Will Libya be the New Iraq?

The coalition military intervention in Libya that began on March 19th was an example of a well coordinated and organised operation, with a legitimate legal mandate in the form of UN Resolution 1973. Nonetheless, there are several debates regarding the intervention in question as well as the strategy that is being followed by the coalition.

There are two central questions that should be answered in order to understand the discourse regarding the intervention in Libya: (a) what do we want to achieve? (b) How far are we willing to go? If the operation has limited goals such as the maintenance of the no-fly zone it would probably be qualified as a success whereas if the plan is to intervene politically undertaking peace/state-building operations, it might result in a catastrophe or in a long-lasting, torturous situation like Iraq.

For the time being, military operations consist mainly of air-strikes and naval operations that are comparable to previous campaigns in Kosovo and Bosnia. In that case, the NATO bombing campaign achieved its objective since it resulted in the Serbs’ withdrawal. The strategic goals were clear: the withdrawal of the Serbs and an agreement between the parties, which was later achieved through the NATO’s threat of a ground invasion. Likewise, the US intervention during the first Gulf War served its purpose, forcing Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait without fully invading Iraq.

In Iraq (2003), the situation was more complicated, and also lacked a UN mandate. A main weakness that can be identified in the 2003 and later Iraq operations was the fact that the coalition forces as well as US and UK individually did not really comprehend the dynamics of the situation on the ground. The whole operation was driven from the military notion of the “war on terror” rather than from a political state-building objective. Admittedly, the military aspect of the operations in Iraq since 2003 has been relatively successful especially after “The Surge” of 2007, which was largely an American counterinsurgency mission. However, the peacekeeping and peace-building operations have had very limited success mainly because of the complex dynamics and numerous sectarian conflicts in Iraq.

Even though the Libya case is not as complicated as Iraq, there are certain dynamics on the ground that could turn it into a “new Iraq”; they must not be neglected or excluded from the strategy formation. The key elements that shape the domestic situation are: the rebels, the tribal character of Libya, the oil, and the die-hard Gaddafi regime. We do not know enough about whom the rebels are and if they are a viable group to cede power to. Based on the tribal nature of Libya, and given the vacuum of power that the toppling of the regime would create, it is easy to foresee emerging insurgencies and civil wars over Libya’s central power and of course over its natural resources – like in Iraq. Furthermore if a decisive victory over Gaddafi’s regime would not be achieved, this would create an asymmetric threat in the sense that it could turn the regime into an insurgency against the interveners; and as history has shown insurgencies can only be defeated when they decide to – e.g. Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers.

So, what do we want to achieve? It seems that – at least in the long term – the West is not sure yet. For the time being, the coalition forces are doing a rather good job maintaining the no-fly zone. Furthermore, this situation has also given the opportunity to other forces other than the US – like European countries – to show readiness and demonstrate their capabilities. However, it is clear that, at least the US by itself, is not willing to go any further than the current situation. If NATO and the EU forces were to fully intervene in Libya they should at least do it with a UN mandate; that would provide them with the necessary resources, infrastructure and legitimacy to bring more optimistic results. To conclude, it should be acknowledged that the situation right now in Libya is very fluid therefore a full intervention at this time should be avoided. If, however, a full intervention were to take place, a well shaped strategy that would fully understand the military/political ends, should be undertaken.

Zenonas Tziarras

Posted on http://www.global-politics.co.uk/ on April 3, 2011.

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