Cameron’s Folly: Libya, and the importance of looking forward



(image shows Cameron and Sarkozy on their ‘victory’ visit to Libya, 15 September 2011, and the Sirte they created, at around the same time)  

‘Your friends in Britain and France will stand with you as you build your country and build your democracy for the future.’ David Cameron, address to the Libyan people, 15 September 2011.

‘(the UK government had) no proper idea what was going to happen, no proper understanding of Libya and no proper plan for the consequences.’ Crispin Blunt, chair, Foreign Affairs Select Committee, 13 September 2016

‘Libya… has become a shitshow.’ Barack Obama, US President, 10 March 2016

A military intervention by the UK to ‘protect’ people from a dictator ‘mission-crept’ into all-out regime change and the Prime Minister who enthusiastically drove the process completely failed to prepare for the aftermath of his ‘adventure’, resulting in a state with no governance, now in the midst of a bitter civil war in which extremists commit regular outrages.

This probably sounds familiar. In fact, it is worse.

Because while Blair’s unjustified and illegal debacle in Iraq was characterised by lies and lack of forward-planning, he at least ensured the UK remained in the state to try to deal – albeit ineffectually – with the mayhem he had sown. The same cannot be said for David Cameron’s attack on Libya in 2011.

The UK in Libya: even worse than the UK in Iraq.

It’s a while since I have updated this blog, in the main because I have been working in Greece with refugees from the Syria conflict, the Iraqi disaster, Afghanistan and a few other places.

But yesterday, the UK government’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee shared its findings and conclusions after an investigation into the UK’s part in the first Libyan Civil War, in which it bombed cities across the state until the death of then leader Muammar Ghaddafi.

David Cameron himself – the man who had so enthusiastically pushed the UK into the conflict, and who had accepted the applause and ecstatic gratitude from Libyan people in its immediate aftermath – had last year been invited to answer questions set by the committee, but declined, saying he ‘had too little time’ to take part.

On Monday, he announced his retirement as an MP ‘with immediate effect’.

It is unlikely that this is because of the Select Committee’s findings, but in an earlier age – when catastrophic decisions which cause the death of tens of thousands of people, cast an entire region into chaos and play a significant part in creating a genuine international crisis were still regarded as important indicators of a politician’s capacity to perform their role – those findings would have been enough to chase him from office in shame.

Before we go any further, as is often the case in these blogs, I should make a note. Libya has gathered international attention in the last 18 months largely due to IS, and its presence in the state.

This is understandable, but we should note that the UK’s raid on Libya – though it undoubtedly helped create the circumstances which have enabled IS to take root there – did not ‘create’ IS.

Nor, while we are on the topic, did Blair’s War on Iraq – though again, it certainly helped prepare the ground for IS to thrive.

In fact, the existence of IS is largely the fault of those members of the group who are capable of and prepared to use tactics of savagery, torture, rape and slaughter, and to intimidate others to either fear them, serve them, or both.

And the single conflict which played the largest part in creating IS was in fact the war in Afghanistan, and the death of Osama Bin Laden, after which many of Al-Qaeda’s younger and most angry members concluded that the new leadership – and the organisation itself – were not fit to represent their wishes and to defend themselves or their members against their self-declared enemies.

Nor would it be entirely fair to claim – as some have and still do, in my presence and out of it, and on national media and in private – that Libya would be ‘better-off’ without Ghaddafi, or that people didn’t want him gone.

As many of you know, I lived in Libya in the immediate aftermath of its first civil war, in Sirte – a city where support for Muammar Ghaddafi had been relatively strong.

But even in Sirte, the majority of people were glad he had been deposed. I met many of them, including some who steered the conversation to praise of Cameron as soon as they found out I am from England.

And Cameron was met by some when he visited Libya in September 2011. Those people were real, and they represented the majority view in Libya.

Because though it was true that Muammar Ghaddafi had provided free health care, free education, and put food on the table even of Libya’s poorest, he had also overseen 40 years of dictatorship in which around 20 per cent of the adult population worked for the state’s secret police, where torture was a notorious tool to gain ‘information’, where people ‘disappeared’ soon after being jailed, and state executions were broadcast on national television.

The conflict of 2011 was a civil war, and Muammar Ghaddafi certainly had support, but that does not mean ‘most people’ wanted him to stay.

Nor can we seriously argue that the current chaos – on which more later, but which of course includes IS, the major reason Libya currently holds any place in most of the world’s consciousness – means that Ghaddafi ‘should have stayed in power’: the education, healthcare and food are the only good arguments for that, and we must consider whether they outweigh the torture, state surveillance and regular, broadcast public executions.

The latter point may seem unreasonable, but in fact it is the opposite – it is an attempt to apply reason to a complex debate.

Touring my book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis, and on occasional media appearances to discuss Libya’s political situation, I am often asked whether Libya would be ‘better off’ if Ghaddafi had kept power. Some are genuinely interested. Others – including Ken Livingstone – believe my hesitation in answering reflects my support for UK ‘intervention’ overseas (it does not).

Because the point is that there has literally never been a situation in which ‘intervention’ must lead to chaos: whether it does so depends entirely on the nature of the intervention (bombs, bullets and missiles being most likely to sow chaos) and what we do afterwards.

When we consider interventions, we must weigh what we are hoping to remove – in some cases a genuinely terrible dictator – against the potential for widespread death during the war we wage: it’s part of what The Toss of a Coin is about – what intervention is, and what it means.

And there is a reason, after all, why international law specifically forbids regime change. Because once regime change is an acceptable reason for war, literally anybody can use that as an excuse or pretext to kill people in other states.

But regardless of whether an intervention is judged ‘just’ or not, there is literally no excuse for anyone to immediately turn their back on the state they have just helped to devastate. The absolute least one must do for people whose home they have destroyed is help them to rebuild.

The alternative – whether for want of planning, as in Iraq, or want of forethought and interest, as in the UK’s inexcusably hasty retreat from Libya after helping bomb large parts of the state to rubble – is to condemn millions of innocent men, women and children to misery, whether because of the war and chaos which take hold in situations of desolation, or simply because they have been left homeless, often without protection, and to fend for themselves in a post-war zone.

In fact, the question of whether Libya would be better off if Ghaddafi were still in power is exactly the piece of rhetoric David Cameron himself uses to defend himself when questioned about his decisions on Libya.

In one exchange, at Prime Minister’s Questions in October 2015, Angus Robertson, the Scottish Nationalist Parliamentary Leader, asked the then Prime Minister about the international refugee crisis, noting mayhem in Libya.

Instead of addressing the issue – a situation in which, four years after the UK had bombed it to remove its leader, the state had two governments, was in the midst of a bitter multi-sided civil war; its second in five years, was a base for IS and was one of two states at the heart of the international refugee crisis – he responded ‘Perhaps the honourable gentleman would prefer it if Ghaddafi were still in power?’

This cravenness is not the reason why people have asked me the same question. Nor is it wrong to ask – in fact it must be answered. But it is perhaps an example of a question posed at the wrong moment. At present, Libya is in the grips of a vast crisis, which threatens lives across the state and in places all over the world. We must address this, before we argue over Ghaddafi being deposed.

For this reason, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee took an admirable position: not asking why the intervention taken place at all, but what had happened, and how had it happened?

And its findings were stark.

Though David Cameron did not see fit to attend, leading members of the UK military did, and provided the Committee with an unflinching view of his failure to research Libya and its situation before committing to act, lack of clear strategy or aim allowing a very specific UN-granted mandate to ‘drift’ into an all-out strike with regime change as its sole possible outcome, and a disregard for the UK’s clear responsibility to help Libyan reconstruction.

All of which led, the Committee’s chair and Conservative MP Crispin Blunt concluded, to ‘a failed state, on the verge of Civil War’.

It is the first time a member of the Conservative Party has described Libya as a failed state, yet the comment still does not go far enough: Libya is now a failed state in its third year of its second civil war, with either two and a half governments or none, extremist terrorists waging war on its streets, and one of two opposing ‘armies’ having just seized control of almost all of its major oil terminals.

The Toss of a Coin is a book whose major focus is on the immediate personal outcomes of the ‘intervention’ – and of a large number of similar conflicts before it. In it, refugees and combatants tell their own stories, with notes from my own experience of Sirte, a town the size of Banbury, which NATO claimed to have struck more than 140 times during its airstrikes on Libya.

But it also contains some analysis of the legal justifications for the ‘intervention’ – and comes to much the same conclusions as the committee itself has now done.

Cameron – along with French premier Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama – justified airstrikes by citing the UN’s Responsibility to Protect document which, in short, effectively states that nations which are capable of protecting citizens anywhere in the world from murder, torture or chaos, have a responsibility to do so.

At best, the extension of this premise to the all-out attack on the Ghaddafi regime which followed was on extraordinarily precarious supports. At worst, it was clearly far beyond the mandate set by the document, and the absence of any other justification meant taking part in the war on either side was in fact illegal.

Lord Richards, the UK’s chief of defence staff, noted: ‘If the primary object of the intervention was the urgent need to protect civilians in Benghazi (who had thrown off Ghaddafi’s rule, and were threatened militarily by him), then this objective was achieved in March 2011, in less than 24 hours.’

Crispin Blunt, summing up the evidence the Committee had gathered, added: ‘Having been achieved, the whole business then slid into regime change, with no proper idea what was going to happen… no proper understanding of Libya, and no proper plan for the consequences.’

The Toss of a Coin contains some in-depth analysis of what happened in Libya after the UK played a part in bombing it, then walked away from the chaos it had created.

Since I last posted here, in July, a vast number of claims and counter-claims have been thrown by all sides, as they have been almost since the start of the state’s first Civil War in February 2011.

But what we know for certain is this:

In May 2014, Libya’s international funds had remained frozen and untouchable, and the UK, France and others had ignored the state for almost two and a half years. In the same period, the two major political blocs – the largely secular ‘liberal’ and moderate Muslim groups – had squabbled and failed even to draw up a constitution, let alone begin any serious rebuilding of the state.

Khalifa Haftar, once a General of the Libyan army and ally of Ghaddafi, but since a misadventure in Chad a sworn enemy of the state’s dictator, led a group of former Libyan army members under the name ‘Operation Dignity’ in an attack on the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Al-Sharia militia in Benghazi.

At the same time, in a blunder befitting a man described memorably as ‘the worst military leader in Libya’s history’, Haftar ordered the second-largest khetiba (militia) in Libya, the Zintan khetiba, to open fire on the Libyan parliament, in Tripoli.

This was a blunder not only because he ordered the attack less than three weeks before Libya was due to hold elections in which every opinion poll pointed to a heavy defeat for the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party, which Haftar claimed to oppose, but also because the attack on the Parliament gave the Misrata khetiba – by far the largest and most powerful militia in Libya – an excuse to return to its recently-ended military occupation of the state’s capital (in the name of ‘protecting’ the Parliament) and made the Misrata khetiba (which soon renamed itself Libya Fajr, or Libya Dawn) Haftar’s enemy.

Not only was it a pointless move, it actually made Haftar’s stated aims – to rid Libya of so-called ‘Islamic extremists’; a group which according to him included Al-Qaeda members and sitting peaceful politicians alike – far harder to achieve.

The elections which followed saw just 16 per cent of the electorate cast a vote. Haftar’s attacks began the second Libyan Civil War, which was raging on the streets of Libya’s two largest cities, and in many places between, and following two and a half years of stagnation in the state’s first ever democratically-elected parliament, and a rocket and shotgun attack on the same Parliament, many preferred simply to stay in the relative safety of their own homes, rather than risk their lives to cast a vote they had reason to doubt would even be counted.

But the 16 per cent who did vote, voted as the polls had predicted. The Muslim Brotherhood – not the majority to begin with – suffered losses and were set to be the minority in the new Parliament.

Instead, the new government refused to sit at Tripoli – citing reasonable fears for their safety – and set up a Parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR), in the city of Tobruk, in the far East of Libya.

As a result, members of the previous government – mainly, it must be said, those who had either lost their seat or were set to be in a tiny minority in the HoR – declared that because the few governmental guidelines which did exist included a requirement for any new government to be sworn in in Tripoli, in a figurative handing-over of power, regardless of where they met afterwards, the HoR was not legitimate and that they would reform the government, under the title of General National Congress (GNC) and sit as the ‘true’ ‘legitimate’ government of Libya.

As the so-called ‘secular’ government (though all its members – like almost all Libyans – were Muslims) Khalifa Haftar claimed to ‘support’ (rather than be governed by) the HoR.

The GNC, which Haftar repeatedly claimed was constituted of ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’ even though almost all of its members represented a group which opposed religious government, was backed by Libya Dawn (though again, the militia notably never suggested it would actually be governed by the ‘government’ it claimed alliance with) in part for reasons of religious preference, but also because ‘protecting’ the GNC offered shaky legitimacy to Dawn’s continued presence on Tripoli’s streets.

In the months which followed, Haftar continued to fight Ansar Al-Sharia in Benghazi, while his allies battled Dawn in Tripoli. Haftar’s allies Egypt (whose leader Fateh al-Sisi had just staged a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood to seize power) and the UAE (which opposes the Brotherhood for the group’s opposition to Islamic rule and to monarchy) ran airstrikes on Tripoli, on Dignity’s behalf, the first aerial bombardment the city had experienced since France, the UK and US bombed to remove Ghaddafi. Meanwhile, Turkey and Qatar, which generally support the Muslim Brotherhood, were delivering weapons to Dawn.

And, encouraged by the mayhem and chaos it requires to thrive, and which is generally only guaranteed in states where war has already taken hold, IS entered Libya, taking first Derna, then my former hometown of Sirte (Ansar al-Sharia removed IS from Derna, joining fellow Al-Qaeda members in Iraq and Syria in opposing IS in their region).

And it is that final point – the presence of IS – which lay behind the next major development in Libya’s recent history.

Because in December 2015, the GNC and HoR met in Tunis, and for the first time emerged with what they described as a ‘political solution’ to the Libyan crisis. I noted when they made the announcement that agreement between the two could only be a first step, as the ‘Dawn’ and ‘Dignity’ forces would also have to agree to peace (it is extremely unlikely Ansar al-Sharia or IS would do so, but neither could long withstand the attentions of a united, governed state), but it was a first step which had never before existed in Libya, and could have been the beginning of a Libyan-led solution to its severe emergency.

Instead, at an international meeting called to discuss ‘Libya’ four days later (called in the wake of the Paris attacks, and to which not one single Libyan – in a government or not – was invited) a visibly angry US Secretary of State John Kerry shouted ‘get me a government we can work with!’ (to be allowed to attack IS in Libya – airstrikes requiring the permission of a recognised government).

In response, Martin Kobler, the head of the United Nations Strategic Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) drew together plans for an entirely new ‘Government of National Accord’ (GNA) which it was hoped would – as a creation of the international community – acquiesce to the community’s demands to be allowed to launch airstrikes on Libya.

This move derailed the HoR and GNC’s attempts at a Libyan solution, and instead the GNA – at that stage not a government, in a failed state which very nearly no longer qualified as a nation, and without the backing of any accord – was delivered to Libya in an Italian naval vessel, on 30th March.

The effect on the GNC was greater than expected. After feverish local diplomacy, the GNA’s membership had persuaded a large part of Libya Dawn – and some parts of the GNC – to back it (though in Dawn’s case, it once again presented itself as a ‘supporter’ of, rather than a body at the disposal of, the new government).

By 4th April, claims were made that the GNC had disbanded, and though these proved wide of the mark, the former ‘government’’s (few) remaining members have not made an official public statement since the summer began. This is not the same as the GNC disbanding – no such thing has yet happened – but it does signify that its members are waiting for developments in at least one area before choosing a direction of travel.

Because though the GNA has claimed some achievements which look impressive – convincing the Libyan National Bank and the state’s National Oil Company to back it are examples of agreements which would mean more if Libya controlled its international wealth or was currently capable of trading in oil, neither of which is the case – its main claim to external legitimacy and Libyan survival is its opposition to IS.

Libya Dawn, for example, had already attempted to chase IS from Sirte, with the backing of the GNC (Haftar’s Dignity force has yet to engage IS anywhere in Libya), and the proposal of a government backed by international weapons and possibly air support for that purpose may have proven too tempting for either Dawn or the GNC to resist.

The battle against IS in Sirte has in itself been an interesting microcosm of Libya’s history since February 2011. The city is once again at the heart of an international conflict, in which the ‘good guys’ include fighters who only months ago were considered the enemies of the international forces leading airstrikes, and once again – as of 13th September 2016 – the US has announced it has launched more than 140 (in this case, 143) airstrikes on Sirte. Once more: Sirte is the size of Banbury.

But Sirte is also the stage on which another characteristic of recent Libyan conflict is on show – the false, or at best premature, claim of ‘victory’.

Because the GNA and Dawn have been fighting IS on the ground since May, while the US began airstrikes on 1 August. Since those land battles began, the GNA has declared ‘victory’ roughly once per fortnight, every fortnight, with a spokesman for its military claiming on 14th August that: ‘From a military point of view, the battle for Sirte is over.’

That claim was made in the wake of a battle in which the GNA claimed to have taken IS’ base in Sirte, the Ouagadougou Centre – a Ghaddafi-era international conference facility which was intended to be a fitting venue for business meetings the Libyan leader expected would take place once he had made Sirte the capital of a united Africa.

The last time I was there, the centre was in ruins. Every window was smashed, parts of the building had collapsed, with many other parts collapsing, and with rockets – some unexploded – scattered around and inside it. This was almost four years before IS entered.

But reports from elsewhere suggest that the centre may not have been taken quite as decisively as was suggested in August, and certainly no declaration of victory has yet been made by the GNA.

Though it may sound odd to say so, that may almost be for the best.

Because the GNA’s battle against IS – with the help of its international backers – could easily prove the only thing it has going for it. Its Presidential Council was arguably not quorate (two of its 13 members had left) when it appointed the government, while its agreements with the national bank and NOC are not only currently worthless in the sense of being literally worth almost nothing in cash terms, but may prove in the medium-term to be worth even less than the paper on which they are written, should the GNA lose at any time its external or internal backers elsewhere.

And in the East, where the HoR was supposed to have voted to recognise the GNA (and in effect, vote itself out of existence) it has signally failed to do so. On 22nd August, 101 HoR members met to debate giving the GNA its recognition: just one person voted in favour (61 voted against, 39 abstained). Instead, the body recommended that the GNA should be ‘reconfigured’.

One sticking point for the HoR is that as yet, Haftar – upon which the HoR relies for security and its continued existence – has not yet been offered any role by the GNA.

It was expected – though because Haftar is so unpopular in the West of Libya it is almost impossible to see how this could have been practical – that he might be offered a role as the head of the new Libyan army.

But on Monday 12th September, Haftar and his newly named ‘Libyan National Army’ (the LNA is NOT the Libyan National Army in anything but name – it is just the Dignity militia renamed) announced it had seized control of Libya’s major oil terminals, taking Sidra, Ras Lanuf, the South and Eastern gates of the city of Ajdabia, and the Zuetinan oil terminal HQ, all from the Petroleum Facilities Guard, loyal* to the GNA.

*’loyal’ here is a conditional term. The Petroleum Facilities Guard, PfG, led by Ibrahim Jadhran, was responsible for claiming the same oil terminals on behalf of a putative breakaway state, Cyrenaica (effectively, Eastern Libya), and attempting to illegally sell oil from the facilities. The plan – detailed in The Toss of a Coin was stopped by a combined sea and land force, uniting the then warring khetibas in March 2014.

Without the support of the NOC, it should prove impossible for Haftar to actually sell any of the oil (in May a ship filled with oil he hoped to sell was stopped at Malta, for this exact reason), but it also seems likely to complicate any proposal to hand him a job heading the Libyan military.

And so, without the threat of IS, and the support that brings it from outside and within Libya, it is difficult to imagine how the GNA can survive. It was imposed upon Libya, and the fight against IS has enabled it to convince the GNC to postpone its opposition, and persuaded Dawn to ‘join it’ (more realistically ‘make up the vast majority of its force’) on the ground.

If IS is to be defeated, the GNA’s largest challenge awaits it – can it hold on to Dawn and persuade the GNC? Without them – even if they agree to remain ‘neutral’ – and without any mandate whatsoever, it could surely not withstand the challenge of Haftar and the HoR.

Instead, it will be forced to rely on the international community.

David Cameron, whose unjustifiable decision to turn his back on Libya having enthusiastically bombed a rival out of the state helped set this situation in motion, proves that the international community is not always the most reliable of supports for fledgling Libyan governments.

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