Libyan Suffering, Western Ignorance

It is interesting to note just how little attention the situation in Libya is getting in the U.S., given the role it played in bringing about the current hardships facing its six million citizens. The utter chaos and lawlessness that followed the toppling of Gaddafi is a direct result of the power vacuum, which was entirely predictable, given the results of Western military intervention in the Middle East/Central Asia in the last decade(s). The security vacuum left by the authoritarian state’s demise has given Islamists militants—including the Al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia—a foothold that was unavailable under the Gaddafi regime.

Awash in looted weapons from the war, insurgents in the unsecured Sahara have been given a new base for operations and have created security challenges in Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, and Mali—all of whom experienced deadly attacks. In Tripoli, local militias run their own private prisons, with thousands still being held by groups known to have committed widespread human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings during the 2011 war.

Kidnappings and assassinations are common—even the deputy intelligence chief and prime minister have been abducted. Forty-five protesters and another 460 people were killed when militias in Misrata opened fire on demonstrations, demanding they leave the town. Isn’t this the kind of behavior that supposedly prompted NATO’s intervention?

Federalist militias have also been able to disrupt the Libyan economy. They’ve blocked oil ports and denied the central government of billions of dollars in critical revenue (some of this has been legitimate labor action, not just regional power interests). Privatization of state enterprises like milling firms—which, curiously, often seems to follow western intervention—also came as a result of Gaddafi’s removal. The chaos has made many foreign companies reluctant to ship their goods into the country. One European trader told Reuters that, “lack of supervision and uncertainty means corruption is becoming endemic. It is a nightmare trying to do business with the government.”

Alongside the graffiti that curses Gaddafi are slogans condemning the new government. And in the old souk [open air marketplace], the growing lawlessness has given birth to stalls selling pistols, stun guns, and CS gas.”

To deal with the chaos and instability that plagues Libyan society, the central government is naturally looking to NATO to train a security force. As of mid-December, the U.S. military was still working on plans to train 5,000 to 7,000 conventional forces and another group of special operations forces. Admiral William McRaven, infamous for his role in the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), documented in Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars, has admitted they will be assuming some risk in training these forces. It is acknowledged that, “probably some of the people we will be training with do not have the most clean records”—which, despite all the hedging in that statement, means the U.S. will knowingly be training people involved in crime, torture, and the many other abuses committed during the overthrow of Gaddafi and since.

Given the misery in today’s Libya, and the considerable resources that could be going into training Libyan security forces, it is worth remembering the ostensible reasons for intervening in this North African country to begin with. Gaddafi had, like other authoritarian governments we supported in the region, violently cracked down on his own people when they rose up during the first months of the Arab Spring. As violence escalated, reports from rebels fighting the government estimated tens of thousands of casualties. As Gaddafi’s forces closed in on Benghazi, Libya’s second biggest city, proponents of intervention claimed the city faced the prospects of a huge massacre.

Just a week after the NATO intervention began, White House Middle East strategist Dennis Ross claimed the numbers of those killed in Gaddafi’s massacres could be as high as 100,000—what he called “Sre- brenica on steroids.” Within weeks of NATO’s intervention, University of Texas professor Alan J. Kuperman successfully refuted the narrative of the “looming blood bath.”  He pointed out that Gaddafi “did not perpetrate [genocide] in the other cities he had recaptured either fully or partially.”

This, he argued, is a good indicator that he “did not plan genocide in Benghazi.” While evidence exists that Gaddafi’s forces were certainly reckless and probably even targeted civilians in some cases, Human Rights Watch indicates armed rebels were the primary target: “Misurata’s population is roughly 400,000. In nearly two months of war, only 257 people—including combatants—died there. Of the 949 wounded, only 22—less than 3 percent—[were] women. If [Gaddafi] were indiscriminately targeting civilians, women would comprise about half the casualties.” (The UN estimates the total death toll when NATO intervened at around 1,000-2,000).

The large death toll, let it be remembered, was the initial reason for the “humanitarian intervention,” yet few bothered to report or comment on the facts. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that NATO was also responsible for civilian deaths, though it took many months before it would admit it.

The secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, had the gall to claim after the war, “We have carried out this operation very carefully, without confirmed civilian casualties.” The fact that NATO could kill tens of civilians without even knowing it says plenty about just how carefully the operation was carried out. The New York Times reported in December 2011 that there were “scores of civilian casualties the alliance has long refused to acknowledge or investigate.”

Human Rights Watch documented at least 72 civilian deaths caused by NATO shelling—including 20 women and 24 children—and claimed that no effort was made to investigate these killings in which there was no clear military target. The UN in March 2012 issued a report claiming the same. Naturally, if the law were to apply to everyone equally, someone would be held responsible for the deaths of 44 women and children.

Unfortunately, none of this—the inflated death toll, failed logic behind the warning of an impending “blood bath,” NATO’s crimes, the chaos left behind—receives any sustained coverage in western media, if it is even mentioned. And virtually no one will connect the situation today with the Western policy of regime change which was carried out. All of this is to say nothing of the legality of the intervention, the case for which, despite UN Resolution 1973, was always dubious at best.


Joel Gillin is an intern with Aslan Media’s news team and INTERSECTION podcast. He also contributes articles on Middle East politics and U.S. foreign policy and can be contacted on Twitter at @joelgillin.