Libya and the fog of intervention

The three weeks of what has become NATO’s armed intervention in Libya have generated far more questions than anyone could hope to answer. The uncertainties by no means overwhelm the case for intervention but they do add immediacy to the reservations expressed by the doubters and sceptics.

the fog of intervention

The 19th century Prussian military philosopher, Carl von Clausewitz, didn’t quite coin the term ‘the fog of war’. But credit for it is generally given to him because he did use a fog metaphor (as well as, in the same breath, metaphors of twilight and moonlight) to describe the effect of all the uncertainties that pile up in military operations. And in its fogginess, the Libya intervention is fast becoming a classic:

  • Uncertainty about what kind of operation it is (from day one it has gone far beyond what is normally understood by a no-fly zone but the logic of a full-blooded intervention seems to appeal to no-one);
  • Questions about who is in charge (with answers starting at not-NATO-under-any-circumstances and ending with yes-of-course-it’s NATO) (though not all NATO members – e.g., Germany and Turkey – are actually supportive);
  • Lack of clarity about who is taking the operational lead;
  • Obscurity about the depth, scale and durability of the US commitment;
  • Confusion about who supports (with the Arab League backing before back-tracking then going back to backing) and who tolerates (China and Russia swiftly lost their abstentionist spirit when they saw what the intervention entailed);
  • Largely deliberate confusion over what the goal is (humanitarian, or regime change, or evening the odds between rebels and regime);
  • The difficulty of getting reliable information about whether some air strikes have either missed their targets or been targeted wrongly.

Some of these kinds of uncertainty – and especially the last – are standard. Some are specific. The much larger interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq produced other kinds of uncertainties but the most important ones came as the operations unfolded and transformed over months and years; in the first few weeks they did not match this profuse confusion. Nor indeed did the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, or the deployment of NATO forces to Bosnia at the end of 1995 to support the Dayton peace agreement.

The last time things were this confused on so many levels is probably from spring 1992 for three years when UN forces were deployed in Bosnia.

where is it headed?

All this uncertainty before we even try to look ahead and see where it’s going!

Whatever is said in formal diplomatic exchanges to soften potential opposition, we all know the aim of the interventionists is regime change – not directly done as by the US in Iraq, but indirectly by supporting the forces of revolution and renewal among Libyans themselves.

One aspect of uncertainty is that it is far from clear how far western leaders are prepared to go with their support for Interim Transitional National Council and the forces fighting more or less under its command (“more or less” because, inevitably, lines of command are not as clean and crisp in an ad hoc insurrectionary force as in a professional military).

NATO’s airpower has been deployed directly against Qaddafi’s land power. But it does not seem to have been used in close support of the ITNC’s ground forces. The case of a mistaken strike on rebel forces was blamed on their use of tanks, which up until then had been used only by Qaddafi’s army. This suggests that NATO does its own target acquisition and does not use on-the-ground intelligence supplied by the ITNC . If it did, the ITNC would have given warning that its people were uncharacteristically using tanks. And that in turn suggests there is no detailed tactical coordination between the ITNC on the ground and NATO in the air and that even basic communication has been pretty limited.

The incident of the mistaken strike may lead to a change with more communication and some actual coordination of operations. But even if NATO aircraft do get used in close support, it is not clear at this stage that they will make a decisive enough difference any time soon for the ITNC thereby to take the strategic initiative.

NATO’s strikes can stop Qaddafi’s forces advancing and drive them into secure refuges. But it is not possible to destroy a land army from the air in this way.

As many commentators have pointed out, that looks like a recipe for stalemate.

stalemate and ceasefire?

Step forward another factor of uncertainty: is it Turkey’s three-point ceasefire proposal that is on the table for the two sides and the international community to consider, or a proposal from the African Union? Or both?

Both plans call for an end to fighting (though the Turkish plan might be more limited as it reportedly focuses on ending the fighting in and around cities surrounded by Qaddafi’s forces) and the delivery of humanitarian aid.

There they diverge: the AU plan calls for dialogue while the Turkish plan calls for negotiated political reform leading to elections, with Qaddafi staying in power in the meantime. Yes, it’s our old friend the orderly transition supported, as ever, by outside powers (see my earlier posts on outside powers and Egypt – 2 February and 7 February – and for the record, just note that Turkey is as much an outside power as any other).

At this point, it is unlikely that either the ITNC or the leaders of the air campaign against Qaddafi will be willing to swallow Qaddafi staying in power. And anybody who knows much about Qaddafi appears to agree that, first, he won’t quit easily and, second, he will accept a ceasefire, dialogue, negotiations, delegations – more or less anything if through that he can buy time, build strength and choose his moment for a new strike.

and if there’s no agreement?

All this seems to mean that agreement is not very likely and neither side in the conflict will trust any process of dialogue –

  • Qaddafi won’t because that’s not what he does;
  • the ITNC and NATO won’t because they think that’s not what Qaddafi does.

And if a ceasefire is agreed, let nobody be surprised if it is immediately breached.

So there is currently no clear short-term military or political avenue out of impasse.

With that, quite a few commentators have gone from thinking stalemate to thinking partition: the western part of the country for Qaddafi to keep, the eastern part for the ITNC to liberate, with the oil mostly in the east, which is handy from a NATO viewpoint to put it no stronger, and with international guarantees and forces to keep the two sides apart.

But the western regions of Libya are by no means Qaddafi loyalist territory. Several towns rose up against him in February as the rebellion’s momentum grew. Several remain outside of his control and irredeemably opposed. Both the practicality and the legitimacy of a partition must be in doubt.

In which case, quick victory, ceasefire and negotiation, and partition are all improbable.


What seems more likely, therefore, is that this war, having started, will be fought to the end. One side will win and one side will lose. It will be painful and bloody and whether the outcome will justify the suffering is one more thing we cannot yet know.

The ITNC estimates that 10,000 people have so far died in the Libyan uprising and war. If it is right that there is not a quick way out, many more people will die before the fighting’s over and it will be no surprise if, perhaps with interruptions and ceasefires along the way, that does not happen till the end of the year or later.

challenges and dilemmas on both sides of the argument

For supporters of intervention, this is the challenge of ‘do you really mean it?’, which I looked at in my last blog-post on Libya (10 March). Political leaders like Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama who have supported and led the case for intervention cannot be accused of attempting  a cut-price, drive-by intervention. They have at least been serious; force has been used not to make a point but to achieve change. Now the question arises, will they continue to be serious? For months on end?

There is a strong case to make that something had to be done and the western powers could not just stand by and watch Qaddafi reassert his brutal rule. But do they have the stomach for war?

For opponents and sceptics of intervention, the main reservations have been based on

  • the limited utility of military force, because the situation will be resolved politically or not at all;
  • uncertain legitimacy, because the same European powers now bombing Qaddafi have embraced him when that was more politic;
  • contradictory politics, because in the end freedom and sovereignty to underwrite it  are not the grant of outside powers’ bombing campaigns.

Every single one of those reservations is sharpened by the uncertainties of the campaign, by the current impasse and by the prospect of continuing war.

But there is also an acute challenge – the challenge of, ‘but what would you do now?’

Now the war has started, which side are you on? Should the intervention stop because the war will be long and bloody? Which means that instead the war will be short, Qaddafi will be victorious, and the aftermath will be bloody – probably as bloody as the war.

Or do you say, we are where we are and we have to see it through?

Both sides of this argument have their case, both have their difficult questions, and neither has a neat answer.

6 thoughts on “Libya and the fog of intervention

  1. Thanks Dan. Thoughtful as ever.
    But I’m afraid that there is a big weakness / gap in your argument. You don’t seriously consider the alternative – i.e. What would have happened without the UN resolution and its being acted on.
    The answer is pretty clear: Ruthless invasion of Misurata and of the East, culminating in relentless attack on Benghazi and its being eventually overrun, and then a long and horrific clampdown / campaign of terror and torture by the Gaddafi regime against anyone who had ever dared to stand against him.
    Right now, today, NATO’s heavy weapons are preventing Gaddafi’s heavy weapons from overwhelming Misurata in particular.
    I think you should give more attention to the counterfactual alternative to the scenario actually unfolding. That is the only fair way to assess the intervention.

  2. With the strikes on rebel forces and the likely outcome of stalemate for now, and given the nature of the rebel forces as being closer to the likes of Hamas and Al Qaeda than the revolutionary forces at work in neighbours Tunisia and Egypt, one has to ask whether the real underlying strategy of the west in Libya is of divide and rule, and the continuation of conflict for the foreseeable future. With limited cost to them, some think paid for by the Saudis, and the distraction from more uncomfortable uprisings and the brutal responses by western allies in Bahrain and Yemen, it is an effective strategy. And it suggests a stalemate too to momentum arising from the difficult and uncontrollable yearnings within the region for democracy. Anyone who thinks this possibility just a little too cynical would do well to study the history of 20th century involvement of western states in the region.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Rupert, but I am not sure what gap you mean. After all, and I quote myself: “There is a strong case to make that something had to be done and the western powers could not just stand by and watch Qaddafi reassert his brutal rule.” In other words, I do indeed consider the alternative to intervention. I agree with you about that – it’s just that there’s another side to it. And that’s where the question comes in – do the interventionists have the stomach for protracted war?

    I think your objection is not to some gap in my argument but to the fact that I admit of doubt and uncertainty. That seems not to fit your view of Libya. Fair enough. But everything I know about the use of force tells me it is not a simple instrument to use and those who advocate its use at any time would do well to acknowledge that.

  4. Thank you for commenting, Paul. Without disturbing the underlying flow of your argument, I would question whether the depiction of the ITNC and supporting forces as being similar to Hamas and al-Qaeda is tenable. Al-Qaeda draws on a Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam that, so far as my limited knowledge goes, does not appear to have had particular traction in Libya.

  5. Dear Dan;
    You are mistaken in judging my post in the way you do. I accept that you have written a thoughtful piece, and find it helpful to see the pros and cons set out. But I think it unacceptable to write a piece as long as the one you wrote and not acknowledge in any serious way – in any detail – the really rather fundamental point that I have made here in my comment, above. [And this is a widespread fault among those questioning the intervention – some suffer from it much worse than you do. Such as, quite possibly, Paul here, whose description of the situation in Libya is laughably and scarily inaccurate.]
    Best, Rupert.

  6. Thanks Dan, really interesting piece.

    Rupert: I think it’s a bit strong to say it’s ‘unacceptable’ not to mention what might have happened if we had not intervened. The piece is clearly discussing the challenges and complexities of the situation we find ourselves in. I see no need to include a section on what might have happened.

    Surely, Rupert, you’ve written a blog post focusing on one aspect of a situation? What Dan is focussing on here are clearly the more pressing issues for us to consider.

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