Libya: victory, tragedy, legacy

The western military alliance sees the result of the anti-Gaddafi war as a vindication of its strategy. But the true accounting of Nato’s campaign - including on the ledger of arms companies - tells a different story.

Nato’s eight-month military operation in Libya, mandated by the United Nations, ended on 31 October 2011. The alliance’s secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in a “declare victory and leave” mode, pronounced the mission a conspicuous success. Nato would continue to help Libya reform its defence and security sectors, he said, but he expected the UN to lead in the area of international assistance.

The Nato attitude at the war’s conclusion is optimistic, even near-euphoric - a marked contrast to the uncertainties and divisions even of three months earlier. In private, Nato’s leadership may have concerns over parts of the mission. But its official line is that Nato’s Libya operation is a triumph of the sustained use of air-power to achieve a laudable political aim: termination of a brutal regime. The marked contrast to the morass of the alliance’s effort in Afghanistan makes this outcome even more satisfying.

Nato conducted 26,320 sorties, of which 9,658 were strike-sorties, and attacked more than 5,000 targets: a calculation that includes reconnaissance, surveillance, tanker-refuelling and numerous other forms of support. Britain’s defence ministry provides detailed data of its own forces’ actions to the national media; it reports 3,000 sorties, including 2,100 strike-sorties, attacking about 640 targets.

A striking anomaly in both the Nato and the British accounting is the absence of any casualty figures. It is as though in more than 9,000 attacks, no one died.

There are three explanations:

* The air-strikes were so phenomenally effective that not a single Libyan was killed (pure fiction)

* The casualties could not be assessed (implausible, given that modern bomb-damage assessment uses multiple and precise surveillance techniques to see if targets are destroyed or if they have to be hit again)

* The casualties were known, but it was politically inappropriate to release figures (consistent with previous coalition actions, not least in Iraq, where the mantra was “we don't do body counts”).

A bitter legacy

It might be argued that if the number of civilians killed was small, it doesn’t “really” matter. And if Libyan soldiers were being zapped - well, this is war and these things happen; casualty-counting isn't relevant.

Among the many problems with both the policy of war and the attitude towards its victims is the legacy they leave. Every Libyan soldier killed was a person with an extended family and numerous friends, and all those who died in a Nato raid was by definition killed by foreigners. Whatever the undoubted wrongs of the Gaddafi regime, the acute sense of those close to the people who lost their lives is that a foreign intervention was responsible. There seems to be no sense whatsoever within Nato of this aspect or of its long-term implications (see "Every casualty: the human face of war", 15 September 2011).

Moreover, Nato seems to have little awareness of or concern with the security problems the joint Nato/rebel action leaves in its wake. There are already numerous reports of human-rights abuses by rebel elements, including major reprisals against the previously pro-Gaddafi town of Tawargha; as a result, the town of 30,000 people has been abandoned. (see “Libya militia 'terrorises' pro-Gaddafi town of Tawargha”, BBC News, 31 October 2011).

The uncertainties are compounded by the refusal of scores of rebel militias to disarm; in fact, many are taking over districts and, on occasions, competing violently for control (see David D Kirkpatrick, “In Libya, Fighting May Outlast the Revolution”, New York Times, 2 November 2011). There is an evident danger that a security vacuum will develop, as in Afghanistan after the initial campaign that overthrew the Taliban towards the end of 2001. But this situation notwithstanding, Nato's humanitarian mission is finished and the alliance is walking away (see "Libya and a decade's war", 1 April 2011).

A hello to arms

Meanwhile, among the most notable beneficiaries of the Libyan campaign are the arms companies, especially those based in western Europe. The findings of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade and research by Andrew Feinstein illustrate an extraordinary chain of events in this respect.

It started with the Gaddafi regime “coming in from the cold” in recent years and then going on an arms-buying spree. In late 2010, British arms companies were prominent at an arms fair in Tripoli; only a few days before the Nato operations started, French and Italian companies were busily upgrading Libyan air-force and army equipment.

When the war was launched in the third week of March 2011, Nato set to work destroying weapons and equipment across Libya, including stocks recently bought or upgraded. The attacks often used hugely expensive advanced air-to-surface missiles bought from - guess who - European arms companies.

The Royal Air Force alone fired 1,420 precision-guided munitions, including Brimstone and Storm Shadow missiles. The first month of the conflict alone saw sixty Brimstones fired, at a cost of £175,000 ($280,000) each. The Storm Shadow cruise-missile is even more expensive at £790,000 a time. The defence ministry’s early estimate is that up to £140 million may be needed to replace the stocks used in the war.

The new Libyan government, in its effort to rebuild the armed forces, will for its part spend a lot of money to replace the thousands of pieces of equipment destroyed by Nato. Libyan officials clearly acknowledge an intention to favour companies based in countries that contributed to the Nato operation - in many cases, the same companies whose products destroyed the Libyan stocks.

So the circle is completed: Gaddafi buys arms from European companies that then supply Nato with the means to destroy those arms, leaving Nato and Libya alike needing to replace the lost equipment and dealing with the same companies to do so. In this sense Libya is near-perfect confirmation of the old saying: that the cleverest arms-merchants sell to both sides, hope they cancel each other out - and then sell lots more (see "The age of hi-tech war: after Libya", 9 September 2011).

Andrew Feinstein's massive new study of the global arms trade - The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade (Hamish Hamilton, 2011) - charts much of Libya's arms-buying before the war of 2011. More will emerge in coming months about the post-war bonanza for the arms companies, but there will be very little information about the people killed by their weapons.

Libya could eventually make a peaceful transition to a stable, peaceful and forgiving state. If so, that will rightly be welcomed. But the dark legacies of this short war might yet handicap that process, if not haunt it to its own grave.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers on sustainable security, delivered to the Quaker yearly meeting on 3 August 2011, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. It is available in two parts and can be accessed from here

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Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers