The War Journal: Challenges to Libya After Gaddafi
As of writing, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi is teetering on the edge of defeat in Tripoli. His two eldest sons, the pugnacious and arrogant Saif al-Islam and his brother Muhammad, have been taken into custody by the Libyan rebel forces of the National Transitional Council, and his men are holed up in small pockets of resistance in various districts in Tripoli. By and large, the battle is won, and Gaddafi’s tyrannical regime is at an end although no one can say the challenges facing Libya have vanished.
Although Gaddafi and a few of his most senior men are still at large, NTC forces are engaged in heavy fighting in and around Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound. Whilst it is clear Gaddafi’s regime has certainly crumbled, the first challenge to Libya is to apprehend their long time dictator. Only once Bab al-Aziziya falls will we know if Gaddafi will stay true to his word of staying in Tripoli until the bitter end, or if he has fled. If he has fled, he could conceivably gather what scant loyal forces he has left and engage in a guerrilla struggle against the new Libyan government.
This is extremely unlikely, as he has been cut off from his sources of finance and the only place open for him to launch his attacks from will be the deserts of Libya and not the towns and cities as the vast majority of the population would not support him. As Che Guevara found out in Bolivia, unless the people are with you, guerrilla warfare becomes exponentially more dangerous for the guerrillas themselves. Given this strategically impossible task, and the unlikelihood of external support to a Gaddafi government-in-exile, we can expect Gaddafi either to be holed up in his compound or else fleeing for his life.
The next key issue that Libyans must address is the trial for Gaddafi, his sons, and his closest aides who have been involved in and directly complicit with his crimes against the Libyan people. The International Criminal Courts at The Hague are apparently in talks to take Saif al-Islam into custody and to try him themselves. However, many would see this as a monumental injustice to those Libyans who had bled, fought, and died to see their country finally free of Gaddafi and his regime.
Some few, mainly Western political commentators, have rightly said that Gaddafi’s crimes have extended beyond Libya’s borders and have hurt citizens of other states. While this is not in doubt, it is also beyond doubt that Gaddafi’s crimes were focused on and mainly affected his own people. On this basis, Gaddafi and his accomplices should be tried for murder, genocide, corruption, embezzlement and treason against the Libyan people by Libyan law. Once the Libyans are finished trying them publicly, then the ICC can have their turn, although Libyan law will almost assuredly guarantee the death sentence to Gaddafi and many of his aides. But this should be a matter for the Libyan people to decide, and not the ICC or NATO.
Clearly a more important problem to address for the long term health of the new Libyan state is that of its governance. The NTC must begin arrangements as soon as possible for a multi-party democratic election process supervised by various international monitors and not just the US and the EU, but states like Turkey too. This is to minimise the risk of foreign governments with an interest in who “wins” in Libya after Gaddafi taking advantage of ties forged during the NATO intervention. Apart from this, it will also make elections more secure and transparent, and allow Libyans to transition into a peaceful civil state, society, and government.
Linking to the aforementioned issue is that of the intervention of NATO states and the US itself. Although the destruction of Gaddafi’s regime is great news, people must be realistic that this would not have occurred so fast, or possibly not even at all, were it not for international military intervention. Gaddafi had superior air power, not to mention significantly more armour, better trained infantry, a navy, and on top of that the finances to keep his entire war machine well paid for. Had the US, EU, and other actors not frozen his assets and had NATO not destroyed his air force, the NTC forces would have been receiving a bloody aerial drubbing that could have crushed their resistance in short order.
Obviously, this does nothing to belittle the courage and sacrifice of the average Libyan man who made a stand, took up arms, and bravely fought and died to see his country free of a tyrant. But no matter how brave you air, an AK-47 is still no match for a warplane. NATO destroyed not only Gaddafi’s air force, but also his air defences that were arguably not up to the task of bothering NATO air power anyway. Before people start applauding the destruction of Gaddafi’s war machines, they should stop and think that all this military equipment is the property of the Libyan state.
NATO could have smashed his air force and bombed what land targets were necessary, but they went that extra mile. Why? Without sounding too conspiratorial, it is basically a financial transaction. Libya is an oil rich country with large borders to defend with a comparatively small population of a little over 5 million. The US and other Western powers who were ostensibly aiding the Libyan rebels can now offer the services of their own military-industrial complex to refurbish destroyed Libyan anti-air surveillance, surface-to-air missile systems, and other defence infrastructure.
They can also modernise the Libyan military by reequipping them with Western made warplanes and tanks, as well as using Western contractors to rebuild damaged cities and modernise their civil development plans by utilising a John Perkins “economic hit man” style deal (his informative book about how the US made states economically and politically dependent upon them can be bought HERE). Libya will take loans from the IMF, USAID and other programmes earmarked for development funds, and they will pay back these loans via oil sales as well as by utilising Western contractors. This type of political and economic ensnarement is almost as dangerous in the long term as Gaddafi was in the short term.
It is critical for Libyan officials as well as the Libyan people to recognise this subtle threat to their sovereignty. They should thank NATO for their help in “furthering the cause of democracy” and then make sure that they are not made to feel obliged to sign away their oil and the refurbishment of their infrastructure and armed forces so easily. Libyan contractors should be used were possible, and the military should be able to decide on a range of armaments from a variety of countries to suit the needs and budget, essentially “tank shopping”. After all, didn’t Western nations intervene for humanitarian reasons? If so, then let them be human enough to allow the Libyan people to make their own political and economic decisions without necessarily cashing in, especially during this tough financial climate.
Tallha is the founder, editor and primary author of The War Journal. He was born and raised in the United Kingdom to Iraqi parents and is a graduate of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.