Mission manual

Wars are easy to start, hard to fight, and often harder still to end. Learning the right lessons from past wars, recent and old ones, is absolutely key. In Libya the international community must also keep its focus on political rather than military aims.  

Now that the mission over Libya has begun, the debate about how to conduct the war – rather than the reasons for it – must begin. The last couple of years have provided a treasure chest of lessons for warfare. But some of those that look particularly attractive are not 18 carat, but fool’s gold. It will be crucial for European governments to learn the right ones.

The first is the need to establish a workable C2 – command and control system – for the mission, which allows political direction and military coordination. So far the mission is being commanded by U.S. Africa Command under General Carter Ham with the Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn run commanded by U.S. Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear aboard the command ship USS Mount Whitney. But this US-only system is not sustainable for a broader, coalition-based effort. The mission should quickly be turned over to NATO, or an arrangement needs to be formalised for Britain, France and other combatants to provide direction to the military campaign. 

Then there is the matter of the aim of the mission. The strategic aim for the mission, which is sufficiently clear to be understood by all the combatants, sufficiently realistic so as to avoid a drawn-out campaign and sufficiently malleable so that the West will not, like over Bosnia in the 1990s, get trapped by legality. This is no easy feat. The UN resolution talks about protecting civilians and President Nicolas Sarkozy, in his address to the nation, couched the intervention in humanitarian language.

This needs to be understood broadly. The strategic aim should be to protect and bolster the opposition and pressure loyalist forces to the degree that they lose the will to fight on and a political process can begin, which forces Colonel Gaddafi and his family from power. It would also allow for some kind of interim power-sharing between loyalists and rebels before a new republic can be constituted. The fact that Ghaddafi has managed a fight-back in the last two weeks is a sign that he does have a broader base of support than – for example – Tunisia's Ben Ali did. Loyalist forces would need to see a future after Gaddafi to discourage them from fighting on.

Ignoring the need to focus on a political, not a military end to the conflict – even if the West manages to help the rebels roll back Gaddafi's forces – is to ignore the lessons learnt in the sands of Helmand. There the West has found that once the Taliban had been defeated and excluded from having a stake in the polity, they had no choice but to fight and cajole different groupings and tribes with a grievance against the new leaders to join them. The West must avoid this happening again in Libya.

The West must also begin planning for Gaddafi’s exit. This is morally problematic, especially after the UNSC has asked the ICC to investigate potential crimes committed against the Libyan people, but if Colonel Gaddafi has no reason to stop fighting, he will not. The result could be a drawn-out conflict. Better then to find some way out. This would mean promising a safe passage to a friendly country – like Venezuela or Zimbabwe – or promising to limit the ICC investigations of crimes to him, not his family and his sons.

There is nothing to say that the international community cannot go back on such promises, especially if the country Muammar Gaddafi takes up residence in changes its views. But such deceitfulness is sometimes necessary in foreign affairs. To push for a process, UN special envoy Abdul Ilah Khatib, a former Jordanian foreign minister, should work in tandem with a representative of the Arab League. They should be empowered by the West to do their work. The efforts by the African Union should be ignored, given the body’s expressed support for Colonel Gaddafi.

But before things get to this, European governments need to prepare for a long-term commitment, and ignore the Clintonesque calls for a short-term engagement by US president Barack Obama. Colonel Gaddafi may be more firmly ensconced in his capital than even Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic was, so EU government should prepare for more than the 78 day campaign that took place over Kosovo in 1999. They also need not just a “multi-phase” strategy but a multi-forces one – that is, controlling Libyan airspace and attacking Libyan ground forces from the air, but supporting the anti-Gaddafi rebels as they fight in the days ahead. This is primarily a clandestine task, but NATO should also work with Tunisia to set up a facility across the border to train the rebels for combat inside Libya. The international community must also gear their humanitarian effort to what could be the consequences of war.

A lesson from past wars is to keep as much support for the action as possible, Those nations that are now leading the effort – especially Britain and France – must also continue to keep those who opposed military action, including Germany, Turkey, Russia, Algeria and China, inside the process. Excluding them will give Gaddafi hope and could undermine the military action. The EU’s foreign policy “czarina” Cathy Ashton should make it a priority to work with these states, perhaps even appointing an envoy for the task, someone like Lord David Hannay perhaps or ex-diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger.

While the fighting goes on, the West would do well to prepare for a post-combat phase. Unlike Iraq, this should not be a prelude to a large, NATO-dominated engagement, but preferably a UN-mandated, Egyptian-led, NATO-enabled peacekeeping force. The EU could supply a Security Sector Reform mission, much as in Congo, but its record over the last weeks does not bode well for a longer-term role. Such a force should work under a UN mission, which can help support a transitional process to democracy. Learning from UNAMA’s experience in Kabul, such a mission should remain small and political, not seek to or coordinate the country’s post-combat reconstruction.

Wars are easy to start, hard to fight and in many cases harder still to end. Learning the right lessons from past wars, recent and old ones, is absolutely key.

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


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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