Violence in Libya: a by-product of NATO irresponsibility

The West helped topple Gaddafi but failed in its duty to the Libyan people in the aftermath.

The West helped topple Gaddafi but failed in its duty to the Libyan people in the aftermath

Britain, along with the governments of other Western nations, has told all nationals in Libya to vacate the country immediately following intensified fighting this weekend in the capital, Tripoli. Employees of the British embassy were even fired upon as their motorcade sped away, although no one was harmed.

The situation in Libya is rapidly deteriorating. Although anti-government militias had held large swaths of the country since the fall of former dictator Moammer Gaddafi, violence of this scale was not yet seen. An aggressive general from the central Libyan government, Khalifa Hifter, launched a campaign to rid Tripoli of the rebel militias.

After the uptick in violence, water, electricity and petrol have become increasingly scarce. Infrastructure, political figures, diplomats, and innocent civilians have all been targeted.

The crisis-driven news cycle tends to simplify events. Although the fighting currently in Libya seems to have come out of nowhere, the conflict has been building for three years. In March of 2011, a NATO coalition spearheaded by Britain and France began aerial bombing to eliminate Gaddafi’s troops. As expected, NATO won a crushing victory. Just as the Americans and the British learned in the Iraq War, destroying a nation’s government is one thing. Rebuilding it is a completely different beast.

In contrast to prior Western intervention, NATO chose to leave the newly formed Libyan government largely to its own devices. The staggering number of men who had joined militias to fight against Gaddafi realized something. They still had weapons and the ability to control their local regions. The weak central government certainly couldn’t do anything to suppress them. The result was hundreds of militias scattered across the country. In fact, there were more than 250 different militias in the city of Misurata alone.

The problem was only exacerbated by the fact that Libya is a highly tribal society to begin with. The Eastern and Western halves of the country are perpetual foes. The only reason there wasn’t much violence between them in recent decades is because a strong dictator was able to rule the whole of a country with an iron fist.

In a now familiar political situation, the removal of the dictator allows all of the formerly contained violence to spill out.

In March of 2012, the Eastern half of Libya, centered on Benghazi, declared itself a semi-autonomous region. Although the central government opposed, they did not have the power to contest the declaration. In other words, it has been apparent for more than two years that thinking Libya would be successful without significant NATO support is a disastrous plan.

Much of the responsibility for this violence rests with NATO. Regardless of whether  intervention was justified, if countries do go into a nation and destroy its government they have an obligation to help in the recovery. After Gaddafi was killed in late October 2011, the interim Libyan government asked NATO to extend its mission until the end of the year. When the UN Security Council withdrew support of a continued mission, though, NATO took it as an excuse to rid itself of responsibility in Libya.

Another roadblock to reform surfaced in September of 2012, when American Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans were killed by Islamists. Republicans turned the minimal security provided to the diplomats into a huge political headache for Obama. After that incident, American involvement in the nation building became quite limited.

The nascent Libyan government, with few functioning institutions, limited resources, low credibility, and scant military power was left with little assistance from NATO. With this background, the current fighting seems like an inevitability.

At this stage in the conflict it is unclear what NATO can now do to alleviate the ongoing Libyan violence. But it should stand as a cautionary tale: if in the future we are going to intervene in another country, we better be sure we can pick up the pieces afterwards.

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