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Paul Smyth: In post-Gaddafi Libya, the UK must not take the lead

Picture 3 Paul Smyth spent 25 years in the RAF and two years at RUSI before creating R3I Consulting.

Nato took responsibility for the air campaign over Libya on 31st March. Since then, about 28% of the targets struck have been in or near Tripoli and this area has seen attacks every day since 4th June, sometimes in daylight hours, sustaining the pressure on the Tripoli-based regime.  As Gaddafi’s dictatorship becomes more vulnerable the imperative for a post-Gaddafi plan becomes acute.  Whilst staff from DfiD and other government departments consider what happens next in Libya alarm bells should be ringing that Britain is manoeuvring itself into a position on Libya it has neither the obligation nor right to take. 

With France, the UK may have been at the vanguard of international efforts to intervene in Libya but this is not ‘Britain’s war’.  Despite the tone of British reporting and the cause celebre Libya has become for some leading politicians the conflict remains a UN-mandated, Nato-led operation and it is that coalition, not individual nations within it, which has a responsibility to safely establish the next Libyan regime. 

Efforts to create a stable post-Gaddafi state in Libya must include a number of nations that have played little or no role in the military intervention.  Germany, Egypt and Turkey, for example, have significant contributions to make to long-term stability in Libya and they cannot, indeed must not, be excluded on the basis that the post-fight dinner is only for those who had been in the ring.  For instance, in times of budgetary stress can Britain reject the value of German economic power, however jealously the UK might view Libya’s future prosperity or feel it has the right to dictate events in Tripoli?  A peaceful and stable outcome in Libya is more important than who brings it about.

The collegial approach governing the present military campaign in Libya must be applied to post-conflict efforts, however unpalatable that might be to those who feel they have earned an exclusive role in Libya’s future.  That does not mean that nations with the right skills and experience do not steer combined efforts, and the talent residing in the UK’s Stabilisation Unit has a key role in advising the Transitional National Council (TNC) and coordinating or harnessing coalition contributions; but the UK does not ‘own’ the job of establishing a new regime in Libya, even if our present focus on the British tip of the Nato spear reinforces the errant notion that this is a national and not an international conflict.

The post-conflict expertise gained by Brits in Iraq and Afghanistan could bring dangers - a belief that others cannot match our proficiency in such matters and a risk that the stabilisation model currently employed in Afghanistan is deemed suitable for Libya. 

Whilst some may defer to our aptitude for post-conflict planning, the UK must have the wisdom and humility to see where other partners (like the UN) have better resources, greater understanding and more influence to bear on events in Libya, and step back accordingly.  More importantly, Libya is neither Iraq nor Afghanistan.  In January, it was a functioning state, economically viable, with working health, education and utility systems.  Yet already it is being spoken of in terms that suggest the human capital, infrastructure, civic organisations and resources in Libya will simply collapse or vanish with Gaddafi.  With such cataclysmic predictions appearing to shape expectations it is crucial the post-conflict planning for Libya is placed in a correct context.  Perhaps Libya requires nation-changing, not nation-building. 

When contingency planning it is sensible to consider the worst case scenario, but it is also necessary to reflect on the most likely outcome.  Ideally, the two are different and which case to prepare for becomes a matter of judgment.  As advisors prepare to brief ministers in Whitehall let us hope that the ‘most likely’ scenario receives due attention.  The UK must avoid shouldering substantial responsibility for ‘solving‘ a worst case scenario in Libya; it should describe that case and exhort other nations to prevent or resolve such a disaster, but it does not have to do so alone or in the lead.  Rather, as it skilfully achieves desired results in the UN Security Council, the UK should influence and shape the participation of other partners to promote its own interests in Libya.

Planning for life after Gaddafi is an enormous and complex task.  It is critical that Libyans have a post-Gaddafi expectation so the TNC must appear as a government in waiting and be ready to move to Tripoli as soon as possible, carrying plans for present key ministries that include an agreed role/future for Gaddafi’s security forces.  The TNC will have much embracing to do, reaching out to ex-Gaddafi officials, his rank and file supporters, foreign nations and companies, and Libyan tribal leaders.  Indigenous talent in Tripoli may be better than that in Benghazi so the TNC should merge, not lose it, and avoid unnecessary bureaucratic changes.  The TNC should lead and adapt not simply remove and replace, aiming for a swift reconciliation and reintegration of the Libyan people.

Beyond Libya, coalition nations should prepare for dealing with a humanitarian crisis without anticipating or generating one.  Libya may take time to become a strong state but nations must not create a new dependency.  Iraq and Afghanistan were eviscerated by enduring war, political strife, and economic ruin, Libya is not and any post-conflict plan for Libya must be shaped accordingly.  And if UN peacekeepers are ultimately needed to provide temporary stability they should come from Arabic, Muslim or African states, with Nato’s role limited to enabling their rapid deployment.

The UK has an important part to play in helping Libya achieve a stable and peaceful future.  But so do many other nations, some not involved in the current conflict.  Our government should beware of over-committing itself, especially when it has played a major role thus far and the UK seemingly has the skills and experience to make an informed contribution.  Yet in post-Gaddafi Libya, Britain ought to do what it should, not what it could.  Knowing when to do less is proper government.


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