The country's decade of conflict shows that liberal good intentions only go so far
It’s a strange feeling to measure the passage of your life in other people’s wars. A decade ago, I travelled to Libya as a rookie freelance reporter to cover the progress of the revolution against Gaddafi, an uprising whose success was entirely dependent on the NATO-led intervention initiated exactly 10 years ago. The sense of optimism was infectious, as young Libyans demonstrated in the streets, bedecked the revolutionary capital of Benghazi with their artwork, and dreamed of a brighter future.
In the besieged Western Libyan city of Misrata, I lived with rebels in their command centre as they took their city, street by street, from Gaddafi’s government forces. I followed Misrata’s fighters as they fought their way towards Tripoli through the vast olive groves of Dafniya, taking heavy casualties in bitter trench warfare. In Tripoli, after the dictator’s fall, I covered the breakout of fighting between the victorious militias as they battled to divide the spoils. That was the first warning sign that the fruits of victory would not be a political renaissance, but chaos and misery.
Instead of becoming the prosperous, stable oil-exporting state Libyans hoped for, the country plunged into an anarchic decade of conflict as warring militias battled for control. The country’s east fell under the sway of the autocratic general Khalifa Haftar, who rose to power by crushing the alliance of jihadist militias, including the Islamic State, which had seized control of much of Cyrenaica. The rival government in Tripoli struggled to tame the militias who competed for control of both the city’s streets and the country’s oil economy. The country’s desert south has been scarred by inter-ethnic conflict between Arabs, Tuaregs and Tebu tribesmen, a murky and confusing war almost completely ignored by the outside world.
The Misratan rebel commander I lived with, Salah Badi, is now an internationally-sanctioned war criminal. The young Libyans I befriended, my translators and drivers, now find themselves on opposing sides, some fighting in Haftar’s security forces, others supporting the Misratan city state acting as Tripoli’s military guarantor.
No wonder the NATO intervention has been claimed, as Crisis Group’s Richard Gowan terms it, as “simultaneously the high point and death knell of humanitarian interventionism.” With the collapse of Gaddafi’s army, his Tuareg mercenaries looted vast stockpiles of weapons and munitions before returning home to Mali, initiating a civil war which worsens every day, dragging in French and European forces — including our own — in a bloody conflict with no realistic prospect of victory.
With Gaddafi gone, the Libyan coast became the hub for sub-Saharan migration to Europe, destabilising Italian politics, and leading to the revival of slavery in Libya for the first time in a century.
Infuriated by the promised limited humanitarian intervention evolving into a close air support campaign to overthrow Gaddafi, Putin doubled down on support for Assad in the Syrian conflict which followed on its heels. This support dashed rebel hopes that they might win a Western intervention of their own. Russian, Turkish and Emirati meddling in Libya’s civil war has turned the country into the playground of proxy militias, fuelling a war that might otherwise have burned out.
Now the Biden administration has promised that it “will not promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force,” because “however well-intentioned, [these tactics] haven’t worked.”
Libya’s decade of conflict, hopefully now concluding with the formation of a new national unity government, helped convince Western leaders that liberal good intentions only go so far. Whatever happens next in Libya will be up to Libyans to decide: we can only hope they finally manage to create the better future that has eluded them so far.