Sunday, June 12, 2011

In The Words Of The Immortal Edwin Starr

"...It should be entirely clear that there has been little or no thought or planning here. What are the objectives? Do they include achievable aims, or are they just vague and windy 'let’s get the bad guys' bollocks? What happens if there are major setbacks – do we have any contingency plans at all?" - Your not-very-humble host, on the proposed bombing of Libya, 10th March
I've been putting off revisiting the points I made before we started bombing Libya, for two reasons - first, the situation there is so murky and indecipherable that it's difficult to assess, and second... Well, I don't feel very good about saying some of this stuff while people are fighting and dying for their families and homes.

Nonetheless, I think it's worth looking at this again.  I intentionally made some definite predictions, largely because the pro-intervention camp were making none at all, beyond the assertion that those counselling against bombing Tripoli were disgusting, heartless Communists.  Recall the atmosphere at the time, which was thick with the implication that opposition to a fresh bombing campaign was a ridiculous, childish concept, far outside the boundaries of political acceptability, and quite possibly tantamount to de facto [1] support for Gaddafi's goons.

I did raise some fairly silly questions - the possibilty that Gaddafi might knock out Misrata and Benghazi despite our efforts being the silliest.  In fairness to myself, I considered this a possibility because the proposal at the time was for a No-Fly Zone only.  What we actually got was a Free-Fire Zone, in which any and all loyalist forces were targets. 

Had I known that, I wouldn't have raised this possibility.  I'm aware that a fight between a column of tanks and a well-tooled air force is barely a fight at all.  It wasn't.

Similarly, I worried about the possibility of a Black Hawk Down scenario, featuring Nato pilots being captured and/or murdered live on television, with the ensuing public pressure for maximum smackdown on Tripoli.  Realistically, this wasn't a major risk for as long as Nato was only committing warplanes.  Now that we've sent in the attack helicopters, the risks increase.

Finally, I was also concerned about Nato causing large numbers of civilian casualties, thus hardening the government forces' resolve and support.  This was a reasonable assumption, given our habit of rubbing out vast numbers of civvies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, but thankfully it hasn't come to pass in Libya.  I assume that this is because Nato is using stricter rules of engagement.  These rules may frustrate the rebels, but are a damn good thing for Libyans in the affected areas.

Amazingly, I managed to call quite a few things correctly.  The core reason for calling bullshit on this operation was and is this - there was very clearly no plan at all for victory or unexpected contingencies, and there still isn't. 

I can't stress this enough, really.  If you believe that a military operation is going to be poorly planned and executed, and that it may worsen rather than solve the problems in the area to be bombed, you have to oppose it.  To do otherwise would be wildly irresponsible.

And so.  Nato spent the first few weeks squabbling over who was in charge.  As in our other wars, the mission statement has quickly morphed out of all recognition.  Recall that we are bombing Libya to "protect civilians".  Unsurprisingly, this has been quietly changed to "Get rid of Gaddafi and install the rebels of eastern Libya as the new government". 

It's become very apparent that the rebels aren't capable of overthrowing Gaddafi themselves; Nato appear to have bet the farm on a quick victory, but we're now into the third month of stalemate.  We're now committed to overthrowing Gaddafi and can't accept any outcome that falls short of that goal, which also means that Gaddafi and his goons have no motivation to accept defeat and slink away with their tails between their legs.

Fighting and bombardment in some areas have been vicious, and the Libyan rebels are estimating 15,000 people have been killed thus far.  Both sides have intentionally targeted civilians, and we're now babysitting a war that could drag on for months, at least.  This isn't surprising, nor was it unforseeable.

Other worries from before intervention - that the rebels might include significant extremist elements (unproven, probably overstated anyway); that we might wind up watching impotently while the rebels commit atrocities (correct) and that intervention might damage international organisations and law (correct - just watch the US Secretary of Defence pissing over his European counterparts, and keep an eye on the concept of a "Responsibility to Protect" in law from now on). 

Back when the proposal was a No-Fly Zone, I was asking if we were committing to a war that would drag on indefinitely; whether we'd be willing to jump in with both feet on the rebels' side by aggressively targeting government forces or attempting to assassinate Gaddafi, and whether intervention was more about making us feel better about the awful things we were seeing on TV than it was a serious plan for a positive outcome.

The answer to those questions, it appears, is "Yes".  I'd rather it wasn't - I'd far rather be typing up an extended Mea Culpa over my hilariously wrong opinions.  Making a couple of accurate guesses feels pretty hollow when it's a war we're talking about.

So, here we are.  The war looks set to continue for the foreseeable future, with all of the attendant horrors that implies.  A civil war isn't just a disaster in terms of destroyed lives and buildings.  It's a catastrophe with far-reaching consequences, in which every citizen experiences a massive drop-off in every area of their lives - health, education, economy, infrastructure.  An extended conflict massively increases the likelihood of post-war atrocities and extremism, and occasionally terror for export.  

Well.  Fingers crossed for a happy ending - Gaddafi dead or routed, a victorious rebel movement establishing a flourishing liberal democracy.  The really frightening thing is just how dependent on crossed fingers we are here.  It may just turn out that Maybe we'll get lucky this time has been the entire war plan from day one.

(Posts what I wrote containing many of these predictions and questions here, here, here, here and here).


1. Having seen it used in this manner many times, I can confirm that pretty much everyone who uses the words "de facto" in a policy dispute is attempting to smuggle some seriously dumbass horseshit past you, in the hope that you won't notice.

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