May 16, 2014 | National Post
Our Libya Intervention — Failure Disguised as Success
There was some rare good news coming out of Libya this month. Oil exports were set to resume from the Zuetina port after rebels holding it reached an agreement with the government. On another optimistic note, the interim parliament convened to select a new prime minister. (The previous PM resigned after rebels attacked his family.)
But the prime minister vote didn’t go well. Gunmen stormed the parliament, started shooting, and forced lawmakers to abandon their plans.
This is Libya today: Each step forward is followed by two steps back. The central government can’t even execute sovereign functions in its own capitol building.
The RAND Corporation’s Christopher Chivvis argues in his book “Toppling Gaddafi” that two major arguments existed within the Obama administration for intervention in Libya. The first was humanitarian, the concern that Muammar Gaddafi would slaughter his citizens. The second argument related to the Arab Spring, and the idea “that the United States [should be seen to] support the uprisings across the region.”
Rapid as Gaddafi’s fall was, the Libya intervention is widely regarded as a success, as no allied lives were lost, and the economic price was low. But though the mission was superbly executed, the fallout was more problematic than commonly acknowledged.
NATO’s intervention came when there already had been wrenching changes in the region, and the choice to intervene represented a decision to speed up the pace of change. This left a country beset by instability, and has harmed Libya’s neighbors.
Jihadist groups have experienced significant growth since Gaddafi fell. One report on this subject, “Al-Qaeda in Libya: A Profile,” was published in August 2012 by the U.S. Library of Congress’s Federal Research Division. It concludes that “a few hundred al-Qaeda members” operate in Libya, and that ideologically aligned Salafi jihadists have come to control “dozens of mosques and prayer halls.” So many jihadists are flocking to Libya that one contractor working on counterterrorism issues colorfully described the country as “Scumbag Woodstock.”
Jihadists have been taken advantage of training camps in southern Libya, and an unregulated flow of arms. In addition to conventional weapons, sophisticated devices such as surface-to-air missiles are believed to have escaped Gaddafi’s arsenal.
Jihadists are using Libyan territory as a safe haven. This was the case with the January, 2013 hostage crisis at Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant: The attackers reportedly trained in camps in southern Libya and used Libyan arms. More than 800 people were taken hostage, and at least 39 killed.
Libya has a porous border with Egypt, and a UN expert panel has heard evidence indicating the movement of weapons into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip “included man-portable air defense systems and anti-tank guided missiles.” In January, Sinai-based militants shot down an Egyptian military helicopter with a surface-to-air missile. The UN expert panel and press reporting suggest Libya was the missile’s most likely place of origin.
On Mar. 19, Egyptian forces raided a “workshop” in Arab Sharkas where an Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis cell was making bombs and explosive belts. Five tons of explosives were seized, and sources told the media that Libya was the point of origin for these explosives.
Tunisia is similarly concerned that the security situation in Libya is having an impact inside its borders, as the country clamps down on jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST). Tunisia’s director general of national security said AST members receive training in Libya, and that the group is funded from Libyan sources (amongst others).
Algerian officials had long been concerned about the impact that NATO’s intervention would have in Libya. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is of particular concern to Algeria, as it considers Algeria one of its highest priority targets. Algerian troops discovered an enormous cache of weapons near the Libya border in October, 2013, allegedly including “100 anti-aircraft missiles and hundreds of anti-helicopter rockets, landmines and rocket-propelled grenades.”
The intervention in Libya also has had an impact on Mali, to Libya’s southwest. A collection of al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups — including AQIM — and Tuareg separatists gained control over north Mali following the onset of the Arab Uprisings, prompting a French-led intervention in January, 2013.
The Tuareg rebellion in Mali has a long history, but Gaddafi’s overthrow transformed the dynamics. Libya’s dictator had been a supporter of Tuareg separatism, and with him gone, the separatists lost a major patron. Jihadist groups were able to exploit the Tuaregs’ loss of state patronage and forge an alliance rooted in convenience rather than ideology. Further, thousands of Tuareg rebels had gone to Libya to fight as mercenaries on Gaddafi’s side.
In sum, NATO’s intervention appears to have been a strategic mistake. The situation that NATO’s intervention left behind in Libya has cost further lives in Mali, Egypt, Algeria and possibly Tunisia. As to our desire to get on the right side of the Arab Spring, speeding up tumultuous events in the region actually has made it more difficult for Western states to positively influence outcomes. This has been harmful to Western interests; and it has been harmful to local interests, too, from a humanitarian perspective.
It may be difficult to hear that such a well-intentioned intervention seems to have produced more harm than good. However, it is necessary to evaluate the impact of any military action with the clearest of eyes.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program.