Editorial, The Guardian
23 February 2016
Five years after the start of the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is fast becoming the new frontier of the western war against Islamic State. This turn of events has now become clear, after the US recently carried out airstrikes against the Jihadi group which has taken control of large swaths of Libya’s coastline and targeted the country’s oil facilities. US warplanes struck an Isis training camp in Sabratha, north-western Libya, last Friday, killing dozens of militants, according to the Pentagon. US officials said the operation targeted a Tunisian operative responsible for terrorist attacks against tourists in Tunisia in 2015, including the assault on a beach resort in Sousse in which 38 people died, among them 30 Britons. What is much less clear is how this strategy will play out, and how it can be sustained in the absence of a national unity government in Libya able to establish its legitimacy over a war-ravaged country.
The US and its allies have grown increasingly worried about the expansion of Isis in Libya, where the insurgency has an estimated force of 6,500 fighters. Despite the messy aftermath of the west’s move against Gaddafi in 2011, there are signs that several European states are contemplating a fresh military intervention in Libya, alongside the Americans, with the aim of preventing Isis from establishing a launch pad for more attacks in Europe and in North Africa. But although such plans seem to be under consideration in Rome, Paris and London, no decision has been taken – nor is there any clarity as to whether this would be limited to an air campaign, or involve ground forces. On Tuesday, Italy announced it had authorised the US air force to use a base in Sicily to carry out drone strikes.
One problem is that any international military operation would require a clear legal basis. With a UN mandate highly unlikely at this point – because that would require Russia’s approval – there would need to be an official request from Libyan authorities themselves. But there is no agreement in Libya on who the government is. UN mediation efforts have failed, so far, to produce an agreement between factions. Libya’s territory has been carved up by two competing sets of local governments and parliaments – one based in the capital, Tripoli, and the other, which the international community recognises, in the eastern city of Tobruk. The resulting chaos has created a vacuum which Isis has stepped into.
American officials say last Friday’s airstrikes were not the beginning of a new international air campaign. But that may perhaps be only a question of time. There is no doubt that Libya must be prevented from becoming a springboard for Isis. The consequences of that for the whole region, and for Europe, would be devastating – not least because Libya has been a major route for refugees and migrants. But the prospect of a new “war on terror” in that part of Africa surely deserves more public debate than is currently happening.
The intervention of 2011 was purportedly aimed at Gaddafi’s open threats to carry out what sounded like a massacre in Benghazi. But there was a wider idea too: to protect whatever hopes existed for the Arab spring – including in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt. Since then, Egypt has fallen back into military dictatorship, and Tunisia’s democracy struggles on. Some will now see Libya’s slide into warlordism as the result of nothing but Gaddafi’s overthrow and the misguided intervention of 2011. But that narrative overlooks something important. Libya had no meaningful, functioning state institutions even under Gaddafi – only a tyrant’s rule.
Libya’s disintegration has been largely due to a lack of international focus and of diplomatic follow-up after 2011. UN-sponsored stabilisation efforts were dismally insufficient. Libya is today a mess that the west cannot, and should not, turn its eyes away from. But getting the policy right will require honest and open debate.