Should a US-led coalition intervene in Libya, with force, for the second time in five years?
This week, I was lucky enough to appear before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, alongside Professor Malcolm Chalmers from RUSI, and Chris Stephen, Libya correspondent at the Guardian. Here are some brief thoughts, building on our discussion.
The bottom line, up front: there is a case for a limited and focussed campaign to check the Islamic State’s expansion in the country, to fit the broader strategy of containment. The UK and the international community have real (though limited) interests in doing so.
At the same time, our first responsibility in conducting a military campaign is to ‘do no harm’ – or at least do minimal harm – to that country’s effort to establish a constitutional government, and to prevent sliding into anarchy. Libya’s destiny is primarily a matter for Libyans. Our job is to check IS’ expansion without making Libyans’ job harder.
Libya today is almost a shattered state. It is fragmented between rival factions (and factions within factions) and rival parliaments. Oil production – its main source of wealth -has plummeted badly since 2011. In this atomised society, there is even more than one institution that calls itself the Libyan National Army. If that isn’t bad enough, Libya is also an arena for Gulf Arab rivalries. There is currently a painstaking effort to pull together a unity government of ‘National Accord’, but the details are dividing Libyans and the process appears fragile.
Beyond compassion, why should we care? The Islamic State has a foothold there. It is expanding its presence. These Islamist zealots believe in the coming apocalypse and think Al Qaeda is too soft. But they are also opportunistic, exploiting divisions, making practical alliances and absorbing former rivals where they can. IS has also seized the overthrown dictator Colonel Gaddafi’s coastal home town of Sirte, and a stretch of territory on either side. Somewhere, his ghost is laughing.
This raises two fears. One, that the Islamic State if left unchecked could use the country as a sanctuary, and as a staging post for more terrorism abroad. In the words of Libya’s ambassador to the UAE, might this turn Libya into IS’ ‘gas station, ATM and airport?’
Secondly, there are broader dangers. Further destabilisation could drive yet more people to flee North Africa into Southern Europe, with all the upheaval this brings. The security interests of the Medieterranean world and beyond are at stake.
With IS closing in on the country’s oil terminals and facilities, the very survival of the Libyan economy could be jeopardised. We can’t know exactly what more deterioation could bring in its wake. But we aren’t keen to run the experiment.
Before judging how to address the problem, a tiny note to liberal interventionists and R2P advocates. This was precisely the kind of chaos that the ‘something must be done’ faction confidently forecast would happen if we didn’t join the hostilities in 2011. If this ‘textbook’ ‘model intervention’, this exercise in ‘smart power at its best’ shows one thing, it is the lethality of untempered good intentions, especially when accompanied by swagger. President Obama reportedly was hesitant about the campaign in 2011. Evidently, with good reason.
History, however, happened. Judging on what we can know, now intervention in some form looks likely. Haunted by both the failures of intervention, and the failures of non-intervention, governments are understandably uncertain not whether but when and how to step in.
So what is the nature of the problem? Firstly, we should not interpret the emergence of IS in Libya as the sign of a resurgent, metastasising movement that poses a dire threat to our very existence.
On the contrary, IS raises its flag in Libya because it is suffering from the cumulative pressure that the US and its allies and other adversaries are applying on many fronts. IS is a protostate, as well as a terrorist movement, that seeks to rule territory and extract resources severely to fund its operations. Incrementally, gradually, frustratingly slowly, the current containment strategy is successfully strangling it.
Consider the indicators over the past year. IS’ expansion in its heartland ‘caliphate’ territory has been curbed. Airstrikes and ground operations have starved it of spectacular military victories to follow its most galvanising conquest, of Mosul in 2014. It has been evicted from Ramadi, Tikrit, and Baiji. This matters, because IS relies upon the mystique of world-historical victories to keep attracting recruits and edge ahead within the competitive jihadi marketplace. Slowly, combined pressure traps it within a ‘hammer and anvil’ dilemma. IS fighters cannot easily mass to mount offensive operations, as they will present large targets. But if they disperse for security, their effectiveness as a fighting force is weakened.
For those who fall under its rule, and those who migrate to join the show, IS offers a harsh purital rule and a high-taxing, extractive regime that bleeds dry the land it fights to defend. A flight of people and capital will probably follow. Defections are reportedly rising, though evidence is patchy. There are greater restrictions now from Turkey on the flow of fighters into Syria. Airstrikes and interdiction have badly damaged IS’ oil business and depleted its revenue. Only last month, as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights revealed, IS halved its jihadis’ salaries, its diminishing resources being split between fighting and governing. Even its own public preachments suggest that the tide is turning: IS’ own Media Centre has shifted its theme from triumph to endurance in the face of affliction.
This does not preclude more theatrical terrorist attacks like Paris. But those strikes too are a response to increasing adversity, not a symptom of a jihadi juggernaut. Libya is a concern to address. But for countries like the UK, the sky is not falling.
How, then, to intervene sensibly? The nature of the problem here is the difficult symbiosis between waging an effective military campaign to disrupt IS, while at the same time working hard to prevent the campaign accelerating the country’s unravelling.
Any prudent intervention should steer clear of the twin temptations of doing nothing or ambitously trying to fix the country. We can’t afford, and don’t have the political will, to insert a large stabilisation force into the country. Going by the rough rule of thumb in counterinsurgency, that an occupier needs 20 troops for every 1000 people, that would require 130,000 troops, an order of magnitude that is too costly and would probably generate resistance. We are talking about checking the advance of around 5-6000 IS fighters. Our society cannot continue fighting intensive large-scale COIN campaigns, and neither can our reduced and stretched armed forces. A ‘rollback’ strategy, or an effort to foist one ‘strongman’ on the country, would be a cure worse than the disease.
So a more limited campaign of selective airstrikes and advisory/training missions, married with special forces and working with locals is the most viable route. The trouble lies in the ‘misalignment problem‘, the tendency for international forces and their hosts to have conflicting interests as well as common ones. Selecting worthy partners for assistance carries the risk of unintentionally fuelling conflict, by empowering some at others’ expense, driving fresh antagonism, undermining the effort at political reconcilation, and implicating the West with bad governance into the bargain.
Libyans like all of us are political, and increasing their capacity to govern and fight technically does not address the political problem, that others sometimes use the resources and capabilities outside powers give them for purposes we don’t like. We can’t control much of Libyan politics, but we can and should work hard to be discriminate. If this means taking more time and maintaining strong restrictions on airstrikes, then this is worth it. There are some practical steps that intervening powers can take, to avoid unwittingly exacerbating problems from economic collapse to the flight of people, creating a fertile ground for IS to recruit.
This means we need to work harder to insure against unintended consequences. An intensive diplomatic effort to get Gulf partners behind the unity government process is one move worth trying. Another is establishing coordinating mechanisms like joint command centres for intelligence collection and battlefield coordination for a better chance of avoiding entanglement in other conflicts, and some conditionality on assistance to armed groups. Furthermore, the focus ought to lie on a specific centre of gravity rather than on general stabilisation, namely the protection of oil production capacity. To give the creation of a new political settlement a chance means preventing IS doing the one thing that could destroy the economy and thereby undermine the legitimacy of any new order. The Islamic State is a real thing that threatens the country. It is also, potentially, a wonderful excuse for opportunists on the ground to abuse.
Distance itself counts. Libya’s geography limits the direct threat IS can pose and presents it with some notable disadvantages. It would be difficult for IS to export high volumes of oil, which would be vulnerable to interception at sea. Hostile factions and militias abound. There aren’t the same sectarian rivalries that IS can expoit in the Middle East. And IS’ setback last year in Derna could be the pattern of things to come, expansion followed by severe misrule, followed by resistance and revolt. In the meantime, European states can work harder to improve intelligence and counter-terrorist co-ordination, putting more barriers in the spaces in between.
The hardest part of this debate lies not in Libya, but domestically. There is a bipolar quality to foreign policy debate on both sides of the Atlantic. In recent times, public debate has lurched from ignoring mounting problems in Libya, to overreacting and branding dangerous situations as first-order ‘existential’ or ‘mortal’ threats. Containment may be the most sound strategy, but another terrorist attack at home could bait a reckless counter-reaction. Precisely at the time where sustained pressure is working, a little proportion is due.
There is a case for intervention, but one more mindful of a possibility than recent Strategic Reviews, that we may wish to act abroad in the name of the ‘golden thread’ of good governance, stability and development. But in acting to bring order, we can unwittingly be agents of chaos.
Intervention in Libya should focus on achievable goals, concentrating on what our troops are actually excellent at doing: helping others in fighting, capturing and holding ground. This is not a grand ‘solution’ – that is not in our gift – but part of a long-term strategy to contain the Islamic State while it slowly destroys itself. This would serve our security interests, while giving Libyans a chance to breathe and negotiate their own political future.