Don’t Close Chapter on Libya, Yet

John Siebert Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

Published by the Waterloo Region Record

It may be churlish to begrudge Prime Minister Stephen Harper some self-congratulatory hyperbole for the Canadian military’s contribution to the civil war in Libya.

On Aug. 21, the rebel forces, supported by NATO airstrikes, swept the capital of Tripoli. Moammar Gadhafi and his regime were no longer in control of most of the country, effectively replaced by the National Transitional Council. This “NTC” has now been recognized by a significant number of countries — Canada included — as the legitimate government of Libya.

Who beyond his family and hard-core supporters will mourn Gadhafi’s fall? Not most Libyans. During 42 years in power, the eccentric and terror-inducing Gadhafi took dictatorial control over their lives, denying personal freedoms and committing gross and systematic violations of fundamental human rights.

On Sept. 1, in Trapani, Italy, our prime minister congratulated Canadian Forces for “punching above its weight.”

“Soldier for soldier, sailor for sailor, airman for airman, the Canadian Armed Forces are the best in the world,” he said. The Royal Canadian Air Force flew more than 750 sorties to date, or about 10 per cent of the total. Two ships from the Royal Canadian Navy helped to enforce a maritime blockade.

Harper has not been alone in singing the praises of our military. Former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Paul Heinbecker, enthusiastically wrote: “Success, vindication, satisfaction, optimism; there are many legitimate ways to characterize the so-far happy events in Libya.” Being an old hand, Heinbecker knows his way around a qualifier — in this case the caveat “so far.”

The difficulty with the current upbeat take on Libya is that we have seen the opening scenes of this movie before — in Afghanistan and Iraq — and the rest of the show has not been very pleasant. Granted, no two wars are the same, but the similarities are worth noting. Each is driven by ethnic and tribal divisions, exploited for decades by dictatorial governments, and blessed with valuable natural resources that could finance new futures.

We should remember the 2001 triumphal entry of the Northern Alliance into Kabul as the routed Taliban regime in Afghanistan headed for Tora Bora. That victory came quickly, with the assistance of U.S. special forces riding on horseback and calling in U.S. air strikes. On May 1, 2003, president George W. Bush made his “mission accomplished in Iraq” speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

Sustainable peace still has not been established in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

The UN Security Council approved military action by an international coalition in Libya led by NATO to halt abuses and the spread of terrorism. U.S. leadership, in concert with NATO, has been key. Here again, similarities can be seen with the Afghanistan war.

In Libya, terrorism was by the regime against its own people. The invocation by the UN of the “responsibility to protect” civilians quickly morphed into regime change. Except for the damage done to the R2P doctrine through its misuse in Libya, the parallels with Afghanistan and Iraq pretty much hold.

Let’s not forget the flood of arms in Libya that will enable violent responses to grievances by all factions for decades to come. The Gadhafi regime was already armed to the teeth. NATO members and others then supplied rebels with small arms and light weapons to even the fight. Now, government arsenals are reportedly being looted.

Another casualty is the UN arms embargo on Libya. It is a matter of dispute whether the UN arms embargo applied only to Gadhafi’s regime or to all sides. Reports indicate that the Chinese offered, and perhaps supplied, arms to the Gadhafi regime in defiance of the embargo. However, NATO members including Canada supplied the Libyan rebels with arms.

The primary response of NATO participants in the Libya campaign to the victory of rebel forces is a sense of vindication. They assisted in vanquishing an evil regime, and now bless the new leadership they chose. Current talk at international donor conferences focuses on establishing democracy, state building, and post-conflict reconstruction and development assistance for infrastructure and the establishment of a vibrant private sector.

Similar decisions and promises made in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been successfully implemented. Having taken the military plunge, Canada and its NATO allies must succeed in Libya while learning the lessons from these previous failures.

The portents are not encouraging. In Libya, thousands have died. Revenge is in the air. Gadhafi remains at large. Fighting continues. It is not yet clear if Libya’s regional neighbours will all fall in line to support the national transitional council, or if some will provide sanctuary and support for a prolonged insurgency against the new government. How long before a franchise of “IEDs R Us” opens in Libya, as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Tragically, winning the war does not mean that the peace will be won.

© Copyright 2011 Metroland Media Group Ltd.

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