Seven Months in Libya: A Reconsideration of Canada’s Endeavor in Libya

The global intervention in Libya has been characterized by most as being a failure. I myself was too young to truly recall the incident beyond that a political figure had been removed from power in an African country. Most everyone seems to regard it as a failure and, after researching the event more in-depth, I agree with their assertions that the Libyan intervention by Canada and global international institutions had, for the most part, the best of intentions at heart, yet simply was unable to create a democracy or a well-functioning government in the aftermath of the civil war and the removal of a dictator from power. In considering Canada’s contributions to the mission, it is plain to see that the nation was highly capable of taking part in such a military operation, but simply was left out of the planning process partially due to pressuring domestic issues and because the Canadians were not seen as an integral part of the mission.

In 2011, in response to various protests that occurred throughout the Middle East and North Africa (some of which led to the deposing of such rulers as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt), the Libyan people began protesting as well against their leader, the long-ruling Muammar al-Gaddafi. In response to the jailing of a prominent civil rights lawyer, many rallies were held, in which Gaddafi ordered military troops to disperse crowds with rubber bullets and water cannons. When the revolution began securing mass population centers like Benghazi and Tripoli, Gaddafi cut off outside communication and ordered his troops, loyalist groups, and mercenaries to quiet protestors by lethal ways. The protests had now become a civil war within Libya, with the casualties on both sides being incalculable and most of the official government agencies seeming to ally themselves with the protestors. 

International outcry against Gaddafi was visceral, at first with the reports about Gaddafi’s brutal treatment of peaceful protestors and his usage of airstrikes against armed rebellions which undoubtedly killed innocents indiscriminately. In response, the United Nations, “passed a resolution…that authorized military intervention in Libya,”. The U.S. and the Obama administration, in the words of one Brookings Institution research fellow, “there were two options for military action: a no-fly zone (which, on its own, wouldn’t do much to stop Qaddafi’s tanks) or a broader resolution that would allow the US and its allies to take further measures, including establishing what amounted to a floating no-drive zone around rebel forces. The president went with the latter option,”. 

On March 19, a little over a month before the beginning of the civil war, “a coalition of U.S. and European forces with warplanes and cruise missiles attacked targets in Libya in an effort to disable Libya’s air force and air defense systems so that the UN-authorized no-fly zone could be imposed…Emboldened by the air strikes, rebel forces once again launched an offensive to challenge pro-Qaddafi forces’ hold on the oil centres on the coast…As the fighting progressed, it began to appear that, even with NATO attacks on pro-Qaddafi forces, the Libyan rebels—a poorly armed and disorganized force with little military training—would be unable to oust Qaddafi or achieve decisive successes against Qaddafi’s professional troops,”. While a stalemate between the pro-Gaddafi forces and the rebels lasted throughout the summer of 2011, the rebels eventually gained Tripoli and created their own government. Sometime later, Gaddafi was brutally killed in Sirte, one of the last pro-Gaddafi cities.

While the military operation itself was a success (in that the rebels attained the upper hand and that Gaddafi was removed from power) and attained the goals that Obama enumerated before engaging in the North African country, the aftermath has been chaotic and has not formed a democracy in any measurable way. In the aftermath of the operation, the newly formed government had to deal with a pro-Gaddafi insurgency that continued with Gaddafi’s death. As well, there were many militias that assisted in the ousting of Gaddafi and his supporters with differing views on politics and governments and many of these did not disband nor desire to come under governmental authority. This, in turn, led to another civil war that began in 2014 over what were essentially factional disputes with sections of ISIS and other terrorist groups participating in the fighting and gaining a foothold for some time. President Obama has even stated that, “failing to plan for the day after, what I think was the right thing to do, in intervening in Libya [was my worst mistake],” which, based on the evidence, it does seem to be that the aftermath of what occurred after the Libyan Civil War and removal of Gaddafi was poorly developed and executed. 

Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a former U.S. Army officer, exceptionally describes the downfall in Libya, writing, “Getting rid of the dictator turned out to be the easy part. An intervention justified by the imperative of protecting innocents and averting instability produced the precise opposite of the results intended. Once Gaddafi was gone, the factions that had joined together to overthrow him turned on one another. A country once defined by its leader’s zany antics now became synonymous with outright anarchy. The state ceased to function,”.

The mission in Libya went well, with a dictator being removed from power and the country being handed back to the people with elections being arranged and their representatives being chosen. However, the aftermath of the operation was a disaster and what should have been considered (what the country would look like after, how can NATO or the UN better assist in bringing that about) was not. Now, the country is engaged in a civil war and, as Bacevich notes, “for the indefinite future,”. Judging the mission by the standards Obama mentioned (“to save the lives of peaceful, pro-democracy protestors who found themselves the target of a crackdown by Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi”), then I feel that Obama was successful in saving the lives of those he mentioned, however, he failed in bringing about or assisting to bring about the democracy those whose lives U.S. intervention saved had desired.

From a Canadian standpoint, the primary goal of the operation was not to bring about peace towards a nation in need nor take part in an operation to depose a dictator, but rather “to carry favor with the Americans and to enhance Canada’s “influence” in NATO” as so expertly explained in Craig Martin’s piece for HuffPost. While surely Canada did desire to take part in a military operation that, ideally, would have produced profitable results for the North African country, it seems that the country’s only true goal in taking part in this operation was to better improve their relationships with international institutions and their allies abroad. Considering the fact that the Canadian military sacrificed few personnel, equipment, and sea/air/landcraft in the operation overall, this endeavor probably did work out for the best for the Canadian government and military. However, had the operation in Libya become a fiasco like what was seen in Iraq, then the Canadians would be hard pressed to try and extricate themselves from the conflict. 

Simply stated, the global community after the toppling should have invested time in nation-building. However, politically in the United States, it would have killed Obama’s chances at re-election probably. In a Canadian public opinion poll, 41% thought the West was right to take part in Libya while 33% believed the mission was wrong, with 25% being unsure. Becoming involved in such a large-scale, nation-building operation with military advisors on the ground would have resulted in fearful comparisons to both Vietnam and the beginning of the Iraq War. The Iraq War too was not even concluded yet (it would officially end in December of 2011) and many of those running on the Republican side would have used that action to criticize him going into the election. 

Despite the political costs, an intervention plan could have worked. However, it would need to be constructed effectively and be extremely well-planned, with all sides and differing viewpoints considered and listened to and a clear exit strategy when it would be apparent that things either were not working as well as intended or were otherwise going to be costly. It would need to be built upon the successes of previous COIN operations, like how the Peruvian government dealt with Abimael Guzmán’s Shining Path movement in 1992 or how the British intervened in Sierra Leone from the 1990’s to 2000.

Unlike other nations and institutions at the time, though, the Canadian military seemed proactive in recognizing that a more effective nation-building technique was required for Libya. In an article for the Canadian newspaper the Ottawa Citizen, “Canadian military intelligence officers predicted in 2011 that Libya could descend into a lengthy civil war if foreign countries provided assistance to rebels opposing the country’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi”. 

Perhaps had the Canadian government been more involved in the overall planning phase instead of being relegated to the sidelines, the countries and international institutions involved may have become more recognizant of the necessary steps needed to put in place a functioning and democratically recognized government instead of having the country devolve into a civil war.

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