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Lessons for Libya from Iraq and Afghanistan

Article by Foreign Policy Centre

August 24, 2011

Lessons have clearly been learned from Iraq for post-Gaddafi Libya. They will have been passed on, not least, by the British envoy to the Libyan rebels – John Jenkins, who was ambassador in Baghdad before going to Benghazi. The National Transition Council’s blueprint for preserving order in a post-Gaddafi Tripoli appears designed precisely to stave off the kind of anarchy that prevailed in Baghdad in 2003. Though it has not so far succeeded, that is not for want of thought and planning.

This, of course, is the danger of all lessons learned after an event: simply knowing what went wrong last time does not mean that it can be done the next time around. Events happen rapidly and chaotically, and the parties involved are not necessarily going to stick to any plan that has been given them.

We can be sure, in short, that other things will go wrong in Libya. People will die; shops and government buildings will be looted; the new government will seem weak, or autocratic, or even both; the country’s economy and infrastructure will take years to rebuild. But we should beware hasty despondency just as much as hasty triumphalism. All these things may happen, and yet the revolution will still have been a success, if it can deliver Libya a better future than the one that it faced under Gaddafi.

None of these things should make us want to send foreign troops into Libya. And that, I suggest, is the clearest lesson to be learned from Iraq, Afghanistan and even Vietnam. In each case, the fact that the country’s government needed an outside power to provide its military capabilities had three significant disadvantages. First, it gave its enemies the patriotic high ground. The Taliban have taken full advantage of the fact that they are fighting British soldiers in southern Afghanistan; it has meant they can call on all the folk memories of three Anglo-Afghan wars. A foreign combat presence in Libya risks stoking Islamist sentiment but also stirring painful memories of the Italian occupation of Libya in the 1920s and 1930s, during which tens of thousands of Libyans died in concentration camps.

Second, it made those governments look weak. Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has sought, ever since taking power, to project strength – and one way he did so was by asking British troops to leave. No wonder: a government that needs foreigners to protect it is not only discredited politically, but is obviously vulnerable. Foreign support being often a fickle thing, it can encourage internal enemies to believe that they need only wait out the foreigners rather than make peace. Even if Libya’s path to peace may be bloodier without foreign help, it will be a surer peace if it is home-grown rather than imposed from outside.

Third, it sapped the initiative and willpower of the countries’ own governments, encouraging an unhealthy dependence on foreigners. Afghan leaders have felt hemmed in by the multifarious advice of their foreign allies, the fact being that a large part of the economy, and the executive arm of the government, has become dependent on them. Sherard Cowper-Coles’s memoir Cables from Kabul, and Roderic Braithwaite’s Afgantsy, illustrate this with examples from the Western and Soviet experience in Afghanistan respectively.

The National Transition Council does deserve our support, but not of that kind; even if it asks for foreign combat forces then Nato should refuse. Unfreezing assets and promoting EU-Libya trade would be better ways to help – putting aid above defence, and trade above aid. It should be a politically savvy kind of help, one which again lets the Libyans decide what structures of government they want, rather than bringing in Western consultants with cookie-cutter solutions and a yen to create in Tripoli the kind of institutions that work in Washington and London.

There are three areas where our advice might be particularly useful. First, on how to keep the oil industry from becoming a source of corruption — as it became in Iraq. Second, how to keep the country’s arsenal of weaponry (including any chemical weapons) from falling into the wrong hands.

The third area is the holding of elections. These can be a powerful legitimising tool. They have often however proved cumbersome, destabilising and divisive – specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghan election results have split almost consistently on ethnic lines; early elections in Iraq cemented the country’s religious divisions. An abortive Algerian election in 1991 prompted a vicious civil war. None of this shows that elections are wrong, but they do show that they must be adequately prepared for.

A constitutional process, on the other hand, is something that the Libyans should be left to take at their own speed. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, rushed constitutional processes – at least partly designed for the international audience – probably made peace settlements harder by setting the country’s government arrangements in stone.

There is one last lesson that I hope we take from Afghanistan and Iraq. If we hope to influence a country, and if we are in fact (whether we choose it or not) in a position to influence its future for better or worse, then we have a moral duty to treat its people – as Kant would say – as ends, not means. We should care about Libyans’ lives, aspirations, ambitions and fears. Our diplomats should take risks, if need be, to make sure that they continue to listen to the Libyan people. Our leaders should take care to communicate with them, rather than letting them hear Western policies announced at second or third-hand. Arabic satellite channels offer that opportunity. The UK, French and US governments should redouble their efforts to monitor and engage with those satellite channels, in close coordination with the Libyan government, to ensure that political signals in Paris, Washington and London are not misunderstood.

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