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Libya: Time to shift from the rhetorical to the practical

Mark Urban | 16:22 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011

While Western politicians discuss options for helping the Libyan resistance, Gaddafi loyalists are busy re-taking lost ground.

It is a familiar dilemma for decision makers with echoes of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, and even of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The cynical view is that what we have seen so far has simply been verbal grandstanding by leaders who know there is public alarm at what is happening in Libya, but do not wish to commit themselves to military action there.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy appears to have been playing this game when his people briefed last week that he was proposing air strikes against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

However, those emerging from last Thursday's Nato meeting in Brussels were quite adamant that neither France nor any other ally had proposed air strikes. The story seems to have been nothing more than hot air.

During the Bosnian War of 1992-5 it took years for a position finally to be adopted that Nato should put boots on the ground, and that military action was needed to curb the Bosnian Serbs.

It was such a prolonged, painful, and unedifying saga that it is little wonder that some of the key decision makers who endured it - such as former defence and foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind - are determined to move faster this time.

He has today advocated in the Times newspaper arming the Libyan rebels.

Will that work quickly enough though? When Western countries decided in the 1980s to provide (covertly) anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghan resistance it took the best part of 18 months for the plan to come to fruition.

At one point Britain even flew the Afghans it had selected for training to a Gulf country, where they were taught how to use Blowpipe missiles.

Given the advances achieved by Libyan government forces in the past week, it is obvious that there is not time for that type of assistance. The help has to be given urgently or not at all.

It may be that the best thing the United States and European Union could do would be to aid the rebels by setting up a secure communications network, providing them with intelligence, and encouraging their leaders to think strategically about the defence of Benghazi and other strongholds in eastern Libya.

A handful of liaison teams, comprising no more than a few dozen personnel, would be sufficient for this.

The best prototype for this type of operation would be the clandestine assistance given to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan following 9/11, when teams of CIA and special forces galvanised an offensive against the Taliban that unseated them from power.

Of course the saga of Britain's ill-fated special forces mission to the Libyan rebels shows that such a move would be far from risk free. What is more, the key ingredient that was present after 9/11 - US willingness to risk its people in the field - appears to be absent today.

Even if MI6 and the CIA are still willing to take the risk of travelling into Libya, they would not be able to call upon air strikes in the way that they were in Afghanistan in 2001 - not yet anyway.

Indeed a couple of bolshie Libyan farmers seem to have upset Britain's plan to help the resistance leadership - or its first attempt to do so.

So the options today, like those in the Balkans, are far from simple or risk free. But if they are to have any effect on the outcome in Libya, they need to shift from the rhetorical to the practical within days.


  • Comment number 1.

    Here we go again!
    The "something must be done" Brigade are pushing us to a another unsustainable commiment. a "No-fly zone" would be a costly operation, probably be a failure, Gaddafi would use artillery and armour to destroy the rebels.
    the next step then air strikes followed by ground forces.
    people forget that the Balkans quagmire started with a "No-fly zone" and led to the deployment of a UN force composed of large numbers of British troops, Two large scale air offensives and a full scale NATO "invasion" of Kosovo and confrontation with Russian Troops at Prestina Airfield.
    we have enough on our hands already, we can longer be the "world's policeman".

  • Comment number 2.

    the picture on the ground is not too hopeful for any lasting resistance?

    Libya: Where is America?

    the arabs will procrastinate because they want gaddafi to teach their youth 'a lesson' in what happens when you play for kingdoms and that its not a one way bet?

    the closest to them getting aid from us is a day of prayer?

  • Comment number 3.

    no fly zone by end of march is still 31%

  • Comment number 4.

    the lesson from chilcott is that we need a high threshold to commit to war. And then have a plan for the aftermath with funding in place to deliver that plan through a dedicated minister [or ministry].

    rather than be armchair generals who is actually physically prepared to go to Libya and risk their or their family's life to fight against gaddafi for a nebulous alternative? Then maybe inter muslim rivalry then maybe AQ etc? And have higher taxes to pay for a generational commitment?

    does it matter to the uk if gaddafi and his sons win then spends the next 10 years torturing everyone east of tripoli? regrettable but it doesn't really threaten us except morally but then israel has destroyed our morality a long time ago?

    We have been happy to see and support with arms and recruits [when will cameron ask the israelis for a list of brits fighting in the idf?] a concentration camp in gaza for decades? So Libya is just more of the same?

    Tony Blair has been quiet? No use made of his special friendship with gaddafi?

    when you think about the vested interests against them the rebels are going to need a miracle?

  • Comment number 5.


    I gather doing nothing - once again - is 'not an option'. It takes maturity to do nothing. Tony never learned.


  • Comment number 6.

    the dangerous myth of the 'international community' and UN is that people seem to have this [or one like it] image in their heads?

  • Comment number 7.


    What is Gavin like! He questioned the truthfulness of the Japanese.

    As I remember it - the last time anyone lied about a nuclear leak IT WAS US! But we don't have any truck with torture - official.

  • Comment number 8.

    '7. At 11:16pm on 14 Mar 2011, barriesingleton wrote:

    What is Gavin like! He questioned the truthfulness of the Japanese.'

    Who to trust? Yesterday morning I heard a BBC 'correspondent' allude to the same notion, based on what he'd 'been told' by a few expats, having flown in to er... help?

    On SKY this morning they had their usual 'How bad is it' session with more expats on Skype. One advised something like.. 'The Japanese government and media are working hard together to keep the population calm. The Western media seem to have another agenda'.

    The interviewer and those in the glass room behind clearly didn't have an ear for irony. Or maybe it didn't suit the narrative. After all, they don't live there.

    Maybe it's a cultural thing.

  • Comment number 9.


    Does Britain have a culture that can be described in positive terms?
    I suppose charitable giving qualifies; I just hope it isn't guilt!

    Trouble is, we have GIVEN much of the world our diseases, religion, commerce, deceit, domination, invasion and armaments, over hundreds of years, such that no amount of aid can atone.

    We owe it to the world to LEAVE IT ALONE, and try to put these small islands in some sort of human (humane) order; to evolve a laudable culture, before ever again interfering in other lands from a presumed position of superiority.

    Got that Dave?

  • Comment number 10.


    I have just heard that the Libyan's 'HAVE THE RIGHT TO DEMOCRACY'. Oh good. No doubt we are signed up to that vacuous claptrap?

    I wonder if the English have any similar rights? I hold these things to be self evident:

    1) I have the right to be respected by Westminster (not held in contempt) and the derived right of respect from my MP (not mockery).

    2) I have the right to register ABSTENTION in every election (not to have my MP tell me to spoil my paper).

    3) I have the right to call the Conservative Party to account for a blatant lie, employed in 2010, with the clear intention of 'undue influence' on voters in many constituencies. To this end I demand that the Electoral Commission should do more than just oversee expenditure, and should declare any election in which a party lies, VOID!


  • Comment number 11.

    you can't get the wood y'know....

  • Comment number 12.

    Cameron has done some clever political posturing with his claim that the Arabs will see us as two-faced by not supporting a genuine democratic uprising in Libya after Afghanistan/Iraq, where a coalitation-of-the-willing more-or-less imposed their will.

    Nevertheless, it has become fairly obvious now that 'UK' military has been denuded to the point where it can no longer project enough force to satify our politicians whims/hubris.

    Somebody else will have to assist the Libyan opposition, the 'UK' longer has the capability.

    Just a single US aircraft carrier can project enough power to netrualise the Gaddafi airforce, air-defences, tanks and cripple their military comms networks and that would be enough.

    It is the politics that is difficult, given recent history vis-a-vis Iraq.

    The bottom line is that many more Libyans must die before military force can be applied to change the balance of power in Libya in favour of the opposition.

    Europe lacks the political nexus to do the needful, in terms of leveraging its military capability in our own backyard, so the Americans are expected to bail us Europeans out again -- and we're not even grateful.

  • Comment number 13.

    It's a familiar dilemma, but the rules have changed. People are now paying much more attention to the legality of war. So, if there is no United Nations' Resolution calling for a no-fly zone, there will be no "no-fly" zone.
    The verbal grandstanding by leaders is about all they can do without a United Nations' resolution; this is especially true for the United States which has been complicit in so many illegal, aggressive, imperialistic ventures e.g. Iraq.
    France's President Nicolas Sarkozy cannot approve a no-fly zone.
    Nato cannot approve a no-fly zone.
    Former Defence and Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, cannot approve a no-fly zone. As for arming the Libyans, I think he likely means rebels, but why would he even suggest this before the status of these rebels has been clarified before the world? Gaddafi has asked the AU and/or the United Nations to determine who these rebels are? Are they mercenaries, sent in by a foreign country? Are they really Libyans?
    Given the advances achieved by Libyan Government in the past week, it is obvious that the world expected another "colourful" revolution and a quick takeover - regardless of who these rebels were.
    Well, Gaddafi has been very good for Libya over 41 years; so that quick rebellion was never going to happen.
    Let the United States and European Union stay out of it.
    Gaddafi has asked both the AU and the United Nations for an asserssment about these rebels?
    (Maybe while the world is waiting, it should take another investigative look at Lockerbie where I feel the truth is still known but hidden.)
    Oh please, not more covert actions and clandestine assistance. Either there will be United Nations' approval, or the world should stay out of Libya.
    Not even MI6 and the CIA are approved to do do anything without United Nations approval; so whatever they may do is - like it or not - covert, clandestine and also illegal.

  • Comment number 14.

    I was under the impression the Libyans opposing Gaddafi, although possibly pro a no-fly zone, didn't want the West involved militarily. Commentators too were saying that Western intervention would be 'misconstrued' by the Arab world and cause more harm than good.

    But would the Arab world be misconstruing the West's motives? I'm not sure now. If the US's concerns are humanitarian then why aren't they behaving the same towards Bahrain?

    Saudi and other GCC troops arrived in Bahrain yesterday to help the King put down the rebellion (sorry, 'to protect essential infrastructure' or some such euphemism). Now marshal law has been declared - so that's the end of that uprising. Haven't heard any Western outrage though.

    According to a report, Hillary Clinton gave the okay to the King of Bahrain to call in foreign troops against his own people as a quid pro quo for the Arab League calling for Western intervention in Libya. Sounds like business as usual.

  • Comment number 15.

    Sometimes, for the greater good of humanity, the law has to show some flexibility.

    In this case, it cannot be right for one family, the Gaddafi's, to hold a whole country to ransom.

    One way or another, they must face justice for their crimes against their own people (and others).

  • Comment number 16.


    Surely the UN is Just a great big Goldsmith? Lies, damned lies and HABITATION.

    Even the UN 'lives within the lie'.

  • Comment number 17.


    That sounds about right.

    What a mess.

    The sooner we stop our dependency on oil the better. I just can not see any end to this until we reach that point.

    Nuclear power stations and electric cars anyone?


    looks like we will just have to go for the slow descent into chaos and violence option then.

  • Comment number 18.

    '9. At 11:09am on 15 Mar 2011, barriesingleton wrote:
    Does Britain have a culture that can be described in positive terms?
    I suppose charitable giving qualifies

    I know rules is rules, but having been near excommunicated for popping in a major charity's URL to make the point that help now is possibly more in order than whatiffing to order on pet peeves, I have discovered that relief charitable giving at the BBC is comically selective, qualification-wise. Like much else.


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