Libya: Crisis, Failed Statehood, & the Shortcomings of Intervention

Ashby Henningsen, UMBC:

Since former despot Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster in 2011, governance and social stability within Libya have devolved to deeply disconcerting levels. The country remains afflicted by ineffectual administration, economic stagnation, and civil conflict between extremist groups. Events in recent days have shown the overall disarray in which Libyan citizens find their country. Egyptian airstrikes against ISIS forces in the northern part of the country allude to the lack of civil control and security. The rescues of hundreds migrants on derelict boats off the coast of Italy indicate the sense of desperation with which Libyans view their own homeland. Only a few years ago, outsiders looked to Libya with a sense of cautious optimism. In the aftermath of revolutionary fervor and civil conflict, hope spread both domestically and abroad that the country could transition into democratic governance and embody the aspirations of the broader Arab Spring. Yet such careful expectations now seem like distant memory. Anyone who has followed the country’s political and social conditions can attest to the idea that this degree of dysfunction has been overdue. In fact, they can be traced back to the shortcomings of the allied intervention that facilitated Qaddafi’s overthrow. Rather than totally unforeseeable incidents, these recent happenings represent the latest manifestations of the collective failure to rebuild Libya in the wake of civil war and political upheaval.

Foreign policymakers’ and analysts perceptions of the situation in Libya could hardly have been more different in late 2011 than they are today. The military intervention in support of revolutionary forces by the United States and Western Europe appeared to have enjoyed an ample degree of immediate success. The implementation of a no-fly zone upon Libyan military aircraft by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the halting of illicit arms traffic to the Qaddafi government first signaled the outside world’s resolve in supporting the Libyan rebels. A series of naval and air strikes against regime forces by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) followed, giving the rebels sufficient supportive firepower to achieve victory in the civil war. The downfall of the repressive and heavy-handed Qaddafi met not only the blessing of the Libyan people, but the support of key neighbors–Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. The mission was quickly lauded as a success in quick, well-calculated, legitimated, and decisive intervention [1]. Outsiders from all corners seemed to approach the task of rebuilding the country with confident anticipation.

Yet as time passed, optimism steadily deteriorated both within and outside the country, with disillusionment taking its place. Efforts to build effective governance and civil society were stymied by continued conflict even after Qaddafi’s removal from power. Rebel militia groups, still armed and dangerous and now lacking a sense of purpose, proceeded to fight among one another. Other criminal groups, as well as radical Muslim jihadists, also took advantage of the lack of homegrown authority. Post-Qaddafi political leaders were unable to establish a concrete presence in terms of lawmaking and leadership, and the Libyan public sector soon proved incompetent in facilitating nationwide economic development and civil society-building. Efforts to appropriate the militia groups into national security forces floundered as well, due to the lack of a coherent national security strategy, an inability to bridge divided loyalties, and a lack of adequate financial compensation. All of this only embittered the once-anticipatory populace, and perversely encouraged rogue militants and sectarian movements alike to intensify violence and instability. The disorder manifested itself in a variety of ways–perhaps most notably, the death of US ambassador Christopher Stephens in September 2012 [2] and the capture of several oil facilities in 2013 [3], all by Libyan militants.

Much of the responsibility for the failure of statehood fell upon Libya’s post-Qaddafi leaders. Yet an objective analysis of events reveals that they were not solely culpable. One must bear in mind the limits to their resources and Libya’s dearth of strong institutions. The gradual deterioration of Libyan society also largely rested upon the lack of sustained outside support for the post-war government and economy. In the wake of the military victory, the US and UN failed to provide continued economic aid, sound governance advice, or sufficient training to military or police forces. Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept delivers a more scathing assessment: “most self-proclaimed ‘humanitarians’ who advocated the Libya intervention completely ignored the country once the fun parts — the war victory dances and mocking of war opponents — were over. The feel-good ‘humanitarianism’ of war advocates, as usual, extended only to the cheering from a safe distance as bombs dropped.” [4] At the same time, NATO forces failed to address the potential for renewed violence by and among the various militant movements that remained standing in the ruins of Benghazi and other major Libyan cities [5].

Throughout the ensuing years since, this ongoing lack of outside institutional support has only hastened Libya’s political and socioeconomic deterioration. Recent events have only illustrated this collective shortcoming by the outside world. Earlier this month, Italian coast guard units were forced to rescue thousands of civilians who had attempted to escape from Libya via boat and raft [6]. Hundreds of others went missing or died due to hypothermia–a harrowing example of the dangers facing these desperate individuals out on the open Mediterranean. Additionally, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has established a presence in Libya and thus cemented its expansion beyond its self-proclaimed caliphate in northern Iraq and eastern Syria, to which the recent video of its members beheading 21 Egyptian captives somewhere along the country’s northern coast attests. Members of the terrorist group are believed to be currently holed-up in the northern town of Darna. Egyptian military airstrikes against ISIS targets in its western neighbor have only raised the stakes of the country’s internal chaos: reports maintain that civilians were killed in the Egyptian airstrikes, and French President Francois Hollande and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have both allegedly urged that the international community join in to curtail ISIS’ presence in Libya [8].

Can a renewed outside intervention feasibly lift Libya out of failed statehood? Given the last foreign intervention’s shortcomings, a second effort would be hard-pressed to invoke reasonable optimism for success. The country’s two rival governments, which have been locked in contentious and sometimes violent competition, would have to be reconciled and their energies combined to achieve unified administration. The country’s disparate local militant groups and criminal gangs would have to be countered and neutralized, while legitimate police and army forces would need renewed training and logistical support. External aid would also invariably require prolonged economic assistance; unless the country’s economy is rebuilt from the ground up, it can expect little if any improvement in its societal stability. Facing any concentrated efforts to achieve such goals are the grim lessons of the past few years: that immediate successes do not constitute an automatic precursor to long-term progress. Even the most-well formulated, long-term multinational strategy might not be the appropriate response. What a reconstruction of Libya without extensive outside intervention would look like, however, remains to be seen.













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