Libya, and the decisive moment

A single incident in Libya's evolving conflict may come to be pivotal in shaping the fate both of the anti-Gaddafi effort and of western military intervention.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
14 April 2011

The Saddam Hussein regime was terminated in three weeks in 2003, but the war in Iraq that followed lasted seven years. The Taliban were gone in eight weeks in 2001, but the war in Afghanistan will soon enter its second decade. In each case, an early incident gave some idea of what was to come, even if its significance was appreciated only later. In Libya, four weeks into the war, one such incident has occurred which may prove to be a similar marker (see “Libya and a decade’s war”, 31 March 2011.

In Iraq, it came five months into the war: the bombing in August 2003 of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. The twenty-two people killed included the gifted diplomat and head of mission, Sergio Vieira de Mello, as well as the openDemocracy columnist Arthur C Helton. The assault demonstrated the ruthlessness of the incipient insurgency, a point accentuated by the fact that the building’s canteen had already acquired the reputation as a rare “safe space” in Baghdad where people of diverse opinions and factions could meet (see "America's entrapment" [27 August 2003], and "A hard road in Iraq" [3 September 2003]).

In Afghanistan, it came at a slightly later stage, six months into the conflict: an engagement in March 2002 by United States forces in the mountains near Gardez, around 150 kilometres south of Kabul. The prevailing assumption of the time was that the Taliban and their al-Qaida associates were in full retreat, yet they were capable of launching a sustained attack that killed or injured forty American troops (see "The spiral of war", 7 March 2002). It took four more years before the United States and its Nato partners became fully apprised of the security vacuum that they had created, by which time the Taliban had retaken control of much of Afghanistan.

In Libya, a less high-profile incident scarcely three weeks into the war may yet acquire comparable significance. The international intervention began on 19-20 March with intensive French and American air-raids on Muammar Gaddafi's armoured columns as the latter headed for the eastern, rebel-held city of Benghazi. The raids are likely to have prevented the deaths of many civilians in the city, yet they also left a trail of dead and wounded soldiers in their wrecked vehicles on a littered road.

The retreat of Gaddafi’s forces allowed the rebels to advance rapidly along the coast towards the key regime stronghold of Sirte and to seize the oil-and-gas terminals at Brega and Ras Lanuf; they thereby gained control of most of Libya's oil-and-gas export capacity. This progress did not last. The Tripoli regime’s forces reorganised themselves into small mobile units that were almost impossible to disrupt from the air. By the end of the first week of April 2011, the rebels - ill-trained, under-armed and lacking coherence as a fighting force - were pushed back towards Benghazi.

Yet rebel sources had at this point managed to assemble a number of tanks, artillery-pieces and large transporters to spearhead a counter-attack. They expected that Nato would provide air-cover to allow them unhindered use of these weapons, while using air-attack to deny Gaddafi's troops the chance to deploy tanks and artillery in countering their advance. This might even become the conflict’s turning-point (see "Libya's war, history's shadow", 24 March 2011).

The cost of error

Instead, what happened on 7 April was that Nato strike-aircraft hit the rebel tank-column by mistake; eight out of the seventeen tanks moving forward were reportedly destroyed or damaged, and a number of rebels (including two medical staff) were killed.

A report describes the context:

“The rebels have been hinting for several days that they would soon unveil a surprise at the front. Survivors of the attack said their convoy included equipment confiscated from Colonel Gaddafi's military that in recent weeks had been refurbished and made road-worthy. They said it was being brought forward for a fresh attack against the oil town of Brega which fell to the loyalists this week” (see CJ Chivers & Kareem Fahim, “NATO acknowledges error in deadly airstrike”, New York Times, 8 April 2011). 

The psychological impact of the error was huge: the first major chance to make headway under cover of Nato aircraft had resulted in precisely the opposite outcome. Gaddafi's forces quickly realised that this would delay any further attempts by the rebels to deploy heavy armour; in consequence, a stalemate has developed with the Gaddafi side holding onto its recent gains.

In the second week of April it has become clear that the Barack Obama administration is scaling down its operations, and that amid widespread reluctance by Nato members to support the air operations the alliance action has become essentially an Anglo-French operation. Nato sources privately acknowledge the possibility of the war lasting at least six months (see “Libya and Iraq: a long war's risk", 7 April 2011).

It is still just possible that Gaddafi will go soon. But it is evident that he feels more secure than at the end of March, and has been buoyed by the African Union’s peace proposal - sympathetic to his position and rejected by the rebels. What started as a humanitarian intervention and morphed rapidly into intended regime termination now looks ever less likely to achieve that goal (see Patrick Cockburn, "Libya's parallels with Iraq under Saddam are truly ominous", Independent, 13 April 2011). 

The prospect is that the conflict deteriorates into a bitter and costly civil war, with Nato aiding one side but deeply reluctant to deploy troops on the ground. In that event, and however long the war lasts, it is probable that the incident on the coastal highway on 7 April 2011 will come to be seen as a very different kind of turning-point in the Libya conflict.

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