Catching up: Libya

Again, I’m trying to get back to some regular blogging after an extended break. But in order to do that, I’ve got to make some sense of what’s been going on while I’ve been away–for my own sake far more than for yours. This is part of a series of pieces in which I’ll try to do that.

Current state of the Libyan civil war, as of April 30; red areas are controlled by the Tobruk parliament, green areas by the Tripoli parliament, blue areas by forces out of Misrata, gray areas by ISIS, and yellow areas by Tuaregs (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

When last we checked in with the Libyan civil war, the country’s UN-backed interim Presidency Council had proposed a national unity government (the Government of National Accord, or GNA) that seemed a little shaky on the whole “unity” point, and that government was supposed to be put to a vote by one of Libya’s two competing parliaments (the Council of Deputies, COD, the one based in Tobruk). I realize now that I left things on kind of a cliffhanger as far as this story was concerned. Well, the GNA, headed by would-be Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, announced in mid-March that it was preparing to enter Tripoli and establish itself as the actual Libyan government. Which it did on March 30, even though the parliament in Tripoli (the General National Congress, or GNC) had previously suggested that this would be a bad idea.

So far so good, no? Well, yes and no. The GNA’s establishment in Tripoli presents, at least on paper, the best chance that Libyans have had, since the fighting started up again in 2014, to finally pull their country together and start to build a stable Libyan state. On a very much related point, it’s also Libya’s best chance for getting rid of ISIS, a fact that the GNA tried to underscore last week when it announced the formation of a “task force” to address the ISIS threat (more on that later). But the factions fighting the war need to be willing to compromise and accept the GNA’s authority. A number of cities that had been under the GNC’s control declared their allegiance to the GNA, which was good. Then the GNC looked like it was also ready to give way to the GNA, which was also good. Unfortunately it turned out that those reports were wrong, because a day later the GNC’s prime minister, Khalifa Ghweil, said that not only was he not going to step down in favor of the new government, he’d also prosecute anybody caught working with it. Which was bad.

On the plus side, the GNA’s presence in Tripoli hasn’t caused any discernible uptick in violence, which was (and still is) unfortunately a possibility. On the minus side, it’s stuck working out of a naval base outside the city, and instead of reducing the number of Libyan governments from two to one, its presence has increased that number to three. This new government has a lot of international support behind it, but it’s also struggling to gain any traction inside Libya, where it looks a lot like (maybe because it is like) this government was appointed for Libya by the international community. The GNA did create a new “presidential guard” this week, which could be a positive step I guess, though the guard’s creation has coincided with reports–unconfirmed, but reports nonetheless–of a number of Libyan military officers who have been assassinated in Tripoli over the past couple of days. If those reports are accurate, and the GNA is behind the killings (two big ifs), that’s not the most auspicious way for the new government to establish itself.

By the way, the GNA hasn’t gotten its vote of support from COD yet, ostensibly because it has to “present itself” before that parliament, which makes sense from the standpoint of democratic norms even though you’d think Tobruk could make an exception here given the circumstances in which Libya currently finds itself. The GNA is apparently reluctant to send any representatives to Tobruk because it’s worried that they’ll be treated with hostility by forces under the command of Khalifa Haftar, the Muammar Gaddafi loyalist-turned enemy of the state-turned commander of the Tobruk parliament’s armed forces.

Haftar nominally answers to Tobruk, but is in reality calling his own shots (he appointed himself to his current job), and though he’s refrained from making any public comment on the GNA’s legitimacy it’s possible that he’ll try to undermine the unity government so as to preserve the pretty sweet deal he’s established for himself with the COD. His recent military successes in Benghazi have made Haftar almost untouchable, and there are reports that he’s been establishing his own political networks. To what end? Who knows? But he’s been moving forces to surround Sirte, ISIS’s Libyan capital, and if he succeeds in liberating it then he’ll probably move on Misrata next before eventually advancing on Tripoli. If no political settlement is reached in the meantime, and Haftar succeeds in taking all three of those cities, then Libya is probably looking at a return to strongman rule. And while that would be a real ideological quandary for Europe and the US, what with all our professed interest in Libyans being free and self-governing, if Haftar eliminates ISIS in Libya and promises to crack down on migrant boats leaving Libyan ports bound for Europe, he’ll probably be welcomed with open arms by the international community.

Oh right, ISIS, we should probably talk about them. In another good news-bad news deal, ISIS was reportedly “forced out” of the city of Derna in mid-April by the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC). ISIS moved in to Derna in force in October 2014, but was driven out into the suburbs around the city last June. This defeat, if true, means they’ve been driven out of the area completely. That’s good. What’s not so good is that the DMSC is a collection of other hardline Islamist fighters with ties to al-Qaeda. Consequently, while ISIS may be out of Derna, the war isn’t; Haftar’s forces attacked the city almost as soon as the DMSC had announced its victory over ISIS. Further west, the independent forces controlling Misrata just announced yesterday that they’re preparing an offensive against Sirte in response to an ISIS advance toward Misrata last week (it was this advance that prompted the GNA to form its anti-ISIS task force).

While ISIS still poses a bigger danger as a terror threat than as an actual player in the war, there are signs that it’s started forming alliances with unhappy ex-Gaddafi military units around Misrata, which could boost its battlefield capabilities the same way that incorporating ex-Baʿathists into ISIS in Iraq paid so many dividends for the group there. But at the same time, Buzzfeed’s Borzou Daragahi reported in early April on the return of the mukhabarat, the Gaddafi-era intelligence service that was disbanded along with the rest of Gaddafi’s regime in 2011. The service hasn’t been reconstituted formally, but the GNC has allowed many (Daragahi’s sources say close to 75%) of its former operatives to go back to work, primarily targeting ISIS and remaining Gaddafi zealots. The US has, per Daragahi, apparently been working with these once-and-future spies, but then again we’ve been working with nearly everybody in Libya other than ISIS and al-Qaeda, including Haftar (whom the mukhabarat types oppose because, go figure, he reminds them too much of Gaddafi).

I guess I wouldn’t be doing a very thorough recap of events in Libya if I didn’t mention a couple of major pieces related to Libya that were produced here in the US while I was on my break. First was this fascinating two-part New York Times investigation into the 2011 Libyan intervention and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s role in making it happen. If the story is accurate then it’s as thorough an accounting of all the Obama administration’s mistakes with respect to Libya as you’re likely to see. The administration, and Clinton in particular, appears to have been easily convinced by Libyan rebels (who naturally stood to gain quite a bit from convincing it) that a) not intervening to support the rebels would be tantamount to permitting a genocide and b) there was a unified opposition that could quickly transition the country from Gaddafi’s dictatorship to stable democracy.

The former may well have been true, though it bears repeating that the loudest voices warning of genocide all belonged to people who stood to benefit from western intervention, but the latter was never true, and there are worrying hints in the NYT story that Clinton ignored warning signs to that effect because she was so gung-ho to Do Something. I’m not here to tell you not to vote for Hillary Clinton–hell, if it really comes down to her and Donald Trump, I’ll be voting for her–but I would hope that even her most ardent supporters would take pause when reading stuff like this:

Anne-Marie Slaughter, her director of policy planning at the State Department, notes that in conversation and in her memoir, Mrs. Clinton repeatedly speaks of wanting to be “caught trying.” In other words, she would rather be criticized for what she has done than for having done nothing at all.

“She’s very careful and reflective,” Ms. Slaughter said. “But when the choice is between action and inaction, and you’ve got risks in either direction, which you often do, she’d rather be caught trying.”

The next president is going to be immediately presented with a whole bunch of bad options with respect to Syria, and while the ethos of the American foreign policy community is that it’s more noble to be “caught trying” than the alternative, that is, to be blunt, a load of crap. When it comes to messing around with events in other countries, getting “caught trying” often leads to worse outcomes than getting “caught not trying,” particularly insofar as “trying” often leads to “more trying,” otherwise known as mission creep. You don’t encounter the risk of mission creep when there’s no mission. You’d like to think that Hillary Clinton would’ve learned that by now, but too often it doesn’t seem like she has.

The second piece was published in April, when Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid wrote a defense of the Libyan intervention in response to comments that President Obama had made in his wide-ranging interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. Hamid defends the intervention on two related grounds. First, he writes that the intervention was purely meant to be humanitarian, that regime change was never the goal, and so the intervention should be looked at as a success on its own terms. Second, he contends that you can’t blame the intervention itself for failures that happened after it took place, which mostly had to do with the fact that the US and Europe decided to wash their hands of Libya almost as soon as the bombs stopped falling.

The problem with his first point is that it’s ahistorical–supporters of the intervention, including Shadi Hamid, absolutely talked about democratization as one of its goals back in 2011, and while the Obama administration limited its rhetoric to humanitarian talking points, it’s clear now that the intention was always to continue the operation until Gaddafi was out of power. The problem with Hamid’s second point is that it’s splitting hairs. As Daniel Larison writes, he wants people to evaluate the intervention entirely on the purest intentions of those who pushed it rather than, you know, what actually happened once we intervened. If the failure lay in the post-intervention actions of America and Europe, that doesn’t change the fact that it was the intervention that created the conditions for that failure. It doesn’t make up for the decision to intervene without any foresight or planning for what would happen afterward. And it particularly doesn’t make up for the decision to intervene when we have ample historical evidence by now to show that America is never good at planning for what happens afterward. Or, as I put it on Twitter:

Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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