, covered 75 per cent of NATO's military expenditure whereas twenty years ago, the burden was shared equally.  Yet, whilst the United States spent over 5 per cent of its GDP on defence, most European states spent less than 2 per cent.  Only Britain, France, Greece and Albania, he said, met their obligation of spending at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence costs.  Ironically enough, even the Obama administration's reticence to become too heavily involved in NATO's Libyan initiative was not sufficient to avoid a Republican move in Congress, vociferously supported by the Tea Party movement, to impeach the President for declaring war without Congressional approval. 

Other states, such as Qatar, continued to support the NATO mission, even actively supporting the insurgent administration in Benghazi with arms and oil, whilst Turkey, which does not take part in the NATO mission, nonetheless has recognised the new administration in Benghazi as the legal representative of Libya - as, indeed, have France and Italy - and given it grant-in-aid of $200 million.  Norway, however, whilst it initially accepted the obligation of a 'responsibility to protect' Libya's civilian population which lay behind the United Nations Security Council's Resolution No 1973, has increasingly had doubts as to whether NATO's strategy corresponded to what the United Nations had originally intended.  The result will be that its air force will cease operations in Libya, where it has been responsible for up to 10 per cent of NATO's air strikes, in August.   

Limits to intervention

These difficulties, however, pale beside the growing realisation that the enabling United Nations resolution on which the Coalition's activities is based contains a fatal flaw.  This is that it expressly confines military operations to air-power alone, expressly excluding 'foreign occupation'.  This has had two consequences.   Firstly, despite the fact that NATO claims to have destroyed up to 70 per cent of the heavy armour and weaponry possessed by Colonel Qadhafi's forces, it cannot easily eliminate the rest or counter their increasing willingness to use civilian transport or civilian cover for their operations by intervening on the ground.  And, secondly, NATO will have to impose a self-denying ordinance as soon as the Qadhafi regime finally disappears for it cannot then intervene on the ground to ensure the security of the civilian population it is sworn to protect, should chaos follow.

And chaos is a distinct possibility, as scores are settled between Libya's new masters and those who had persecuted them before.  Ironically enough, as in Iraq eight years ago, planning for the aftermath of military operations has been woefully slow although, on this occasion, an obsession to avoid the mistakes of Iraq has been the dominating concern.  European governments are desperate to avoid being seen to be latter-day reluctant imperialists, yet do not know how they can respond to or cope with the imperative need for impartial force to ensure security as Libya begins the process of reconstruction.  

Ideally, of course, such a role could be undertaken by the Arab world, for it supported the original United Nations initiative and, albeit reluctantly, the NATO action as well.  But even here there are problems; Libya's close neighbours are hardly acceptable - Egypt is concerned with its own transition and, in any case, Cyrenaicans fear Egyptian expansionism whilst Algeria is suspected by Benghazi of having covertly supported the Qadhafi regime at the start of the crisis. And other Arab states seem increasingly reluctant to become involved, either because of their domestic problems or because of their own fears about what the outcome in Libya will be. NATO's intervention, in short, seems as if it is about to become the embodiment of the old adage - be careful of what you wish for, for you might just get it!

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

 

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