In Libya, Britain’s ignorance triumphed over caution

Like Iraq, which boosted the very terrorism it was supposed to neutralise, the war in Libya was a strategic catastrophe.

Smoke rises as Libyan forces dispose of explosives left behind by Islamic State militants following a battle in Sirte, at Misrata, Libya [Reuters]
Smoke rises as Libyan forces dispose of explosives left behind by ISIL following a battle in Sirte, Misrata, Libya [Reuters]

Britain’s Foreign Affairs Committee has just issued a scathing report on the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. The war was launched on “erroneous assumptions”, the report concludes, while poor planning and a failure to stabilise the country led to state failure and the growth of militant groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL also known as ISIS).

This is painfully reminiscent of the Chilcot Report, released earlier this year, which reached similarly harsh conclusions about Britain’s performance in the 2003 Iraq War. But while Chilcot was the seventh official inquiry into Iraq, this report on Libya is only the second.  

Perhaps the focus on Iraq is justified. The Iraq invasion was clearly unnecessary and launched without United Nations approval. Libya, on the other hand, was backed by the UN and justified by an undeniable need to protect civilians.

British MPs hold Cameron responsible over Libya intervention

True, the country has been in turmoil ever since, but at least we did not commit troops and get sucked into a bloody occupation. David Cameron said as much at the Commons debate following the release of Chilcot’s report.

Parallels between two conflicts

“I believe it was right to intervene to stop [Muammar] Gaddafi slaughtering his people,” he told MPs. “In that case, we did have a United Nations Security Council resolution … And we did not put our forces on the ground.”

But there are more parallels between the two conflicts than Cameron might like to admit. Indeed, reading through the Committee’s damning conclusions, one wonders if Britain learned anything from the Iraq debacle.

READ MORE: Chilcot lets media off hook for selling Iraq war

To briefly recap, the Libyan conflict began in early 2011 when peaceful protests morphed into an armed rebellion. Gaddafi launched a counterattack and drove the rebels back to the city of Benghazi, where he vowed a crackdown.

This was hailed prematurely as a 'model intervention', a paragon of multilateral humanitarianism.


Britain, France, and the United States, fearing a civilian massacre, obtained UN approval to intervene militarily. NATO started bombing in March and, by October, the rebels had won and Gaddafi was dead.

This was hailed prematurely as a “model intervention”, a paragon of multilateral humanitarianism. But the committee report casts doubt on parts of the narrative.

For starters, the idea that Gaddafi “would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence”.

Libyan forces had taken towns in February 2011 “without attacking civilians”, so why expect a bloodbath in Benghazi? In a speech the following month Gaddafi even offered amnesty to those rebels who surrendered.

Libya expert Professor George Joffe told the Committee that fears of a massacre were “vastly overstated”. It seems Britain was again taken to war on flawed information.

Minimal security assistance

But, in contrast to Iraq, where the coalition had a substantial troop presence, Libya received minimal security assistance. No international peacekeepers were deployed there, unlike in many other conflicts around the world, and Libyans were left to fend for themselves.

David Cameron [EPA]
David Cameron [EPA]

But given that Russia and China did not vote for the UN security council resolution – they abstained – and that only half of NATO members agreed to participate – Germany refused, for example – this was never the multilateral effort it was cracked up to be.

The report criticises Britain, in particular, for poor post-war planning. According to Alan Duncan MP, preparations consisted of “fanciful rot” based on optimistic assumptions about the country’s future stability.

True, Libya does not have the same sectarianism as Iraq, and it has a much smaller population. But it is still a very complex country composed of many tribes, and there are long-standing tensions between east and west.

READ MORE: 9/11 then and now – terror, militarism, war and fear

Moreover, scores of militias had grown up during the war that had to be demobilised. Why did anyone think such a state of affairs would resolve itself peacefully? The report concludes that the possible growth of extremist groups “should not have been the preserve of hindsight”.


Experts advised Blair before Iraq that the country was very fragile, too, but of course those warnings were dismissed. In both wars, naivety and ignorance triumphed over prudence and caution, with horrendous results.    

Since 2011 Libya has been plagued by relentless violence and political instability. Lawlessness has undoubtedly fuelled the migrant crisis, while human rights abuses have been rife. ISIL has infiltrated the north of the country and might now have thousands of fighters there.

Violence has spread beyond Libya, too, as looted weapons have fuelled further conflict in Mali, Syria, and elsewhere. NATO’s war has clearly magnified civilian suffering, defeating the whole point of intervening in the first place. Like Iraq, which boosted the very terrorism it was supposed to neutralise, this was a strategic catastrophe.

Defenders of the Libyan war, like Cameron, point to the fact that western troops never got bogged down there as they did in Iraq. But was the lack of troops really such a good thing? Iraq had a government (of sorts) shortly after the invasion, which worked with allied forces, and, by the time US troops withdrew in 2011, al-Qaeda in Iraq (forerunner of ISIL) had been weakened.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state at the time and now the Democratic presidential nominee, called it an example of “smart power at its best”. But there was nothing smart about this war. Obama described Libya as his “worst mistake” and blamed Britain and France for neglecting the post-war situation. That is more like it.

Rupert Stone is an independent journalist working on national security and counterterrorism.

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