Libya: We Came, We Saw, They Died

By Chris Burrows

Photograph of Libyan casualties by CNN

Photograph of Libyan casualties by CNN

Note: The following is the First Part of a two-part series discussing the effects of Western intervention in Libya.

“Nearly three and a half years after Libyan rebels and a NATO air campaign overthrew Muammar al-Qaddafi, the cohesive political entity known as Libya doesn’t exist,” writes The Atlantic’s Frederic Wehrey. Libya is a country divided in two. On one side are the forces of Operation Dignity, a mainly moderate secular group led by ex-Gaddafi officer General Khalifa Hifter, a man with deep ties to the US and to the CIA in particular. According to a 1991 New York Times article, Hifter and is men were “trained by American intelligence officials in sabotage and other guerrilla skills, officials said, at a base near Ndjamena, the Chadian capital. The plan to use the exiles fit neatly into the Reagan Administration’s eagerness to topple Colonel Qaddafi.” When that plan fell through, Hifter made his way to the US, settling down in a little known suburb of Washington D.C. called Langley, Virginia. Hifter is a man with a personal grudge against Gaddafi ever since he was abandoned by the Libyan leader as a POW during the country’s war against Chad. It seems he has returned or has been returned to Libya for the purpose of bringing order to the scattered fighters combating the Islamist opposition. Operation Dignitity’s enemy is the Libya Dawn coalition, composed of various groups of ex-Jihadist fighters. According to Wehrey, “Dawn has forged a tactical alliance with a coalition of Benghazi-based Islamist militias that are battling Hifter’s forces, one of which is the U.S.-designated terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia.” Each side claims its own legitimate government, but only Dignity’s is considered legitimate by the United States. In addition, IS militants are increasingly using the area as a base of operations, as was evidenced so strikingly by the group’s latest cinematic opus.

This is the aftermath of the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, which lasted from 1967 until 2011. An event that was hailed as a triumph of democracy and an exemplary use of humanitarian intervention. The New York Times itself proclaimed this great Western humanitarian victory on its front page for August 28, 2011 with an article entitled, “U.S. Tactics in Libya May be Model for Other Efforts”. Perhaps the people of Libya would disagree. Especially, perhaps the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians recently beheaded by IS militants in Libya whose blood turned the waves of the Mediterranean sea crimson.

Prior to this collapse, Libya was known as the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. In the year of its independence, 1951, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world, with a substantial amount of the population still living in tents. By 2011, according to the BBC, illiteracy and homelessness were almost wiped out. The BBC also added that

“Women in Libya are free to work and to dress as they like, subject to family constraints.                         Life expectancy is in the seventies. And per capita income – while not as high as could be       expected given Libya’s oil wealth and relatively small population of 6.5m – is estimated at             $12,000 (£9,000), according to the World Bank.”

Libya was the most prosperous state in Africa on the eve of the revolution. It is now a failed state.

This tragic reversal is made all the more incredible by the degree to which the entire issue has seemingly been forgotten in the United States apart from a periodic revival of investigations into the September, 11 attacks on the US Embassy in Benghazi for political propaganda purposes. Journalistic interest into the region seems non-existent. It seems ages ago that the United States and NATO began their campaign of launching airstrikes in Libya with the professed goal being one of humanitarian intervention, namely of preventing the mass slaughter of civilians that Obama and others said would occur if pro-Gaddafi forces were allowed to take the last rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Under this justification NATO effectively became the air force of the rebel movement, targeting locations important to the regime and effectively swinging the conflict in the rebels’ favor. Prior to NATO’s intervention rebel forces were on the run. By March of 2011, Gaddafi had regained control over most of Libya with a total death toll of between 1,000-2,000 which included soldiers, rebels and civilians. Western leaders warned of an impending massacre that would occur in Benghazi, however they offered no proof for this claim. In retrospect, the justification for NATO’s air war seems increasingly flimsy. This has been noted by Alan Kuperman who writes that,

“Qaddafi did not perpetrate a ‘bloodbath’ in any of the cities that his forces recaptured                 from rebels prior to NATO intervention—including Ajdabiya, Bani Walid, Brega, Ras               Lanuf, Zawiya, and much of Misurata—so there was virtually no risk of such an outcome            if he had been permitted to recapture the last rebel stronghold of Benghazi.”

Pro-Gaddafi forces

“responded to the rebels militarily but never intentionally targeted civilians or resorted to                         ‘indiscriminate’ force, as Western media claimed. Early press accounts exaggerated the death toll by a factor of ten, citing “more than 2,000 deaths” in Benghazi during the                       initial days of the uprising, whereas Human Rights Watch (HRW) later documented only              233 deaths across all of Libya in that period.”

He concludes that the “conventional wisdom is also wrong in asserting that NATO’s main goal in Libya was to protect civilians. Evidence reveals that NATO’s primary aim was to overthrow Qaddafi’s regime, even at the expense of increasing the harm to Libyans.” Peace proposals were repeatedly scuttled as the United States and NATO chose instead to continue to prosecute a war which to this day continues to kill the very people that we had such a “responsibility to protect”.

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