Journal of Foreign Relations column –
The assassination of General Abdul Fatah Younis, Muammar Gaddafi’s interior minister who defected to the opposition in February, and news of fighting between rebel factions near their “capital” Benghazi, resulting in growing lawlessness in the rebel-held east, further signify the makings of a disaster in Libya. These developments expose the true nature of the conflict and Western policy in that country. After the initial confusion, some elements associated with the insurrection have blamed “pro-Gaddafi forces.” Nonetheless, a rebel minister has admitted that General Younis was murdered by gunmen from an Islamist group belonging to his own side.
Younis, with two aides, was captured and killed, his body burned. The remains of all three were found on the edge of Benghazi. That large crowds attended his funeral indicates that Younis had his supporters in the rebel-held territory. The presence of antagonistic factions in areas under the nominal control of the Transitional National Council does not bode well for a quick end to the Libyan conflict, even if Gaddafi is eventually removed.
The Libyan conflict gets extensive coverage in the media. CNN and Al Jazeera look like strange allies in their pro-rebel stance. But the true nature of the war does not receive the attention it deserves. The assassination and subsequent clashes in Benghazi bring into focus the tribal nature of Libya’s war, which Britain, France and the United States, above all, portray as a straightforward contest between good and evil. The gun battles among rival factions and threats from General Younis’s Obeidi tribe raise the prospect of Libya sinking into a deeper tribal war over oil resources. The scenario is far removed from the delusion in Western capitals that a Bedouin society of six-and-a-half million people, scattered over a vast North African desert, will be transformed into a democratic nation, sitting in the Western camp engaged in free trade.
Politicians in power seem to have a disastrous tendency to ignore advice from their diplomats and legal experts. It happened in Iraq at the time of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The West may have secured the United Nations Security Council’s approval for “humanitarian intervention” in Libya, but an increasing number of governments are becoming critical of Nato’s conduct in the war. Only the day before Younis’s assassination and factional fighting in Benghazi, Foreign Secretary William Hague had announced in London that Britain was recognizing the rebel Transitional National Council as Libya’s legitimate government.
In an overtly political and ill-judged move, all Libyan diplomats and staff in London were ordered out and the TNC was invited to move into the embassy. As Sir Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador to Washington, said afterward, Younis’s killing “underlines [the] folly of Nato getting drawn into the Libyan civil war … We should have created a safe haven in Benghazi, left it at that.”
Libya is a much smaller country, but there are emerging parallels with Afghanistan and U.S. policy of backing Mujahideen, riven by ethnic and tribal rivalries, in the 1980s. In 2011, the West’s energy sources and transit routes are not under threat of the Soviet kind. But the need to guarantee supplies from an increasingly turbulent oil-rich region is perhaps more acute. The current economic downturn represents a temporary cycle, after which zealous capitalism sees only opportunities.
An alliance based on opportunism was the beginning of the West’s involvement with the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, a conservative society with a deep-rooted tribal system. The lessons of Afghanistan, and Iraq, seem not to have been learned in Washington, London and Paris, for the war in Libya is heading that way.
Political maneuverings are like a pendulum, swinging from one side to another. For many years, the West saw Gaddafi as a foe. Then the British and Italian government leaders, in particular, wooed Gaddafi in a manner that was nothing short of embarrassing. Faced with a growing wave of popular uprisings in the Muslim world in recent months, the United States and allies were at first slow to respond. Then they seized on the “freedom agenda,” abandoning support for Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian dictator, and turning on Libya and Syria, but sparing friendly autocratic regimes in the region, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
The latest turn of events reinforces the impression that in focusing mainly on Libya with massive military force, the West has yet again embarked on a highly selective policy and a risky venture.