Friday, November 02, 2012 

Everything You Think You Know About Libya and Gaddafi is Wrong (or almost).

As ever, a fascinating post from Adam Curtis over on his blog.  Not quite a Everything You Think You Know is Wrong one, but not that far off.  The subject's Libya and Gaddafi, and how almost everything we were told at one time or another turns out not to be true or distinctly hazy.  Some you'll probably be aware of: the evidence of Libyan responsibility for Lockerbie is shaky in the extreme, Arthur Scargill and the NUM were smeared vis-a-vis their supposed acceptance of Libyan money, and how quickly we shifted from (allegedly) funding a Libyan Islamic Fighting Group assassination attempt on Gaddafi's life to "rendering" one of their leaders back to the country to be tortured.

What I didn't know was that Libya's supposed WMD programme Gaddafi willing gave up was almost as non-existent as Iraq's, or the full facts of the sequence of events that led to Libya being targeted by Reagan in 1986.  Something Curtis doesn't dwell on is that in spite of documents emerging implicating our good selves in the rendition of Abdel Hakim Belhaj, nothing has been produced since the fall of Gaddafi to prove beyond all doubt that Libya was responsible for the downing of Flight 103, or indeed to cast more light on the murder of Yvonne Fletcher.  Notably, Gaddafi's director of military intelligence was sent back to Libya rather than any of the other states or courts where he's wanted, while Moussa Koussa was allowed to skip off to Qatar, never to be seen again.

And there's a clip of Vanessa Redgrave calling for a revolution.  What more do you want?

(P.S. To follow along these somewhat conspiratorial lines, Anna Raccoon doubts the veracity of Jimmy Savile's alleged activities at Duncroft (while not denying in the slightest that he almost certainly did abuse teenage girls elsewhere), having been a pupil there herself in the 60s.  Could it be, after everything, that Peter Rippon was right to can Newsnight's report but for the wrong reasons?)

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Thursday, December 01, 2011 

No dog in this fight.

I'm a great admirer of Tim Garton Ash, but this analogy at the end of his otherwise measured article on Libya and intervention simply doesn't work:

Change the metaphor and think of it like this. You see your neighbour's two-year-old daughter being savaged by his rottweiler. What do you do? If you are able to, you jump over the fence and beat the dog off with a stout stick, or shoot it with your gun. You may take a special interest in the little girl's future from then on, but she doesn't become your daughter, you don't "own" her. No more does the west "own" Libya just because it made a limited, justified intervention there.

Except this metaphor doesn't begin to represent the true picture of our intervention. If it did, then we wouldn't just be jumping over the fence to stop the dog, we'd then be demanding the child be put in care. If no action was then taken, we'd move onto killing the parent to protect the child.

The problem I continue to have over Libya is not about the rights and wrongs of the actual initial intervention, even though I still disagree with it, but because those who supported it seem to have no qualms whatsoever about how UNSC resolution 1973, which called for a ceasefire and negotiations as well as the no fly zone was then used to justify in the most extreme circumstances the bombing of Gaddafi's fleeing convoy, resulting ultimately in his execution. They also don't seem concerned that it has directly contributed to the lack of action over Syria, where over 4,000 are now known to have died in the uprising. It's only certain "dogs" that we're prepared to stop, as it has always been.

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Friday, October 21, 2011 

Stay classy Dominic Mohan!

Yes, I'm sure that's exactly what the men who pulled him out of the sewer were avenging, you bloodthirsty twats.

(Special mention must also go to the equally classy David Cameron, who in his brief appearance yesterday repeated the exact same litany first and only then mentioned the 40-year tyranny the Libyans endured. Still, it was all about protecting civilians and not long in coming revenge, wasn't it?)

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Thursday, October 20, 2011 

An oddly appropriate end.

There is much about the death of Gaddafi that seems oddly appropriate, both in terms of his own idiosyncratic, eccentric, brutal rule and the similarly fantastical, double-speak ridden coalition that came together to overthrow him. To the very last this incomprehensible man apparently carried with him a gold-plated gun, the kind of utterly debauched kitsch that only fictional gangsters and madmen along with probably quite real oligarchs and footballers would find aesthetically pleasing. It doesn't seem that he used it, or if he did the NTC certainly hasn't mentioned it; it would after all rather collide with the image of pulling him from out of a sewerage system like a rat, the same terms in which he repeatedly denounced those who had risen up against him, if he'd gone down fighting.

Instead he was given much the same treatment as Mussolini, although he has (so far) been spared the indignity of being hung upside down from a meathook. Certainly the account given by the NTC of his capture and subsequent death is confused and contradicted, not least by the various gruesome videos showing him alive and then later dead. If he did die in an ambulance as they're claiming, it's strange that there's footage of him alive being pulled off a truck, and then seemingly back on the same truck most definitely dead. Where the footage of him on the ground, also dead, comes in the chain remains to be seen. It's certainly possible that he died of his injuries shortly after being pulled off the truck, perhaps even in an ambulance, but it's hardly surprising there's suspicions that he was administered the coup de grace, with his body then being displayed and driven through the streets of Sirte. If that was what happened though it's difficult to believe there isn't video footage of the execution yet to emerge, seeing as everything else seems to have been filmed.

Like with so much else in this exasperating war, NATO had their own ignominious role to play. Gaddafi's convoy was apparently struck from the air, although the French and Americans are now squabbling over who exactly it was that so successfully protected any civilians playing chicken along the road from Sirte from an early grave. If you ever wanted a better indication of how rather than being a "liberal intervention" this was instead another war for regime change with at least some noble intentions then it's been provided by how today's strike will apparently be the last action of the campaign. Ever since the fall of Tripoli the only civilians in need of protection were those unfortunate enough to be living in the areas the last remaining loyalists fell back to, in Sirtre and Bani Walid respectively. Instead, NATO connived with the NTC forces to reduce Gaddafi's home town to rubble, regardless of the entirely innocent civilians living there. Rather than suggesting alternatives to their allies, they actively encouraged the Free Libya Forces to use the exact same artillery fire that Gaddafi's men showered Misrata with, to deadly and horrific effect. With Gaddafi dead, NATO's work is finished. If indeed he had managed to escape from Sirtre, it seems likely the mission would have continued until his death, such was the determination to continue to "protect civilians".

For the lessons of Iraq most certainly have been learned. Then the United States and the UK tried to pass a UN resolution authorising all necessary means in order to disarm the country of weapons of mass destruction by force. They failed because it was obvious the inspections had not been given enough time to succeed and as it was equally apparent regime change was the real motivation. This time, led by the UK and France, a resolution was sought that would put in place a no-fly zone and authorise all necessary means to protect civilians, while at the same time calling for an immediate ceasefire and negotiations. With a massacre in Benghazi otherwise looking imminent, it's not surprising that China and Russia fell into line despite their misgivings. UNSC Resolution 1973 has instead been used to justify absolutely anything NATO thought was appropriate to "protect civilians", essentially meaning the end of Gaddafi's government. Negotiations were rejected out of hand by the NTC, while any attempts to reach a ceasefire were negligible. The supposed "responsibility to protect" has been perhaps permanently sullied by this blatant deception. It's certainly ensured that Russia and China have blocked any attempts to pass sanction on Syria.

If there's been any regrets at this subterfuge, even if in the long run it may well turn out to be justified, then none have been expressed. David Cameron in the Commons on Wednesday returned once again to the "dodgy dossier" when listing a litany of abuses by the past government, at the same time as he's been presiding over a conflict based around very similar deceptions and lies. This though has been a good war, for the simple reason that not a single serviceman connected with NATO has perished, although this seems more by luck than judgement. The entire 8-month conflict has in the end turned out to have gone well for our politicians: so much could have gone wrong, from Gaddafi's men over-running Benghazi before operations began, to an intractable stalemate emerging, through to the fight for Tripoli turning into a complete bloodbath. A stalemate for a long time seemed to have prevailed, with the TNC's fighters being disorganised, almost suicidal in their tactics; even in Sirte they seemed determined to kill as many on their own side as they did loyalists. It's still not entirely clear how the fall of Tripoli came about, with accounts persisting about special forces from Qatar being heavily involved, having already provided weapons.

Equally unclear is how many Libyans have lost their lives. Prior to the intervention anywhere between 1,000 and 6,000 were thought to have died; now the NTC suggests up to 40,000 have. Like in Iraq, no one seems to have been bothered enough to determine how many civilians were "protected" to death by NATO air-strikes. In Syria, where the repression if anything has been worse than it was in Libya prior to the intervention, around 3,000 are thought to have been killed. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where the dictators stepped down but left behind their states, in Libya Gaddafi essentially was the state, leaving the NTC to restart from scratch. The difficulty of doing so will only be exacerbated by the tensions now increasing between the different factions of the rebels. Similarly, while there are always likely to be scores settled, the reports of torture and arrests are disturbing. The path to democracy for the country looks strewn with hazards.

Quite where this leaves any future intention to intervene is difficult to tell. Certainly, the other permanent UN security council members aren't going to fall for this "responsibility to protect" nonsense again unless genocide actually is happening. It's also even more abundantly clear to every dictator and authoritarian regime around the world that giving up your weapons of mass destruction is an act of lunacy. As Alex Massie says, it also instructs them that the best way to put down an uprising is brutal repression from the very beginning, before anyone has even the possibility of acting. At the same time, Flying Rodent more than has a point (as he has had throughout) when he suggests that not even a complete clusterfuck in Libya would stop our rulers from acting in the same way again. There was every possibility of Libya turning out as badly as Iraq, yet they went ahead anyway. This wasn't so much political courage as pure, unthinking arrogance, tempered only by how it was at least with some humanitarian instinct at its heart.

All this said, the true end of a dictatorial regime is always to be welcomed. The pure joy seen across Libya today at the knowledge that the person who terrorised them for so long has been removed entirely from the scene is something it can only be hoped is repeated with time in Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Hopefully without the need for ourselves to bomb their leaders' departing convoys first.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011 

So who will protect the civilians of Sirte?

Compare and contrast. From March, and which has since been used as the primary justification for why intervention in Libya was needed urgently:

Muammar Gaddafi told Libyan rebels on Thursday his armed forces were coming to their capital Benghazi tonight and would not show any mercy to fighters who resisted them.

In a radio address, he told Benghazi residents that soldiers would search every house in the city and people who had no arms had no reason to fear.

"It's over ... We are coming tonight," he said. "You will come out from inside. Prepare yourselves from tonight. We will find you in your closets."


In the speech, the Libyan leader denounced the rebels and said: "We will show no mercy and no pity to them".

He also told his troops not to pursue any rebels who drop their guns and flee when government forces reach the city.

From today:

Libya's interim leaders have given pro-Gaddafi forces until Saturday to surrender or face military force.


Speaking at a news conference in Benghazi, Mr Jalil said that if there was no "peaceful indication" by Saturday that Gaddafi-loyalists intended to surrender, "we will decide this manner militarily".

"We do not wish to do so but we cannot wait longer," he said.

The NTC's military chief, Col Ahmed Omar Bani, said: "Zero hour is quickly approaching... So far we have been given no indication of a peaceful surrender."

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed the deadline, saying: "I think it's the right thing to do, to say to the forces loyal to the remnants of the Gaddafi regime: here is the opportunity to lay down your arms, to consider your situation."

And if you don't, then get ready to be "protected".

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Friday, August 26, 2011 

British planes bomb bunker as focus shifts to Sirte.

NATO has denied that the attack on Gaddafi's bunker in Sirte was an attempt to assassinate the fugitive leader. The defence secretary, Dr. Farmer Palmer, said: "Ee wuz wurryin moy civilians." He then aimed a shotgun at journalists and added: "Now get orff moy laand."

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011 

It's coming right for us!

I know I shouldn't be surprised when the entire campaign in Libya
has been built around the lie of being purely about "protecting civilians", yet it was still fairly staggering when it was decided that Gaddafi's compound should be pounded one final time today from the air (note the non-denial denial and later reports from the BBC that the rebels drew back while the air strike(s) were carried out). Even if we take at face value the continued, increasingly hilarious explanations over the last few months for bombing various buildings not immediately obvious for their potential to be used to target civilians as they were "command and control centres" for Gaddafi's forces, then it can hardly be claimed that Bab al-Aziziya was still functioning as such today. It was instead under siege from the rebels, while the heaviest weaponry those had inside was reported to be Grad missiles, which were being fired at the attackers, not at civilian targets. Why then bomb it again unless the purpose was to "soften it up" further and avoid any embarrassing, lengthy stand-off which would temporarily at least deny the rebels their most symbolic, television friendly victory yet?

Whether or not the bombing did the trick or Gaddafi's remaining loyalists did a runner seems uncertain, as reports conflict on whether the cameras stayed away from the unwelcome sight of bodies or if there simply wasn't that many once they got inside. Either way, it's hardly a good sign that we couldn't even trust one of the final supposed acts to the rebels: still NATO had to come in and do much of the heavy lifting. Flying Rodent meanwhile sums up the last five months and where we might go from here in his inimitable style:

Recall - the UK, US and France supposedly went to the UN to seek permission to create a No-Fly Zone, yet miraculously emerged with wide-ranging powers to take any measures necessary to "protect civilians". You've just seen six months of solid, dedicated "protection", which in reality meant "Intervening on one side in a civil war".

For all the Responsibility-To-Protect rah-rah, we've just demonstrated to the world for the third time in a decade that we intentionally and brazenly lie to the entire planet about humanitarianism for months on end in pursuit of entirely political goals. Nato has spent six months explaining that it isn't seeking regime change in Libya while straining as hard as it could to do exactly the opposite.


Well. If you, like me, were flabbergasted that Britain stampeded to involve itself in another serious conflict, just years after presiding over one of the nastiest mass-murder sprees in recent history, then steel yourselves for sequels. It took decades of boo-hoo propaganda and flag-waving for the Yanks to get over the disaster of Vietnam - it's taken us about a tenth of the time and none of the self-reflection to dick off one of our most inglorious warfaring episodes to dive into what could be a whole series of new ones.

Seriously, y'all. If we were that belligerent, that eager to dive into this war after one of the most horrifying military fuck-ups in our history, imagine how can-do chaps we're going to be for the next decade. Excellent news for Libyans means interesting times ahead for British squaddies, I think. War is the new normal.

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Monday, August 22, 2011 

The downfall.

As was always going to happen, there's both a lot of finger-wagging and a fair few mea culpas flying around as Tripoli is in the process of falling. When the end came, it happened suddenly, to the surprise of pretty much all of us: at the beginning of last week there was no indication whatsoever that within 7 days Libya's capital would be all but in the hands of the rebels. There had been advances from the west towards Tripoli, but elsewhere the disparate groupings of what some have been calling the Free Libya Forces still seemed to be either bogged down or unwilling to advance even under the cover of NATO bombing. We will doubtless learn in the coming days exactly what triggered the downfall, how the roads to Tripoli seemed to clear over the weekend and how Gaddafi's loyalists mostly ebbed away.

For now though we should obviously welcome the fall of another tyrant who oppressed his people for far too long. The difficulty, as it always was, is in what comes next. Our policy towards the National Transitional Council has from the outset been one of hope, putting our faith in defectors and unknowns. Recognising the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya just less than a month ago immediately blew up in our faces when the defector Abdul Fatah Younis was murdered, prompting its head Mustafa Abdul-Jalil to sack the entire cabinet. At the moment then someone with little to no authority outside Benghazi and without any colleagues is the interim government in waiting. Quite what the reception will be should he turn up in Tripoli is uncertain; those elements among the rebels who have long refused to be controlled from Benghazi and who have fought their own battles across the country are going to want their sacrifices to be recognised immediately.

This said, I think it's incredibly doubtful that there'll be any significant bloodletting or infighting, at least initially. Unquantifiable though is just how many Gaddafi loyalists/supporters/diehards remain, and there has to be a reasonable number, otherwise the fighting would have pretty much ceased today except for those protecting the leader himself. Instead it's continuing, including outside Tripoli, which in itself is surprising. Whether it will fizzle out when Gaddafi is captured or killed may well be the litmus test. Also unpredictable is whether in the initial vacuum Islamists could take advantage, as al-Zarqawi's group and Ansar al-Islam swiftly did in Iraq. The key differences are that there are no foreign ground forces to target, nor were there any groups on the ground already, excepting the veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq which used to make up the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, some of whom joined the rebels.

We are though in a situation which is completely different to that in Egypt especially, and somewhat to that in Tunisia. There the state remained; it was the governments that were overthrown, with the police and civil service staying in place (in Tunisia the army largely took over the role of policing). In Tripoli it's far too early to tell whether the police will return to the streets, nor whether they will be supported by the public. Likewise, it's hard to see it simply being a quick handover from the remnants of the Gaddafi regime to the TNC's interim government. Already some are predicting that peacekeepers might be necessary, if only for a short time; it hopefully won't come to that, although it would be foolish to rule anything in or out at that moment. It again may well be depend on how long this apparent impasse remains, on how determined the loyalists are to continue to fight and on just how they imagine they'll be treated by those they've spent the last few months repressing and killing. It'll quickly become clear just how much planning really has been done by ourselves and others within NATO, and how we'll be helping those we've been fighting on the side of for the last five months.

For despite everything, that is what our intervention has been about: the overthrow of Gaddafi. Ever since the UN resolution was passed, which expressly called for a ceasefire and negotiations, not an operation where we would act as the air force of the rebels, that was the ultimate aim. It was with the very best of intentions, yet it was also an abuse of the UN's authority. True, it was partly about drafting a resolution which wouldn't be vetoed by either China or Russia, fearing that an open intervention to overthrow Gaddafi could then eventually be used to put a stop to their own repressive activities in Tibet or Chechnya, but it was also dishonest, and damages the prospect of the responsibility to protect being invoked when an actual genocide or far worse human rights abuses than the threat of going from house to house in Benghazi occur. At the time we intervened at worst around 2,000 people had been killed following Gaddafi's crackdowns; 10,000+ is now the best estimate. Around 2,200 have also now been killed in Syria, where UN condemnation has been so slight as to be non-existent, partially because of the way in which we chose to interpret UNSC 1973, i.e. it allowed us to do almost whatever the hell we said it did.

Moreover, it was through this fundamental failure to be fully honest that politicians weren't able to give an indication of how long the mission was going to take, meaning some got the idea that it would be a matter of weeks rather than the 5 months and counting it's been, at a cost far higher than was also first suggested. Luckily for the government, despite the stalemate (and please Juan Cole, I hugely admire you, but for a long time it was stalemate) it's worked out reasonably well. The cost hasn't been too high, all the opposition parties stayed on side, and a far from benign dictator, even one who was nominally on our side, has been deposed. The opportunities for businesses, especially the ones the government sucks up to the most and vice versa, are massive, with there already being talk of gas pipelines into Europe. A new government which is both grateful and massively owes us would hardly have been excluded from the calculations prior to our deciding to ready the bombs, even if this was never a war for oil or resources. True, the same was meant to be the case in Iraq, and it didn't exactly go as planned.

Libya though as everyone rightly keeps saying is not Iraq. Those of us who opposed that war and were chided in the immediate aftermath were only later somewhat vindicated. The circumstances here were completely different; the first main objection was that a no fly zone would be ineffective, and while it initially saved Benghazi, for a long period it didn't provide much protection elsewhere until the rebels started working better with NATO. Second was that this was a misuse of the responsibility to protect and that Gaddafi wouldn't carry through on his word in Benghazi. He probably would have done, yet it still most likely wouldn't have amounted to genocide or anything approaching it. If we're going to act militarily to prevent the deaths of the high hundreds to low thousands, where does it end and why some places rather than others? Those being attacked in Syria are asking exactly that. Third is that we didn't know what would come afterwards, and hadn't planned properly for it. Since then the planning has been more public, but it's far too early to tell what will happen next and whether it works out and how effective it was.

Reading back the piece I wrote on the night the UN resolution was passed, it holds up fairly well. Some parts of it were over-optimistic: our intervention was never going to transform attitudes towards the West except in Libya itself; at best the outcome may now take the edge off some of the worst denunciations elsewhere. It also didn't really encourage the uprisings elsewhere; they had their own momentum, or lack thereof. The fall of Gaddafi could yet encourage a resurgence, and will give hope that other dictators responding to peaceful protest with bullets and tanks can be brought down; it may also sadly suggest to those in Syria that they're unlikely to get anywhere without force being threatened by the West, something which is almost certainly not going to be forthcoming. Overall, the intervention in Libya has for now been a good thing; if it remains that way, and it remains a big if, those of us who opposed it have a new case study for next time. We will also have our consciences to examine.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2011 

The continuing sorry saga in Libya.

Doesn't time fly when you're bombing other people's countries? It was only a couple of weeks ago that the very last British troops left Iraq, ending our involvement there some 8 years after we first joined in with Operation Iraqi Freedom, although we probably should properly date it back to 1991, considering we were involved in policing the no fly zone right up until March 2003. Come October it'll be 10 years since we went into Afghanistan, and having had another winter where the coalition's advances have been talked up, we're now once again into the summer fighting season, the Taliban striking seemingly at will, while we still can't seem to distinguish between civilians and fighters, much to Karzai's continuing distress.

When it comes to Libya, anyone making predictions as to how long we'll be involved there in some way or another is liable to end up looking as much of a buffoon as Harold Camping. What is clear is that in the two months and a bit since we began operating another no-fly zone in an Arab country is that the mission has not so much creeped as performed the equivalent of a hop, a skip and a jump. Difficult as it is to remember, UNSC resolution 1973, as well as authorising "all necessary means" to protect civilians also called for an immediate ceasefire, something which it's fair to say that only the Gaddafi regime is now looking for. This isn't because the tide has turned inexorably in the favour of the revolution, although with the apparent victory for now at least in Misrata it's true that the rebels have gained important ground, it's more because the West, having been so quick to demand that Gaddafi go has left so little room for either reconciliation or even an interim deal which ends the fighting.

The difference in the approach taken with the uprising in Syria could hardly be more stark. On the face of it after all, the two regimes have both had something resembling a rapprochement with the West. Libya, having got rid of its nuclear programme and other WMD was brought in from the cold, with Saif al-Gaddafi being hailed as a potential reformer ready to assume leadership when daddy grew tired of pitching his tent across the globe, while Bashar al-Assad was feted in a similar way. Hopes that he would begin a move away from authoritarianism may have diminished as the years passed, yet our governments learned to tolerate his cordial relations with Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran, the country's influence over Lebanon having fell with the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the killing being blamed (wrongly it seems) on Syria. While though there were calls from the very beginning for some form of intervention in Libya when Gaddafi ordered his forces to turn their guns on the demonstrators across the country, almost no one has urged the same in Syria.

Partially this is for the very sane reason that having taken such action in Libya, it's simply impossible to do much if anything at all to protect the demonstrators that continue to protest across Syria, nor is there any evidence that a no-fly zone would achieve anything substantial, although it's arguable it hasn't done that much in Libya either. It's also true that there have been few such calls from within the country for such an action, and that the government there has not given a blood-curdling warning to any particular town or city as Gaddafi did to Benghazi. The numbers of dead however are broadly similar: around 1,100 are feared to have been murdered across the country, a comparable number with those massacred prior to NATO intervention in Libya, and the targeted violence if anything could well be worse than that meted out by Gaddafi's security forces; the horrific injuries suffered by the 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib are shocking even by the barbaric standards that have been set already this year. And yet the condemnation for such outrages has been muted to the point of almost silence. No politician in this country has suggested that Assad and his regime, rather than giving concessions such as an amnesty, announced today, should go, nor has any pressure whatsoever been put on it to cease the crackdown. Discussions at the UN, not helped admittedly by Russian intransigence, have got nowhere.

We shouldn't of course be surprised by such inconsistency from this government. After all, a couple of weeks back David Cameron welcomed the Bahrani crown prince to Downing Street, happily posing shaking hands with him for the cameras, while all he could muster in way of condemnation for the brutal crackdown on the protests in the country, the entire camp having been razed, was that "reform rather than repression" was necessary. As for our blind spot on Saudi Arabia, where this week the authorities were magnanimous enough to release a woman from prison after she heinously drove a car in broad daylight, the oil and arms deals ensure our collective myopia.

All of which makes it even more incomprehensible just why we've committed ourselves to an mission without an apparent end in Libya. If the immediate aim was to forestall a massacre on the scale of Srebrenica in Benghazi, then with the danger long passed we ought now to be attempting to obtain a ceasefire as outlined in the UN resolution and go from there. Instead in our determination to force Gaddafi from power we're now sending in ground forces by proxy, while the Apache helicopters wait to be given the go ahead to operate, as though they alone can shift the balance in favour of the rebels. Caution it seems is being sacrificed in favour of doing something, anything: the potential of a Black Hawk Down style disaster is obvious, especially when the Gaddafi forces will certainly still have better weaponry than the simple RPGs which brought down the American helicopters in Somalia; it could even have been supplied by ourselves, as the rebels have been finding as they've progressed. As much as justice must be done, the involvement of the international criminal court has helped no one: any small chance that remained of the colonel being persuaded to leave power voluntarily has been dashed.

If nothing else, the government should now begin to be honest with us. Gaddafi will it's now clear eventually fall; the situation in Tripoli can't be contained forever as fuel becomes ever more scarce, nor will those still prepared to fight continue to do so when the money begins to run out, as it will. The problem is when this will happen, and for now it looks like taking months rather than weeks, potentially far longer than the three months which the NATO mission has already been extended by. This needs to be made clear in parliament, as do the plans for what happens when he falls. The cost of the mission also needs to be explained, something which they've been at pains to ignore from the very beginning. It's difficult though to shake the feeling that there still might well be a sting in the tail to come in this sorry saga.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011 

Guns and consequences in Libya.

From the essential C.J. Chivers. Also, my post from yesterday was mirrored over at Lib Con.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011 

Mission creep and self-inflicted wounds.

The announcement that we're sending 10 or 12 "experienced military officers" (the Graun's quotation marks, not mine) to Benghazi, it should be clear, changes precisely nothing on the ground in Libya. Ever since the passing of the UNSC 1973 or even possibly before there will have been special forces/spooks in the country, doing the same or similar jobs to that which this new team will supposedly be carrying out. The US, for instance, actively signed orders allowing the CIA to potentially covertly arm the rebels back at the end of last month.

No, what William Hague's admission signifies is our desperation at how the situation has turned against the rebels, and also our inability to do anything about it other than gestures. Despite the caveats made above, it is also a clear example of mission creep, precisely because we have now made official what was previously only being done in the shadows. Hague's statement was a master class in euphemism - apparently the main work of these experienced military officers will be to advise the rebels on how they can better "protect civilians", which it seems is unlikely to be a reference to the horribly inaccurate weapons some have welded and bolted to their vehicles, with a side-order of telling them how they can better organise themselves. This though will absolutely not amount to training fighters, nor will it breach the UN resolution, because we've said it doesn't.

For all the allusions to how the Vietnam war escalated, it's difficult to believe this is anything other than ourselves and the French having to do something, anything, to prove that we aren't starting the process of abandoning the rebels to their fate, although it's hardly going to convince them of our long-term intentions. You can give the Benghazi-based rebels all the advice in the world; without proper training, something that will take months and which we aren't offering, the best they'll be able to do against Gaddafi's forces barring a ceasefire will be a repeat of what's happened in Misrata, where those who rose up have been able to slow the advance through urban guerilla warfare. Even with the best will in the world, they can only hold out against such a superior adversary for a few months.

It's an equally bad sign that we've also now started to target communication systems, which will undoubtedly be used by civilians and military alike. Not only will this have the unfortunate side effect of making it far more difficult for civilians to get word out of any atrocities committed by Gaddafi loyalists, it's also an unwelcome reminder of the far broader rules of engagement adopted during the intervention in Kosovo, where NATO was unhindered by an UN resolution. Up until now there seem to have been relatively few civilian casualties as a result of the airstrikes, almost certainly due to how only definitively military targets have been hit; by widening this to "dual-use" buildings and equipment the risks increase accordingly. Possible as it is that such strikes could help to turn further turn feeling against Gaddafi in the towns and cities under his control, bombing from the air with "good intentions" rarely wins the affections of those meters away from being blown apart.

Here, as Simon Jenkins writes, are the limitations of half-cocked liberal interventionism being played out: not all of those who wanted a no-fly zone were naive or paid little attention to what it would actually mean in practice; then there's Ming Campbell, one of the first to call for something to be done, who seems to be incredibly uncomfortable with how it means sending in those blighters in the military. Alan Juppe meanwhile says with considerable understatement that NATO underestimated Gaddafi's "capacity to adapt", as though bombs from the air were ever going to be able to topple him alone. All of this was both predicted and warned of, and yet the same old traps have been eagerly walked into once again. Excepting the regime suddenly imploding from within, something there's no sign of, or the establishment of a protectorate around the ever decreasing land which the rebels control, the negotiations UNSC 1973 demanded and which ourselves and those in Benghazi have rejected look to be the only viable way out. Tony Blair might not have won his last two wars, but he was never humiliated by his failure to do so. Cameron's belligerence looks more like a self-inflicted wound by the day.

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Monday, April 18, 2011 

Betrayal seems to beckon.

One of the things you can't help but notice is that those who shouted loudest for intervention in Libya have gone strangely silent over the last couple of weeks. Even when UNSC Resolution 1973 was passed over a month ago it seemed likely that the introduction of a no-fly zone would merely instigate a stalemate; indeed, to read it by the letter that was exactly what it was supposed to do, calling as it did for an immediate ceasefire. It's now difficult to reach a conclusion other than our involvement is simply postponing the inevitable: first the fall of Misrata, and then a march by Gaddafi's forces on Benghazi, precisely what our politicians crowed about preventing.

There's also no getting away from the fact for those of us who have opposed the conflict from the beginning that what's happening in Misrata is appalling. Gaddafi's army loyalists and irregulars have imposed a very old-fashioned siege on the city, first shelling it indiscriminately to "soften" it up, and are now in the process of clearing it street by street. They've used as revealed by C.J. Chivers in the New York Times Spanish manufactured cluster munitions, a doubtless very uncomfortable shock to a nation which can't help but be reminded of its own terrible civil conflict. How many civilians have been killed is impossible to know for certain, although going by the records of the city's hospital it must number in at least the low hundreds. The only reason why the city has managed to hold out this long is due to the incredible bravery being displayed by the revolutionaries defending it, who in contrast to their brethren further east have organised themselves effectively, dug in and used the damage wreaked by the artillery bombardment to their advantage.

Clearly and sadly though they simply can't keep holding on without either being relieved or their ammunition restocked. The only hope of either happening is through the port, which is mainly being used to evacuate the civilians still remaining to Benghazi and which for now at least remains under rebel control. A conflict being fought in such a way only goes to show the stark limitations of a no-fly zone: while the rebels are complaining that there have been minimal airstrikes against Gaddafi's forces in and around the city, it must be all but impossible to know for certain just who is who from hour to hour, even if they're in contact with those on the ground, while additional bombardment from the air will do little more than deteriorate conditions further. Sending in ground forces now would also only exacerbate the situation, with it being incredibly difficult to be able to protect civilians in a battle reminiscent of the attacks by the US in Iraq on Fallujah, another rebellious city.

Quite where the suggested EU humanitarian force would fit in is even more difficult to fathom. The Libyan government has supposedly promised the UN access to the city, although whether this is only after the fighting has finished is less clear. Why after all would Gaddafi call an end to the siege now when it could only be a week or less away from being back in his control, especially when he and his regime have lied repeatedly about their intentions ever since UNSC 1973 was passed? It's also hard to imagine all the countries involved allowing their soldiers to enter what could still be a live fire zone, almost certainly coming into direct conflict with those still fighting on both sides. This isn't to suggest a post-conflict force wouldn't be welcome, as it would definitely provide a bulwark against Gaddafi's forces taking revenge, as they have been in the other towns and cities which rose and then fell. How though could one set of ground forces be justified or explained to the rebels without others being sent in to prevent Benghazi suffering the same eventual fate?

Which brings us back to those who argued for the imposition of the no-fly zone. One of their key arguments was that to allow Gaddafi to murder the people of Benghazi would have sent the message to those dictators still standing that the only way to react against peaceful protests wasn't through concessions, but with brutal, overwhelming and horrific force. The problem is that this is exactly what we have allowed to happen in Misrata regardless, and which was always a possibility due precisely to our reluctance to involve even the threat of ground troops. Others said that we would never be forgiven for letting another Srebrenica happen, especially when those about to massacred had risen up in favour of self-determination and human rights, the very values we espouse and occasionally demand of those regimes that don't buy our silence through selling us cheap oil. Those in Libya who initially welcomed the UN resolution are now damning us, quite understandably, as not doing enough. If Benghazi falls too and we don't intervene further, then no one will remember the no-fly zone; they'll recall that the West will do little other than "impose" itself from the air when it's just the lives of brown people at stake.

As stated previously, as soon we involved ourselves, we took complete ownership of the situation whatever the eventual outcome. This was precisely why there should have been a plan for all eventualities, and which there's now been a further month to put together. There is still no sign of one, unless you count a letter/comment piece signed by Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy which once again says Gaddafi must go while failing to explain what we'll do if he continues to refuse. The longer this goes on, the more land Gaddafi is likely to seize, and with it the body count will continue to climb: Cameron and friends, having fallen into the belief that a war from the air can succeed where it has previously failed, are faced with the horrendous prospect of having to broker a deal with the very man and regime they demand disappear. Betrayal seems to beckon either way.

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Thursday, April 07, 2011 

Consciences salved, we move on.

It's quite something for a movement to go in the space of six weeks from saying it needed no outside help in its uprising against a dictator, to then conceding it did and desperately calling for it, which it received, to finally condemning those risking their own lives for their sake for not doing enough to "protect civilians".

To suggest that all is not going well in the battle against Gaddafi would be putting it mildly. The longer journalists are on the ground, some of them more battle-hardened than the fighters, the more damning their verdict on the uprising is and the claims which were originally made for how a full-scale revolution was only a heartbeat away (and which I also fell into believing). Any quickly cobbled together volunteer militia is going to be indisciplined and make up in bravery and spirit what it lacks in skill, yet still it seems that a familiar pattern is repeated day in and day out. Rather than digging in or attempting to hold ground, the fighters rush forward in vehicles towards where the pro-Gaddafi forces are, and then as soon as they come under artillery bombardment or even machine gun fire, they beat a hasty retreat, losing men needlessly.

Going by our past record in identifying and then striking properly defined and legitimate targets, it's not exactly shocking that when we catch sight of what appears to be heavy weaponry on the front line we attack it without asking questions, or indeed, despite apparently being told by the rebels that they were going to be moving it there. It does somewhat give the lie to the idea though that NATO isn't being proactive enough, although there could have hardly been more disastrous ways of that becoming apparent. Considering the role of Twitter in convincing the easily led of the overwhelming support for the uprising, it's instructive that the likes of EnoughGaddafi are now convinced that the intervention is going to result in the betrayal of the revolution, as though somehow NATO can simply ignore the facts that have become clear on the ground: that however dedicated and serious the rebels are in their aims, they might not even be able to hold on to the ground currently under their control. What looked like becoming a stalemate could still result in the overrunning of Benghazi, and there's little NATO can do to prevent that from the air without inflicting massive casualties on both sides.

As the more realistic in that city now admit, even with a month's training possibly conducted by ex-special forces it's doubtful they could do much more than hold onto the territory they already have. Putting together a serious challenge to Gaddafi's army would take up to six months of intensive support, something which even if it could be provided by another Arab state could well be in vain. This is exactly why it was so crucial that we had contingencies in place before we began enforcing the no-fly zone; instead, as Peter Beaumont writes, we've moved from one panicky policy to the next.

With the Americans having already effectively handed the entire mission over to the nations which were most keen on the intervention in the first place (ourselves and the French), the consciences of the likes of Susan Rice apparently salved by the prevention of another genocide in an African state, quite where we go from here other than to a ceasefire is unclear. There's definitely no appetite for this to continue for months, not least when it means Cameron being attacked in the Sun for cutting back on defence when we're fighting not one but two wars. That however means that unless the terms involve the removal of Gaddafi, even if only to be replaced by one of his sons alongside some piecemeal reforms, Cameron and everyone else are going to be left looking like fools. And that more than anything else will be resisted to that last.

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Monday, April 04, 2011 

Yeah, what about the Ivory Coast?

There are times when I just can't get my head around this internet thing. There I was, reading Sunder Katwala's latest effort on just how completely wrong "whataboutery" is, which initially seemed like the throwing down of a gauntlet to those of us still unconvinced by the international intervention in Libya (passim ad nauseam) vis-a-vis the deteriorating situation in the Ivory Coast only for it then to become clear that he isn't comparing like with like, exactly what the more egregious and unthinking of those in the "why Libya and why not fill in country here" camp is often accused of.

For if the situations in the Ivory Coast and Libya seem similar at first glance, once you look beneath the surface it's clear that they couldn't be much more different. The current conflict in Côte d'Ivoire has its roots not just in the election held at the end of October last year, but in the first civil war of 2002-2005. Unlike in Libya, where the uprising in the spirit of this year's Middle East intifada came close to overthrowing Colonel Gaddafi, only for him to regroup and turn his weaponry on his own civilians in an effort to regain territory, the Ivory Coast's problems revolve around a president who came to power in a coup refusing to cede it following an election that was repeatedly delayed and which the international community has declared his opponent won.

If it's not immediately clear exactly what Sunder's challenge is then, despite him concluding with

So it would be interesting to hear more from opponents of the Libyan intervention, about what they believe should happen in the Ivory Coast. Might it yet be the 'whatabouters' who face the charge of inconsistency?

all is explained in a comment over on Liberal Conspiracy:

The issue is about the nature of UN-authorised intervention by the best placed regional and multilateral actors to bring about an effective and legitimate outcome

The responses are about “western intervention”

The intervention being supported is what Ecowas have called for – a strengthening of the UN mandate for the current peacekeeping force, to support the political strategy to secure the removal of the democratically defeated President. This has been Ecowas and African Union led.

Here is one of the fundamental differences between the intervention in Libya, what some of us sceptical of it would have supported in the best circumstances, and the situation in the Ivory Coast. There is already a UN peacekeeping mission in Côte d'Ivoire, as there has been since 2003. The air strikes carried out this evening against Laurent Gbagbo's forces
seem to have been in self-defence as much as anything, as they've now apparently turned their guns on the UN itself. As Sunder sets out, Ecowas and the African Union have been leading the calls for Gbagbo to go, as was demanded by UN Security Council Resolution 1975. Unlike in Libya, where the African Union and the Arab League both argued for intervention to protect civilians, but where neither was prepared to put in place the no-fly zone, or only willing to patrol it once the unpleasant part of bombing Gadaffi's air defences was out of the way, in Côte d'Ivoire Ecowas would be prepared to lead a UN authorised military intervention to depose Gbagbo. If they had been so inclined, and even taking into account that many of the Arab League either have their own insurrections to deal with have, or have crushed those of neighbouring nations at their behest, the Arab League countries could have easily performed the exact same role as the West has in Libya, and would have done it with far more legitimacy.

This isn't just moaning about us having to do the work of dusky foreigners who don't want to get the military equipment they bought off us at extortionate cost dusty, it also removes from the bargain any notion that the intervention would be about anything other than protecting civilians. It would be ludicrous to suggest that we don't have some ulterior or strategic motives in Libya, as David Cameron himself has acknowledged if somewhat disingenuously. While Gaddafi could still make claims about the likes of non-oil producing nations in the region intending to take scarce resources, the revolutionary solidarity of the moment would make it ring hollow.

Sunder's mistake is to casually assume that those unconvinced of Western intervention in the region in the form it's taken in Libya would be opposed to an intervention by African nations who want to depose a president who has been democratically voted out of office. The other distinction that makes this a different case to the action authorised by UN Resolution 1973 is that the overthrow of President Gbagbo is an end in itself, from which further planning for enhanced peacekeeping can be made. In Libya the outcome still looks like stalemate and partition with an outside chance of some sort of reconciliation, leaving no end to our involvement in sight. Much as we'd like to do battle against the arguments we imagine those we disagree with would make, it's always better to actually know your enemy, or indeed those you think are your allies.

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Thursday, March 31, 2011 

Damocles revisited.

This apparently isn't an early April Fools:

Members of the NATO alliance have sternly warned the rebels in Libya not to attack civilians as they push against the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, according to senior military and government officials.


“We’ve been conveying a message to the rebels that we will be compelled to defend civilians, whether pro-Qaddafi or pro-opposition,” said a senior Obama administration official. “We are working very hard behind the scenes with the rebels so we don’t confront a situation where we face a decision to strike the rebels to defend civilians.”

These would be the same rebels that we're getting ready to supply better weapons to. Then again, maybe there's a brutal logic here somewhere: we give them guns, we bomb them, then we give them some more to replace the ones we've destroyed. Those arms firms Cameron was fluffing for the other week should be happy.

Oh, and now even the rebels are conceding it's going to take "months" to overthrow Gaddafi. It's getting grimmer up north Benghazi.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011 

On arguing for war.

It's sad to note that unless I've missed it (one honourable exception is this piece by Sean Matgamna on Shiraz, rather different to the usual posts there on the Guardian's soft Stalinism and how anyone sceptical about the intervention in Libya is a scab) there hasn't really been a substantial debate even within the left in this country over our in action in Libya, not helped by the leadership of all three main political parties supporting it without equivocation.

While I wouldn't go so far as saying the opposite has been the case in the States, there certainly has been far more disquiet, with Juan Cole attempting to answer some of it in this open letter posted at the weekend. It doesn't answer convincingly those of us who have argued that the main lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan haven't been learned, i.e. that we need to know who we're intervening on the behalf of, we need a plan to either already be in place or to quickly emerge for what comes afterwards, and also that we have to be certain that we're not setting the bar too low for future possible interventions. One further thing is that it's already looking as if we're treating UNSC resolution 1973 as justifying whatever we say it does, with Clinton and Hague deciding that an almost explicit prohibition on arming either side in Libya means we can in fact give weapons to the rebels, which bodes ill for the similar ban on sending in ground forces, even if arming the rebels would be a positive thing.

The responses to Cole's piece, this one especially, have been excellent. Glenn Greenwald has gone one further though, and dragged out a past statement from Cole with which to challenge him:

If you are arguing for war, you don't have to ask all these fancy questions. There are really only two questions you have to answer. The first is, would you yourself be willing to die fighting for this cause you have espoused? The second is, would you be willing to see your 18-year-old son or daughter killed for this cause? (I do not ask if you would be glad or satisfied; I ask if you would be willing).

As it is, I don't really agree with the premise: you don't need to be personally prepared to fight in a war in order to advocate one; you should however be absolutely certain that there is no other option before you do so, which in the case of Libya in my view was not satisfied. Cole nonetheless has answered Greenwald's question in the affirmative. Perhaps it isn't too late to form a 21st century International Brigades after all.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011 

The pressure increases.

If there's something ever so slightly imperialistic about holding a summit to decide the immediate future of a country which for now at least has a regime stubbornly refusing to budge, then the assembled great and not so good gathered in London today didn't let it faze them. After all, they didn't actually invite the interim national council to take part, although representatives were certainly hanging around on the periphery, and giving interviews afterwards. Not even our leaders, with the exception of the French, could be that obvious. And indeed, not even our policies are so made up on the basis of the apparent immediate facts on that ground. It's only now, and we've Hillary Clinton's word for it, that we're getting to know the rebels, something thoroughly reassuring considering we've now been spending what is fast approaching 2 weeks clearing the way for them to grab as much Libyan territory as they can.

In fairness to the rebels, they've also started to get their act together. They've issued a not in the slightest bit suspicious vision for what Libya under them will look like, a document clearly not drafted by anyone other than themselves. Suffice to say that should history turn in their favour and they stick to their 8-point plan, plenty of us here in Britain would look in envy at a country with a written constitution, effective economic institutions dedicated to eradicating poverty and unemployment, and a firm rule of law. If you're now reaching for such epithets and terms as jackanory or "and the three bears", then clearly you're just as cynical as I am and should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself. The only real pointer to the internal politics of the region and the potential strains on democracy is point 6, with the state drawing strength from "strong religious beliefs" and d of 7, which emphasises the sanctity of religious doctrine.

Where they sadly still look as about as convincing as Ed Miliband on an anti-cuts demonstration is militarily, with Gaddafi's forces tonight having driven them back from the towns they seized at the weekend. It's all well and good issuing rousing and inspiring documents on how Libya will be transformed once the revolution is completed when you're once again on the march; when you're left scattering backwards in panic as the fighters you've continuously predicted will eventually turn against their leader continue to confound those expectations it starts to look thoroughly embarrassing for all concerned.

This of course isn't necessarily a bad thing for the coalition, as it means that once again Gaddafi's artillery and tanks can be picked off from the air without anyone suggesting that resolution 1973's remit is being exceeded now that the rebels are reaching towns and cities that have steadfastly refused to join the rising. It also helps to encourage the decidedly minority opinion that the resolution can be used to arm the rebels, as Clinton suggested would now be actively looked into. For those of us who suggested this was a possible alternative to an intervention, obvious problems as it carries with it considered, it's hardly clear that better arming the rebels would in fact break a potential stalemate: what they desperately need are disciplined, trained and well organised men, with improved weaponry coming firmly second. Having given the impression that they could handle things on their own as long as they were given the necessary air support, bravado and revolutionary enthusiasm taken into account, we now ought to be incredibly careful in just handing over equipment which has every potential to ultimately fall into the wrong hands or even be used in settling scores in the nightmare scenario of the country falling into an Iraq-style state of instability once the dictator's reign crumbles.

Recognise as we must that the intervention stopped a potential bloodbath in Benghazi, the plan as much as there is one, even after today's summit, is that Gaddafi can be persuaded to leave. This seems a forlorn hope when it's apparent that things will have to get much worse for him before exile begins to look appealing, and with the rebels so easily driven back from his hometown of Sirte, where an uprising could persuade him that the revolution cannot be stopped, there is little danger of a mission helmed by Italy or Qatar convincing him to go. Just as there is currently widespread Arab support for the intervention, and as much as our leaders keep insisting that the use of ground forces is not so much as being considered, it remains to be seen whether those who argued for a war on the grounds of protecting civilians are prepared to let someone who has so openly defied their demands to go remain in power. It's still impossible to predict if the entire enterprise will ultimately collapse under the myriad of contradictions that have been inherent in it from the beginning, but the longer Gaddafi stays the more the pressure will increase.

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