March to Folly 2.0: The Next Western Military Intervention in Libya

Without a political strategy for Libya, military intervention may do more harm than good

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As members of the anti-ISIS coalition meet today in Rome, the drumbeat to war in Libya grows louder every day. Last week, US President Barack Obama instructed his National Security Council to consider all options for extending the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) to Libya – a country that has seen little stability since the last Western intervention in 2011. This time, an ad-hoc coalition led by the United States and France will conduct the intervention, with neighbouring countries, the UK and Italy in supporting and legitimacy-conferring roles.

Those who want to bring the Western war against the Islamic State to Libya insist, as a US official put it in a private conversation, that any intervention would be about IS not about Libya. Alas, regardless of what it will be about, it will take place in Libya. That simple geographic reality means the complex political feuds and intrigues that have plagued Libya politics for the last five years will inevitably intrude on any Western intervention. Ultimately, a Western intervention that fails to account for Libyan politics and fails to consider what will replace ISIS in the event it is defeated will have no benefit for Libya or for the West.

Back to the war on terror

With an intervention in Libya, the war against ISIS would start to resemble the long struggle against al-Qa’eda.  In the “war on terror” concept employed against al-Qa’eda, the focus was on a specific and widespread terrorist organisation and its leadership rather than on the countries where the group happens to reside. Interventions thus devoid of national-level politics can be fought with a relatively light footprint: some air strikes, drones, perhaps a few hundred special operation forces on the ground. This allows policymakers to avoid the more political discussions involved in putting large scale forces on the ground – and the domestic consequences of casualties.

A Western intervention that fails to account for Libyan politics and fails to consider what will replace IS in the event it is defeated will have no benefit for Libya or for the West

Until recently, the joint US-European mantra was that the best way to fight IS in Libya was to end the chaos dominating the country. A UN-led process was to broker the formation of a national unity government. The resulting Government of National Accord (GNA) would have benefited from a Western training and assistance programme for the nascent Libyan security forces, including European boots on the ground to conduct the training. For some time, Western troops were also considered in plans to deploy a “stabilisation force” to protect the new government in Tripoli.

The assistance programme is still formally on the table and Western governments will keep repeating that they will wait for a request by the GNA before using force in Libya. But the political process intended to create the GNA is hopeless stuck. The GNA is unlikely to request Western intervention if it doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, the Islamic State presence in Libya is growing, with increasingly frequent reports that the organisation’s headquarters will move to Libya from Raqqa in Syria if ISIS loses control of that city.

For these reasons, Western defense ministers are now saying that “in case of emergency” there should be a swift reaction against ISIS in Libya, without waiting for the GNA’s request. “Emergencies” are easy to imagine: a terrorist attack in Europe that originates in Libya; another offensive against oil fields; kidnappings of foreigners, or some other such ISIS outrage. We appear to be one just one such emergency away from intervention.

Don’t do stupid things

The only problem with this emergency plan is that it won’t work. As previous interventions in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Iraq have amply proven, no military intervention can be successful without a political strategy to deal with the country it takes place in.

Western policymakers know this, but they face urgent calls “to do something” against ISIS and to deal with the migration crisis, much of which already emanates from North Africa. Yet, those forced by domestic political pressures to “do something” may well end up doing something stupid. As President Obama helpfully reminded us last year “don’t do stupid stuff” is at least a good starting point for foreign policy.

No military intervention can be successful without a political strategy to deal with the country it takes place in.

In this case, an intervention devoid of a Libyan political strategy could be worse than no intervention at all for several reasons. First of all, at the moment in Libya IS is mostly a foreign force. A foreign-led intervention could actually do ISIS a favour by rallying around it more Libyans, particularly those like the former regime members who were struck in 2011 by another foreign intervention. These forces would be a crucial factor in the territorial expansion of ISIS and its ability to control smuggling routes, particularly in the centre and south of Libya. As in Syria and Iraq, former regime forces (including the tribal forces linked with Gaddafi) could prove a very important asset for ISIS. It is up to Libyans to liberate their country and up to the West to assist this process, not set it back.

Secondly, with the West “taking care” of the ISIS problem, Libyan warlords and regional powers would be let off the hook, free to continue the de facto partition of the country and free to continue squabbling over the scraps of Libyan wealth that remain. A Western intervention in the country without any significant Libyan buy-in would discredit those Libyan forces who have been willing to work with the West on a political process. Ultimately, it would undercut Martin Kobler’s work as UN Special Envoy.

Last but not least, the war on terror 2.0 does not have so far an excellent track record. This matters with the Libyans who every day watch Arab television reports about the difficulties of the Iraqi transition and the dire state of Syria. They are unlikely to welcome an intervention that would make Libya the unwilling setting for a yet another long Western entanglement abroad with little benefit for both Libya and the West.

An alternative political plan

To avoid this sorry outcome, any new Western intervention needs to come in tandem with an alternative political plan for Libya. The UN-led political process in Libya is now effectively stuck. The internationally-recognised Libyan parliament, the House of Representatives, rejected the list of ministers for the Government of National Accord and put unacceptable conditions on their acceptance of the UN-brokered agreement, including retaining the controversial general Khalifa Heftar, an anti-Islamist with strong links to Egypt and weak military credentials.

This is a non-starter for most of the other factions: Misrata’s militias as well as the Oil Facilities Guards don’t want him to stay. Hafter is distrusted by the Libyan National Army officers fighting IS in Benghazi, while the militias controlling now Tripoli would never even sit to discuss any option that would include Hafter remaining as head of the armed forces.

This situation is unlikely to change unless the US, Europe and relevant Arab countries agree to reform the format of the political dialogue with the Libyans who want an agreement. Focusing on the two feuding parliaments, one based in Tobruk, the other in Tripoli, makes little sense as they represent only part of the factions and are highly dysfunctional. A broader body (perhaps a “shura”, a consultative council working on consensus) should be formed to include MPs who are interested in an agreement, municipalities, civil society and tribal leaders. Those who have already agreed and respected existing local ceasefires should be given a stronger role. This body could both discuss the political agreement and issue a call to arms against ISIS. In the meantime, the international community could work with the existing presidential council, ensuring that the new consensual approach allows it to move from Tunis where it currently sits to Tripoli where all the levers of power are.

This would allow for a convergence (a real coalition is unlikely) of different Libyan forces in the fight against ISIS. Some of them have a more direct interest in doing so, mostly because of proximity to the ISIS-controlled area or because they have already been targeted. All the social and political forces that have signed and upheld local ceasefires in Western Libya could help to contain politically and militarily the expansion of ISIS beyond the area around Sirte, the central locus of IS control in Libya.

This “Libyan convergence” could obviously ask for Western air and intelligence support for their ground offensives against ISIS. In this way, Western intervention could serve to boost cooperation rather than competition. Intervening first and then looking for partners on the ground would do the opposite. Western actions have to coexist with the Libyan agenda rather than seeing locals as executors on the ground of a strategy decided elsewhere.

Ultimately, ISIS in Libya as elsewhere is thriving because of ungoverned spaces. Any plan for intervention should address the question of who will govern any spaces freed from ISIS in order to be credible. And there is no way this can happen without Libyan involvement in devising the strategy, rather than being mere objects of it.

Needless to say, this alternative plan would need time and political courage to take shape. But it would have the advantage of providing a political strategy for any intervention and it would increase the chances that there is actually someone taking charge of territories from which ISIS withdraws – someone better than ISIS. Otherwise, the West would just have to return in five years for version 3.0.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow

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