Familiar Opening Scenes: Libya is rid of Gadhafi, but will Canadian Forces soon be bogged down in another Afghanistan?

John Siebert Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2011 Volume 32 Issue 3

It may be churlish to begrudge Prime Minister Harper some self-congratulatory hyperbole for the Canadian military’s contribution to the civil war in Libya. On August 21, the rebel forces, supported by NATO airstrikes since March, 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 (NTC). While representing only part of the Libyan population, the NTC has nonetheless been recognized by a significant number of countries—including Canada—as the legitimate government of Libya, and the NTC representative has taken his place at the United Nations.

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

On September 1 in Trapani, Italy, Harper (Prime Minister 2011) congratulated Canadian Forces on their contribution to the Libyan campaign:

Just as Canadians thank you for your work here, I know that countless thousands of Libyans have reason to be grateful, too. Few will ever know you by name. Some may not even yet be born. But if Libya can seize the opportunity that now lies before it, the real results of your actions these past five months will be seen. . . freedom of speech, freedom of assembly—the freedom of simply being left alone.

The Prime Minister went on to characterise the contribution as Canada “punching above its weight.” The Royal Canadian Air Force flew more than 750 sorties, or about 10 per cent of the total. Two ships from the Royal Canadian Navy helped to enforce a maritime blockade. According to the Prime Minister (2011), “Soldier for soldier, sailor for sailor, airman for airman, the Canadian Armed Forces are the best in the world.”

He was not alone in singing their praises. Former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations Paul Heinbecker (2011) enthusiastically wrote on August 23: “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.”

Caution is warranted. 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. Libya is not Afghanistan, nor is it Iraq. 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 such as oil deposits 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. While that victory came easily, with the assistance of U.S. Special Forces riding on horseback and calling in U.S. air strikes, winning the peace in Afghanistan still proves illusive 10 years later. On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush made his “mission accomplished in Iraq” speech onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.  U.S. troops are still in Iraq eight years later. 

The UN Security Council approved military action by an international coalition led by NATO to halt abuses and the spread of terrorism in Libya. 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 of the “responsibility to protect” by UN Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973 in March 2011 to stop Gadhafi’s forces from wiping out civilians in Benghazi quickly and openly morphed into regime change. Except for the damage done through the inappropriate use of the R2P doctrine in Libya to cover for regime change, 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. Before March 2011, the Gadhafi regime was armed to the teeth. During the fighting of the past five months, NATO members and others supplied NTC rebels with small arms and light weapons to even the fight. Now Government arsenals are reportedly being looted (Lucas 2011). How long before a franchise of “IEDs R Us” opens in Libya, as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq?

The inherent catastrophe fuelled by the prevalence of guns and bombs in Libya is worsened by another casualty in this civil war: the UN arms embargo on Libya. Reports indicate that the Chinese offered and perhaps supplied arms to the Gadhafi regime in defiance of the embargo (Smith 2011). However, NATO members and others supplying the Libyan rebels with arms must also come under scrutiny. There is, admittedly, some dispute about whether the UN arms embargo applied only to Gadhafi’s regime or to all sides in this civil war. Clarification is being sought on whether Canada also violated the UN arms embargo.1

The primary response of NATO participants in the Libya campaign to the apparent victory of the NTC forces is, much like Prime Minister Harper’s speech, characterized by 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.

These plans and good wishes must translate into actual policies, programs, and institutions that have a positive effect in Libya over the coming years. None of these same promises and plans has been successfully implemented so far in Afghanistan and Iraq. Having taken the military plunge, however, there is no turning back from the reconstruction challenge in Libya. To rebuild is the third pillar of the R2P doctrine. For the sake of the people of Libya, Canada and its NATO allies must succeed, but the portents are not encouraging.

Initial tallies reported by the interim health minister of the NTC of deaths in Libya since fighting began in February are 30,000, with 50,000 wounded and possibly 4,000 still missing (Sacramento Bee 2011). The actual numbers have not yet been independently verified. Revenge is in the air. Gadhafi remains at large. Fighting continues within Libya. It is not yet clear if Libya’s regional neighbours will all fall in line to support the NTC, or if, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, some will provide sanctuary and support for a prolonged insurgency against the new government.

Winning the war does not mean that the peace will be won. Hopefully Canada and its NATO allies have learned this lesson from Afghanistan and Iraq.


1. At the end of August, Project Ploughshares sent a letter to Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, asking for clarification on Canada’s official interpretation of the UN arms embargo.


Heinbecker, Paul. 2011. Plenty of credit to go around in Gadhafi’s fall. The Ottawa Citizen, August 23.

Lucas, Ryan. 2011. Weapons proliferation a ‘key concern’ in Libya. The Globe and Mail, September 14.

Prime Minister (Canada). 2011. Statement of the Prime Minister of Canada while in Trapani, Italy. September 1.

Sacramento Bee, The. 2011. Libyan estimate: At least 30,000 died in the war. September 8.

Smith, Graeme. 2011. China offered weapons to Gadhafi. The Globe and Mail, September 3.

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