The War on Libya: Behind Appearances – Part 1

November 18, 2011 4:58 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

In the aftermath of the rebel victory, the news media has mostly moved on from Libya. But many questions remain about the background to the civil war and its beginnings, which would not be asked by reporters focusing on the frenzied violence between rebel and loyalist forces at the time. Very little substantive analysis surfaced in the numerous newpaper articles and television reports. Instead, as with Iraq, we were once again pulled into the all-consuming images of war presented to us from a certain perspective. If there was ever a case of how little the public knew about a country targeted for war, Libya was it. The rapid unfolding of events mainly followed the plight of the rebels as we watched them either advance towards key towns like Ras Lanuf and Brega, or were repelled back by Gaddafi’s forces. It was another case of the speed of events overtaking the availability of analysis, where basic information on the country was only minimally provided in terms of its history, geography, cultural, economic and political background. Questions were raised faster than the piecemeal explanations provided to explain them. Meanwhile, as oil production in Libya was drastically reduced due to the fighting around major refinery sites, the price per barrel of oil rose in the world’s markets. The haste towards military intervention in Libya implied the need to end Gaddafi’s regime as quickly as possible. At stake, for all parties involved, was the coveted prize of Libya’s high quality, ‘sweet crude’. There was also the need to topple Gaddafi who was perceived as a rogue element in the region of North Africa; someone who had set into motion an independent economic course for Libya and the African continent that rivaled the hegemonic interests of the West. These were the real reasons behind the US/NATO involvement with Libya, despite the consistent rhetoric of ‘promoting democracy’ and the overthrow of ‘tyrants’, when yesterday’s friends become today’s enemies in ever shorter time frames.

In the confusion of War

The public had already been primed to hate Gaddafi. His apparent eccentricity irked a geographically and culturally uninformed western public. His flowing, African robes seemed out of place, though Libya is part of Africa. And, all that needed to be mentioned was the ‘Lockerbie’ airline bombing in 1988. So, once primed, it was easy to stoke public anger against the ‘tyrant’ [1].

The charge against Gaddafi’s forces could not be overlooked. His troops, according to numerous media reports and seen from youtube videos, had fired on unarmed protestors in the eastern cities, with hospitals overwhelmed by the injured [2]. There were also reports of Gaddafi’s troops being overwhelmed and killed by the protestors in the first days of the uprising. The case was repeatedly made that a ‘massacre’ would take place in Benghazi if outside intervention was not forthcoming. Gaddafi had vowed to hunt down the protestors in house-to-house searches-what the US and Allied military has been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan for years in a continuous hunt for insurgents in people’s homes. Gaddafi had referred to the protestors as ‘rats’, though such words are always flung back and forth between rival groups in the midst of violent conflicts. Nevertheless, it was completely understandable that the international community would be alarmed at the pace of events, where civilian lives in Benghazi could be threatened. This would include Russia and China, despite their abstentions in the vote for a No-fly zone in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.

There was also the question of how soon the protestors became armed and trained by outside forces, with images on the internet showing the rebels with new versions of Belgian-made FN FAL automatic weapons, MP 80 ‘man portable air defense systems’; and US M-40 recoil-less anti-tank weapons [3]. If true, US weapons would appear on the scene even while the debate to openly arm the rebels was still ongoing in the US, according to news reports. Media photos of crude weapons-making shops out of garages were common, along with the constant mentioning of weapons being captured by the rebels after defeating loyalist forces. It would seem impossible for a ‘ragtag’ army made up of civilians to fight against well trained Loyalist forces only with homemade weapons. How fast could such manufactured weapons be churned out and in what numbers to wage this type of warfare?

Contrary to other protest movements in North Africa and the Middle East, including in Egypt where hundreds of protestors had been killed by government forces, it was Gaddafi’s Libya where the urgent need emerged for outside military intervention. In the media’s narrative that followed, NATO intervention in the form of a no-fly zone was crucial in preventing Qaddifi’s forces from unleashing a ‘massacre’ of unarmed protestors in the rebellion’s epicenter of Benghazi. The first bombing runs were carried out by the French. Soon, F15s, F-16s, B2 Stealth bombers, A-10 ‘Warthogs’ (of Uranium 238 weapons fame), Harriers, Mirages, and other fighter jets of the US and western European countries were bombing the country, killing Ghaddafi’s forces on the ground, destroying tanks and military sites. There were few questions about NATO moving beyond its mandate of UN resolution 1973 from ‘protecting civilians’ to Italian, Canadian ,French, British and US bombing runs. Attempts at negotiations to end the violence by the African Union were ignored, as US officials openly talked about ‘regime change’. The bombing of Libya would be called a ‘kenetic military operation’ by the US Pentagon; ‘a targeted mission’ by Obama’s national security advisor Thomas Donilon; ‘a limited humanitarian intervention’ by White House Middle East advisor Dennis Ross. It was called everything but a ‘war’, for the purpose of avoiding Congressional involvement and a delay in action.

The Reasons for Rebellion

The nagging question in the back of the mind as events unfolded in Libya was the simple paradox of why a revolt would happen there at all. Why in a country like Libya, where United Nations Human Development indices point to a nation relatively high on the development scale in Africa and around the world-GDP per capita income of $16,999; an advanced state of infrastructure; a life expectancy of 74.5 years (Human Development Index);an HDI ranking of 53rd out of 169 countries; a universal health care system the best in Africa and obviously better than the lack of one in the United States; an 89% literacy rate, and despite reported estimates of unemployment as high as 30%, a 2011 World Bank report showing a 6.2% rate–Why such intense opposition under relative economic stability in a country with only 6 million?

The suspicion was that Libya had a similar situation to Iraq, where Gaddafi had disenfranchised and turned to enmity a certain segment of Libyan society much as Saddam Hussein had done with the Shiite population, including the ghettoization of approximately two million people in the Sadr City section of Baghdad. Yet, in the case of Libya, oil revenues would be more than adequate to satisfy the needs of a relatively small population of 6 million. A better explanation for the uprising would have to be found elsewhere.

Depending on who was doing the reporting on the Libyan revolution, tribalism was either an important factor in Libya’s factionalism or not. According to Global Security. Org., the only way that Gaddafi could have remained in power, being that his own tribe of the Ghadafa are small, would be through an alliance with other tribes. It was through a ‘patronage network’ that Gaddafi kept certain tribes loyal to his regime in order to remain in power, since tribal affiliations had deep roots in Libyan culture and society. But to categorize Tripoli as more urbanized and de-tribalized than Benghazi would be too simplistic an explanation of why the uprising began there, and would not explain why the uprising spread to other regions of Libya, overlapping the many tribal configurations of the different regions.

There were charges of corruption where it was said that Gaddafi had amassed massive personal wealth, enriching his own family at the expense of the nation. US officials used this charge repeatedly after freezing $30 billion in Libyan assets invested in US controlled banks. And to all appearances, it seemed that there was a Gaddafi family dynasty, when his sons held key positions in the military and in the economic sphere. Yet, in the contradictory fashion that accompanies all complex workings of the nation-state, the Gaddafi regime over the years had definitely improved the lives of the Libyan people. As the media provided images of the rebels waving the flag associated with the pre-Gaddafi regime of King Idris, harkening back to the good old days of the monarchy, there was no mention of the actual record.

In contrasting the days of King Idris to those of Gaddafi, we find that once Gaddafi had nationalized the oil sector, the high profit margins of the foreign oil companies were substantially reduced, so that new found wealth began pouring in. Investments funded health clinics and hospitals, the ‘Great Man-Made River Project with its 500 miles of pipelines bringing water from desert aquifers in the south to northern coastal cities, and a literacy campaign where none had existed before. Images of the country revealed a well developed, advanced society in terms of urban buildings, roadways, ports. Any turning back of the clock in terms of infrastructure would be due to the conflict itself; the urban battles involving mortars, rockets and tank shells, with the vastly under-reported destruction of sites in Tripoli and Sirte inflicted by day and night NATO bombing runs, reminding one of the US-led bombing of Iraqi cities in 1991 and 2003.

Yet, the spark of rebellion in Benghazi had ignited fires all over Libya, with defectors from the military joining the rebels in keeping the rebellion alive. US and NATO bombing of key government military sites and anti-aircraft installations, equipment and troops, would prove key to the rebels’ eventual victory up to the final assault of Sirte. Gaddafi and his entourage attempted to flee in a convoy of vehicles, until strafed and stopped by French Israeli-made Rafael attack jets. But, US and NATO’s interference in Libya’s civil war does not explain the consistent buildup of rebel forces, where rebel held towns in the west and east would eventually isolate the capitol city of Tripoli.

  1. It was announced in 2003 that each family of a passenger-victim on the PanAm Lockerbie flight would receive $10 million from the Libyan government. Earlier that same year, the USS Vincennes would shoot down civilian airliner, flight 655, over the Persian Gulf. The amount the US government would pay each family per passenger-victim would be an average of $213,103.45. (Source: Wikipedia)
  2. and
  3. “Libya, Photo-Investigations”

[Part 1 of 3]

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This post was written by Daniel Robicheau

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