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Six lessons from Libya

Shashank Joshi

Late on Tuesday, the head of Libya’s interim authority Mustafa Abdul Jalil entered the town of Sirte. It was a key moment in Libya’s revolution. For months after the fall of Tripoli, Sirte had become a symbol of die-hard loyalist resistance. It was the staging point for the regime’s assaults on eastern oil towns, and is dominated by Colonel Gaddafi’s own tribe.

Although pockets of pro-Gaddafi fighters remain, Libya’s new rulers can now legitimately claim to have crossed the line from wartime to the democratic transition, something that they had held back from doing for too long.

NATO’s mission is also drawing to a close, and airstrikes are dwindling by the day. Though no one is willing to admit it for fear of appearing complacent, the campaign is finished.

The war in Libya has been an unqualified military success: the dissolution of a forty-year tyranny has been achieved with 8,000 strike sorties, comparably negligible civilian casualties, and minimal damage to infrastructure – all within six months.

The following six lessons temper and qualify that assessment in important ways.

Lesson 1: Libya may be sui generis

Three conditions enabled the war: legality (from the UN Security Council), legitimacy (from regional bodies, principally the Arab League) and opportunity (Libya’s indigenous uprising and the regime’s military weakness). Charles Moore, writing in The Telegraph, infers that ’a defensible position about intervention, especially intervention in the Muslim world, is being built up.’

But it must be understood that these conditions are unlikely to recur for generations.

A consensus may develop around action in weak sub-Saharan countries outside the Arab world and outside the Chinese sphere of influence, but even these may not escape a Security Council veto.

Lesson 2: Libya does not represent a new military model

The early phases of bombing greatly degraded the regime’s strength but had little strategic effect. Only when the campaign adopted the so-called ’Afghan model’ – the injection of special forces, enabling close air support to indigenous ground forces,in addition to the equipping and training of rebels – did the military stalemate break down.

Extrapolating this ’model’ to other conflicts would be dangerous. Western states used the rebel stronghold of Benghazi as a staging point for supply and direct liaison with rebels. By contrast, one of the greatest mistakes made in rendering assistance to the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in Afghanistan was to do so through Pakistan’s intelligence service, precluding accountability. Working through proxies carries great risks, some of which cannot be mitigated as they were in this case.

Lesson 3: Libya is not Iraq

The Transitional National Council’s (TNC) planning for the aftermath exceeded that which was undertaken by allied forces in 2003. Many of its decisions – such as preserving the regime’s police forces and bureaucracy – reflect lessons learnt eight years ago. Tripoli has avoided mass civil disorder and systematic reprisals against loyalists. Public utilities are being restored rapidly. That this has been done with a negligible Western footprint makes it all the more durable.

Libya’s post-conflict fragility does present risks. Loose stocks of small arms, Grad rockets, ballistic missiles, and portable anti-aircraft weapons are severe proliferation risks. SA7 anti-aircraft missiles have reached Mali and are likely to enter Algeria, both countries in which Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been active. The cross-border flow of weapons would also destabilise Tunisia and Egypt just as they enter sensitive periods of post-revolution transition.

But in the longer-term, there are also reasons for cautious optimism.

• The transitional authorities are experienced bureaucrats. Their draft constitution is an impeccably liberal document that goes as far as to bar members of the TNC from standing for subsequent election.

• Islamist militias are playing important roles, but they have little resemblance to the warlord-led groupings of 1990s Afghanistan; key members have indicated that they will acquiesce to a parliamentary process.

• In Egypt and Tunisia, powerful and independent national armies might – as has historically occurred in Turkey or Pakistan – limit the transition to democracy. Libya lacks such a constraint. More broadly, Libya is an institutional tabula rasa – a situation of high risk, but also considerable opportunity.

• Oil export revenues, in concert with a small population, mean that Libya’s per capita income is five times higher than Egypt – and the return of the skilled diaspora community will greatly boost human capital.

• NATO’s aversion to ’shock and awe’ tactics, and the extreme accuracy of itsurban bombing, means that Libyan infrastructure is in comparably good shape.

Lesson 4: NATO is under stress

The Libyan campaign did not cause, but did bring to the fore, the erosion of the alliance’s cohesion.

• Two states at the heart of NATO vigorously opposed its use in Libya. Germany abstained on UN Resolution 1973 and then pulled its crews out of jointly-owned NATO AWACS aircraft. Turkey, whose foreign policy is shifting toward building influence in the Arab world rather than Europe, denounced intervention as an oil grab. Out of 28 NATO members, 14 committed military assets but just eight were prepared to fly ground-attack sorties.

• More broadly, of NATO’s European members only France, Britain and Greece are spending the requisite two percent of GDP on military spending. Over the past two years, European defence spending has shrunk by $45 billion (equivalent to Germany’s military budget).

• The US’ refusal to lead operations and commit unique capabilities (like ground attack aircraft) had benefits – it forced European leadership and lessened popular Arab opposition to Western action. But, as former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned during the war, it portends a ’dim if not dismal future’ for an alliance seen as increasingly irrelevant in Washington.

Lesson 5: Plumbing matters

British defence debates in the UK have focused on big-ticket items, such as Harrier jets or aircraft carriers. This obscures the integrated nature of modern warfare, which relies on the less prominent but no less vital ’plumbing’ of war, encompassing support capabilities like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as well as refuelling aircraft.

The war has shown that European forces simply cannot project power without American support.

• The US supplied 30 out of the 40 aerial tankers on which strike missions, flown from Italy, depended.

• It supplied nearly all the cruise missiles for suppressing Libya’s air defence systems, whereas Britain came close to running out of Brimstone missiles and used perhaps a third of its Tomahawk missiles.

• US electronic warfare aircraft protected and guided European strike missions.

These are not optional extras – they are necessary conditions of prosecuting an expeditionary war. Other uniquely American capabilities, like battlefield imagery from satellites and armed drones, were crucial to the assault on Tripoli.

For some of these support tasks, Britain drew on assets – like Sentinel reconnaissance aircraft and Sea King helicopters – that are due to be retired. This raises the question: is the UK content to assume that US scaffolding will always support British military operations, or are there plausible scenarios in which independent action might be required? Libya has shown the possibilities of cooperation with new allies like Qatar, whose special forces were active in frontline roles. Yet only the US can underwrite a major campaign.

Lesson 6: Keep things Libyan

Libya is a strategic backwater containing no vital British interests. But its collapse would be detrimental to British security and prosperity – by creating welcome space for international terrorists, pushing a flood of migrants to Europe, and generating prolonged insecurity in energy markets at a time of economic vulnerability. Libya’s best prospects for stability lie in a government that is perceived as legitimate.

Britain should continue providing assistance in a low-key way that ensures Libyan ownership of the revolution. French and Italian ministers have already publicly articulated expectations that they ought to benefit from commercial and energy deals. Such statements are enormously damaging to the transitional authorities. An indigenous political opposition is one of Libya’s greatest assets. It will be delegitimised by the appearance of non-transparent quid pro quos or unacceptable foreign influence. The unelected TNC is already facing political competition from local groups such as the Islamist-led ’Tripoli council’ or the (non-Arab) Berber minority that played a decisive role in the fighting.

European powers should coordinate as much as they can to avoid a counterproductive struggle for influence at the expense of the stability of the interim authorities.

Shashank Joshi is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, and a doctoral student of international relations at Harvard University. He holds a Master’s degree from Harvard, and previously read politics and economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. His research interests are in South Asia and the Middle East.


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