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Larbi Sadiki
Larbi Sadiki
Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter.
The battle for Libya: Up in smoke
If Libyans let the West completely control the war, the country risks receiving a 'bill' at the end that it cannot pay.
Last Modified: 25 May 2011 17:06
Many questions are being asked about the West's true intentions behind its intervention in Libya [EPA]

It was meant to be rapid, unburdened by collateral damage or ethical liability and in support of a worthy cause: Ridding Libya of Gaddafi as a helping hand for the spectacular Arab Spring.

In reality, the battle for Libya is everything but that. It is progressing slowly and remaining inconclusive. Worse, its collateral damage has been mounting, and consequently the ethics are beginning to look shaky.

The word muddle comes to mind.

And there are five questions that urgently need answers.

'Iraq endgame' looming?

While there are plenty of differences between Libya and Iraq, there is an 'oil' connection that justifies the comparison.

Gaddafi and Saddam share many misdemeanours - but there are important differences between the two: Gaddafi never invaded any neighbouring states and he also agreed to give up his nuclear ambitions. It was Saddam's fate that prompted Gaddafi to give up his rudimentary Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programme and engage in information-sharing about it with the West in the first place.

When he did, Gaddafi was embraced by the West from which he received billions of petro-dollars. It's also worth noting the countries in which he recycled this money, namely, in key EU states starting with France and Italy - two countries who are at war with him today.

Italy's embattled Berlusconi surely knew about Gaddafi's oppression of his people when he signed a friendship treaty with the colonel in 2008. Berlusconi's unethical free-wheeling diplomacy even pandered to Gaddafi's whim to preach Islam to glamourous Italian ladies. The same questionable diplomacy, inaugurated in 2004 by Tony Blair's "hand of friendship" with Gaddafi's oil-rich Libya, also applies to Spain and France.

This is part of the whole muddle surrounding the mess in Libya.

So far, all NATO has been able to produce is a stalemate in Libya, scorn over civilian deaths and questions about its real intentions.

Indeed the US should be thinking about scaling down war-making by its Nobel Laureate president, instead of the opposite. Obama has shown that he does not lack the imperial bona fides needed when he was called upon to act decisively by France and Britain to protect civilians in Libya.

However, in light of the stalemate, and despite Obama's opposition to sending ground troops, is it conceivable that Libya is secretly still being strategised by NATO as the next Iraq? 

NATO vs Gaddafi: What are the options?

If Libya is to be a testing ground for western military hardware and European hard-power, the agenda of the mission would eventually be totally altered from protection of civilians to a grand scheme increasingly hinting at imperial designs. It would move beyond being a UN-mandated mission for 'protection of civilians' with no commitment to send occupying boots to Libya. But this, of course, would require a new UN mandate.

The stalemate is far from the possibly zero-sum game NATO had in mind: To dislodge Gaddafi from power swiftly and display military kudos that might serve as a veiled threat to other Arab dictators busy killing protesters in their streets.

Unless the Libyan Transitional National Council, NATO and the Arab League consider new options - for instance, cutting their losses by offering the Gaddafis a deal they cannot refuse, safe passage out of the country and immunity from prosecution in return for surrender - Gaddafi is not going to be easily defeated, and definitely not by the imposition of a no-fly zone or even by thousands of additional sorties against his military hardware and fighting units. Nor will his defeat be hastened by Arab provision of logistical support and weapons.

Gaddafi knows he cannot win the conflict. But he also knows NATO cannot defeat him without sending in ground troops.

Afghanistan-isation of Libya?

If NATO wants to get more involved in Libya it could probably operationalise a quasi Bosnia-Kosovo strategy. Its content resonates with 'humanitarianism' by performing combat missions to protect civilians while at the same time fighting Gaddafi specifically.

One of the likely problems with this plan is that once the boots are on the ground, the strategy could take on the character of the conflict in Afghanistan. If NATO draws up such a plan for Libya, chances are that it will find itself drawn deeper into the quicksands of the Libyan battlefield.

NATO would be drawn into Libya by none other than al-Qaeda's Organisation in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM). In the event of an intervention by ground troops, AQIM's Salafi lineage would most likely judge Libya to be ripe terrain for its twin agenda of preaching and combatting 'infidels' (NATO forces).

Plus, in its post-bin Laden phase, AQIM and al-Qaeda in general would welcome a battlefield to regroup, re-sharpen its fangs, and recruit foot soldiers against Western 'infidels' and neo-imperialism.

This is a group that has proven itself to be lethal, and one that owes its own identity partially to the Afghan war against the former Soviets and partially, of course, against the junta that ruled after the cancellation of the second round of elections in Algeria in 1992.

Of course, this is only a hypothesis - but one that Gaddafi would cherish. It would give him a badly needed reprieve and validate his political rhetoric that it is al-Qaeda, not freedom-hungry citizens, that is attempting to topple his regime.

When it comes to al-Qaeda and authoritarianism, the second has featured as the lesser of the two evils in the eyes of Western governments who have invested so much in fighting. The West may be able to control and co-opt the latter - but not so successfully the former (despite attempts in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Historically, Western military intervention, in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively, had either to be justified or re-calibrated and prolonged to fight al-Qaeda. This is also true in Kosovo where intervention initially was calculated to be short. But that situation proved strategists wrong - NATO and US troops had to stay on for years after the guns fell silent.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Iraq, it is that nothing helps groups like AQIM thrive more than ground occupation.

Whatever rationale may be used to justify sending ground troops into Libya, post-Gaddafi reconstruction or peace-keeping, the outcome will be the same - and AQIM would be there too. Foreign troops will create resentment and will most likely be dragged into an unwinnable fight they never wanted - as the results of the West's direct intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq amply shows.

Similarly, the presence of al-Qaeda in Libya may be one development that would please some NATO commanders and states. The reason for this is that it would prompt a much more active and enthusiastic US intervention in Libya.

Were AQIM to gain ground in Libya, the implications could potentially be very serious for the two Arab states that have been able to topple their dictators and seem to be on the way to adopting democratic systems. Plus, the Salafi current is more prominent in Tunisia now than it was before Bin Ali's advent in power and commands a substantial following in Egypt. 

Note that this scenario, characterised by more involvement by al-Qaeda, worries not only the Transitional National Council but also the other civic bodies who will be re-shaping politics in post-Gaddafi Libya.

Libya: Whose battle is it anyway?

The battle for Libya increasingly tempts one to ask who is pulling the trigger. Leaders of the Transitional National Council undoubtedly do a great deal of lip-shooting, and obviously the weak rebel forces do a bit more.

The Libyan agency in charge of deciding the conduct of the war and its overall strategic aims seems to be quickly falling under the influence of powers who provided the expensive, state of the art weaponry that is being used to execute the bulk of the fighting.

Already the conflict has changed. It has no relation to any pretences of an Arab Spring or a democratising agenda.

Libyans who oppose Gaddafi have to ask themselves an important question: Who is running the battle and why?

Even more importantly, what is the price of delegating the war against Gaddafi to the West? In international politics there is no such thing as a free lunch, so to speak.

The stalemate, possible protraction or even more direct intervention are all dynamics that would augment the internationalisation of the battle for Libya. Increased internationalisation naturally chips into the Libyan side's share in the struggle - in which the stakes are high for all Libyans, not just the rebels.

Plus, there is the moral responsibility that comes with the territory of delegating war to foreign powers, especially when the conflict is in a protracted stalemate.

Hence, it is crucial that the rebels and the Transitional National Council avoid sole reliance on the West as well as making it a priority to develop alternative back-up plans. This should include negotiating an exit policy for Gaddafi if that is likely to spare Libya the trauma of all-out war, humanitarian crisis, loss of human rights, and dependence on the West.  

Gaddafi in Charge?

Gaddafi's 'Houdini' instinct has a great deal to do with the stalemate. He realises NATO cannot defeat him without ground troops and at the same time that he cannot win. He cannot even so much as recover Misurata - much less Benghazi.

With his back to the wall and nowhere to retire from politics safely, luxuriously and with impunity; Gaddafi may be the one deciding the outcome of this war. It is conceivable that his strategy right now is to dig in for a no-win-no-lose war.

His troops are trying desperately to give the impression of strong attacks in order to camouflage their complete defensiveness and weakness.

The reality on the ground, within a prolonged stalemate, might actually be what Gaddafi really desires - entrenching the East-West division, and returning to the pre-1963 divisions. That means Tripolitania for the Gaddafis and Cyrenaica for those who have rejected his revolution and sought to author their own.  

For now, the battle for Libya, Operation Odyssey Dawn, lacks the strength of character and right development of Odysseus. It is obscured by smoke screens, a far cry from the symbolism of fulfilment contained in the metaphor of dawn.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy. 

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