Watching media coverage of the situation in Libya this week, one gets the sense that suddenly, the revolution that ousted Gaddafi in 2011 is failing to live up to its potential. Since yesterday, when the Egyptian Air Force opened a new front against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with a bombing raid in the Libyan town of Derna, European pundits have been competing to send the gravest messages of concern about the deteriorating situation there. Pronouncements from Sir John Sawers, former head of MI6; the Italian Minister of Defense, Roberta Pinotti; the French President, François Hollande; and a host of others emphasize the need for Europe to consider strong measures to contain the troubles in Libya. While it seems clear the 2011 notion that European air power could serve as a catalyst for future stability in the tribally-stratified north African state has truly gone out of style in 2015; the media hype surrounding the flatly delivered warnings has the feel of a focus group session where carefully nuanced versions of “boots on the ground” are measured for their effectiveness on the audience.
For those of us paying attention however, the illusion of suddenness is little more than a tired refrain that should have lost its luster after the fall of Saddam demonstrated the need for “post intervention planning”. Wolfgang Pusztai, a notable expert on the Libyan situation, has been discussing “Plan B” for some time, warning us in September of the “Lebanonization” of the country and suggesting that an intervention force may be the only solution. Displaying remarkable prescience, he mentioned the possibility that such an intervention may actually come from Egypt…Until now however, Mr. Pusztai has been a rare voice in the wind which is striking given that Europe claimed to know better. In fact, the mixed performance of massive nation building efforts by the United States in Iraq, criticized so bitterly in Paris, Brussels, and Rome in 2003, led indirectly to the situation in Libya; bringing us to the threads that tie all this together.
The 2011 fall of the Gaddafi regime unleashed a wave of weaponry and unfettered rebellious enthusiasm across the region. Armed with Libyan weapons and a sense that something had changed, groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took it as a sign that the time was right to execute war plans from Timbuktu in Mali, to in-Amenas in Algeria, to Homs in Syria where the war was still just another Arab Spring protest. It took the French and Chadian Armies 30 days to roll back the situation in Mali, and the Algerians only three to flatten in-Amenas, but years later, the fires continue to grow in Syria where the Assad regime is proving much more resilient than Gaddafi or Mubarak. Continuous combat in Syria has hardened both sides to a pinnacle of ruthless efficiency and the cancer is spreading. Constrained by geography and sensing an opportunity across the border in Iraq, ISIL destroyed the better part of three Iraqi Army divisions, nearly exterminated the Yezidi, seized the upper parts of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and threatened to shatter Iraqi Kurdistan into four exiled communities. The sum total of the massive American nation-building project there was thus reduced to ashes, setting the stage for ISIL to expand to Libya.
Oddly, a semantic but resonant point is beginning to move the minds of European (and Egyptian) leaders in the direction of intervention in Libya; specifically that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is now a threat in areas that are neither in Iraq or in the Levant. Coupled with ISIL-connected terrorism in Paris, Brussels, and Copenhagen, it is increasingly clear that Europe has a problem. Though we can expect intensifying public debate about Libya’s future, don’t expect that debate to feature the obvious point that the path to the present came from a poorly considered European intervention in Libya’s recent past.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.