Unaccountable, contradictory and chaotic – the Tory government and Libya

By Stephen Bell

On the 14 September, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) published its report, ‘Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options’. Published immediately after David Cameron’s retirement from Parliament, the reception given to the report concentrated on his culpability for the political and economic collapse in Libya. But this convenient response ignored how deeply compromised the British government’s intervention actually is. That policy continues to evade parliamentary control; involves fighting on both sides of a civil war, and adds to the chaos facing the people of Libya.

The report is completely scathing about the rush to war and its conduct. The necessity for intervention given to Parliament in 2011 was the immediate need to protect civilians. The intelligence offered to support this receives short shrift. ‘Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence’ (FAC report p.14). And further, ‘Muammar Gaddafi’s actions in February and March 2011 demonstrated an appreciation of the delicate tribal and regional nature of Libya that was absent in UK policy making. In particular, his forces did not take violent retribution against civilians in towns and cities on the road to Benghazi’ (FAC report p.13).

Of course, this initial justification was overridden by the Tory-led Coalition government’s military moves to regime change, in alliance with the French government, and with the logistical support of the US government. The fact that this was illegal and never came before Parliament merely highlights how unrestrained was the belligerence of imperialism at the time.

The report goes on to explain how reservations about the character of the ‘rebels’ were ignored. ‘Libyan connections with transnational militant extremist groups were known before 2011, because many Libyans had participated in the Iraq insurgency and in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda’ (FAC report p.13). And further, ‘On a per capita basis Libya provided more foreign fighters to the Iraq insurgency than any other part of the Arab world’ (FAC report, note, P.13). But for the intervention these were the ground troops of regime change.

The addiction of British politicians to ‘humanitarian intervention’ resulted in another disaster for that part of humanity on the receiving end. Before the intervention in 2010, Libya had an economy which generated $75bn GDP, with an average per capita income of $12,250. Libyan government investment policy meant that, according to the UN Human Development Report 2010, it was the 53rd most advanced country in the world, and the most advanced country in Africa. After the intervention, in 2014, Libya generated $41bn of GDP, with average annual per capita income having fallen to $7,820. Libya now ranks at the 94th most advanced country in the UN index.

The UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that in 2016, out of a total Libyan population of 6.3 million, 3 million have been impacted by the armed conflict and instability, with 2.4 million requiring protection and some form of humanitarian assistance. 400,000 people have been internally displaced, and basic services such as power and fuel are disrupted. All this, five years after the British/French ‘liberation’ of the country. A country now so free that the FAC was unable to send a delegation to visit ‘due to the collapse of internal security and the rule of law’ (FAC report p.9).

Yet the FAC outlines a future policy for Britain of unwarranted conviction, given this sad legacy. We are told that support for the Government of National Accord (GNA) is ‘the only game in town’ and that at some point British forces can be deployed to train up the Libyan army and security forces. The FAC omits to outline how current British policy is in conflict with the report’s narrow opinion. Missing the opportunity to trace the current UK intervention means that the FAC has failed to highlight how the British government is now supporting both sides in the civil war.

The official end to the war was declared by the National transitional Council on 23 October 2011, with NATO’s Operation Unified Protector ending on 31 October 2011. Since that time the country has fragmented under a variety of attempts to forge a central government. A formula was established between some of the contending factions in December 2015 to establish the GNA. This was not agreed by supporters of the House of Representatives (HOR) in the east of the country. Nor did the GNA represent many of the local militias inside the country. But for imperialism, the GNA offered a route to creating some sort of allied regime. As a consequence a new, and mostly covert, intervention began.

On 12 March 2016, having been shipped in, the GNA assumed office. A story appeared in the international media about an Italian led force of 6,000 troops being assembled to support the GNA, including 1,000 British troops. This was denied by the UK government, and the GNA was reported as saying it didn’t require foreign troops.

But the British intervention was made public at the end of March in a report of a meeting, in January 2016, between King Abdullah of Jordan and US Congressional leaders. At that meeting the King revealed that Britain had recruited Jordanian special forces to be embedded with British special forces inside Libya.

In May, the Daily Telegraph carried reports of a SAS engagement inside Libya. Ministers do not comment on special forces’ engagements, or reports of same. But Phillip Hammond, Foreign Secretary at the time, said that Britain had not ruled out sending troops to Libya.

In June, reports appeared in the international media, that British forces were based inside a French led multinational military operations centre in Benghazi, supporting Libyan General Khalifa Hafter, who is backed by the HOR. The centre had been set up in December, and begun operations in February. It operates drones. It included 40 French personnel, 40 Italian soldiers, 10 Jordanian soldiers, and 15 British soldiers, the latter involved in ‘data collection’. No details were available, but US marines and UAE forces were also present.

In July, leaked tapes of air traffic recordings revealed a multinational military operation involving British, French and US forces co-ordinating air strikes in support of General Hafter in his battle with local militia near Benghazi. These militias were not aligned to ISIS, and in fact had been responsible for driving ISIS out of Derna. In response, a Ministry of Defence spokesperson said that Britain had not undertaken air strikes over Libya, but stated that the ‘RAF regularly facilitates visits by diplomatic and military advisors to Libya’.

At the end of July, the Washington Post reported on the involvement of US Special Operations troops in support of GNA forces battling ISIS in Sirte. The report indicated that British personnel had been seen several times inside Sirte. On 2 August President Obama confirmed that there were US air strikes in support of the GNA.

In early September, further air traffic control tapes revealed that UAE pilots were involved in air strikes in support of Hafter. The tapes included the voices of British, French and US pilots and personnel. There were many references to the NATO base on the island of Chania in Greece.

The involvement of British armed forces in the military activity of both the GNA and HOR was not traced by the FAC report. But it clearly demonstrates that British policy has become incoherent, and is yet another factor in the fragmentation of Libya.

The forces involved in the GNA and HOR have fought an intermittent civil war since 2014. In early September, General Hafter’s forces took control of four major oil ports in the east of the country. These had previously been under the control of a local militia, led by Ibrahim Jadhran. Oil exports had been blocked for two and a half years, with an estimated loss of $50bn in revenue for the country. The seizure by Hafter was condemned by the US, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain. Attempts to regain control of two of the ports by GNA forces were defeated. Demonstrations against the GNA were held in Benghazi, Tripoli, Zitan and other towns. These also included support for the oil seizures, and demanding a resumption of oil exports. It would seem that it is far from clear that the GNA will be able to disperse, or incorporate, the HOR and Hafter.

The sorry state of Britain’s Libyan intervention is not just the responsibility of David Cameron. It is also that of the 557 MPs who supported him, the Coalition government, and the present Tory government. Jeremy Corbyn and the anti-war movement have opposed this mess from the beginning. Such a stance is the only way to help the Libyan people.