This one definitely caught me by surprise. It was only mid-February when I remember talking to a friend and explaining my predictions that the Qaddafi regime would not last more than a month. Perhaps I was a bit naïve and optimistic caught up in the fast times at the height of the Arab Spring. Or perhaps i was just too busy with in my own life, my work, my studies, and jumping off everything I could find while trying to drink my way through Europe to give the situation the adequate thought it deserved. Regardless, the resiliency of Qaddafi’s forces definitely caught me off guard and I was even more surprised to hear, in the middle of my pre-deployment training rotation, that NATO forces had begun their air campaign against targets in Libya. For my unit, in the midst of our preparations for the Afghan mission, the war never really touched us except for a few extra force protection measures in Germany. There were certainly no rumors, like the ones rampant at the time of Mubarak’s fall, of a hasty deployment as a ground intervention force, and for the most part the war simply passed under our radar. But the fact that we simply had other missions to accomplish does not detract from the conflict’s significance as Obama’s first war of choice and a reoperationalization of Western military power and influence amidst the backdrop of the Arab Spring.
The war itself bears incredible historic significance not just as a symbol of the power and determination of popular uprising against a corrupt dictator but also for several other key reasons. Established in 2008 as a means of promoting peace, security, and development cooperation on the continent, the war in Libya proved to be AFRICOMs first major shooting war and a true test of the new commands strengths and weaknesses. For the major part of its short history the command was focused primarily on its campaign against Al Qaeda through its operations with Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa and military to military cooperation in the trans-Sahal region. This Libyan campaign proved a welcome test for the new command which, for the most part, it appears to have passed with flying colors. Also, unlike Bush’s wars in Middle East, this conflict was truly a coalition fight with a strong mandate from NATO and great cooperation from our European allies. With its mandate focused on the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, it also proved to be a welcome operational test of the concept and one that involved broad international support closely related to the Clinton-era interventions in the former Yugoslavia.
Still as the logic of R2P remains complicated amid the real, dirty conflicts of the real world it ultimately failed to manage itself throughout the entirety of the campaign. Mission creep quickly became the order of the day as the NATO air operations shifted from simply protecting civilian populations to an all-out assault on the military infrastructure of the Qaddafi regime. And the war drew on month after month amid an almost constant stalemate sparking old, tribal realties with the backdrop of a rough and ill-equipped and trained rebel force holding on to survival by the skin of its teeth and a few hopes and prayers. As ground was gained and lost, cities fell and fell again and the air strikes continued it appeared the well-entrenched and equipped regime was ready to continue the fight almost indefinitely, NATO or no NATO.
But of course, the end of the fighting came to be as much of a surprise as its beginning. Almost overnight, rebel forces were celebrating in the capital waving their flags inside Qaddafi’s palace and firing their weapons into the night sky in celebration of final victory. The ultimate tipping point in this conflict is still unknown and will probably not be truly discovered for some time. Surely the air strikes served as a catalyst for the rebel success but what other forces were at play? From where were the rebels receiving their training and their equipment? How much involvement did Western powers actually have on the ground in the conflict and what private entities also had a stake in it? Regardless of the level of outside involvement however, the NATO operation still succeeded in maintaining a grassroots, Libyan face to the struggle while despite its massive military expenditures suffering zero casualties and zero loss of aircraft throughout the campaign.
As we have learned too many times in the last few years however, no conflict is ultimately complete when the major shooting stops. And it is what Libyans are able to do after the hangover of their victory subsides and how they rebuild their broken society that will ultimately measure the success or failure of their struggle. While the country certainly has a few decided advantages over the American campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan including an at least quasi-legitimate government in waiting and a truly grassroots struggle untainted by over-zealous foreign interference, the great challenges ahead are not to be taken lightly. How will the country be able to settle its rough tribal differences and build a truly coalition government that represents both the rebel forces and the old elements of the fallen regime? How quick will the transition to democracy be for a nation that has suffered for four decades under a powerful dictatorship and what steps must be taken to ensure the democratic systems to come are not rushed and devoid of substance? How will the economy begin to recover after the conflict? How will the oil resources be utilized and will their revenues contribute to sustainable development for the entire country or be squandered for the fortunes of a few? And ultimately how will history judge the campaign and what narrative will be told by the Libyans who struggled through these past tumultuous months as they form the society they have earned?
And for the international community, what level of continued involvement in Libyan affairs will be necessary to secure the fruits of peace? What great powers will have a stake in the rebuilding of Libyan society? Will NATO continue to play a decisive role or will a UN mandate be established? Will it be seen as an African project, an Arab project, a European endeavor, or a global challenge? What stake will emerging world powers such as China, Russian, and India play in the reconstruction effort? How will the new government deal with the influx of aid agencies, NGOs, and international support sure to flood the nation in the coming months? And how long will the country keep international attention after the hangover has subsided and the world chooses to move on?
And then there’s the Arab Spring. As the largest major conflict to date in the string of popular uprisings that gripped the region since the beginning of this year this war’s close will surely hold great significance for the remaining dictators still trying to hold on to power against the tide of progress. While the Libyan struggle is unique as it has so far been the only conflict to attract international intervention, how might its ultimate, grassroots success still have a powerful ripple effect on the rest of the region? Will the Assad regime be the next to fall amid ever increasing international condemnation despite the difficulty of foreign military intervention in the complex web of Syrian society and its highly volatile neighborhood? What will become of the Saleh regime Yemen on the eve of Prime Minister Mujawar’s return to the country after surviving an attempted assassination with a vow from its President to return in the near future? And what of the other nations attempting popular reform and restructuring of their governments? And then, how will all of this line up with American interests, especially in Yemen where we have been actively supporting Saleh in his campaign against Al Qaeda affiliated militants (it is worth noting of course that Mubarak was one of the greatest recipients of US aid and look what happened to his regime)? How long will America find itself fighting an enemy that struck us ten years ago at the expense of supporting unsustainable conditions that may form the bane of our children’s existence in the years to come?
For me, this conflict passed before my eyes with barely a notice as I have been too caught up in another, longer-running conflict here in Central Asia. Had my time and place in life been different, however I could easily see myself stuck in the rebellious euphoria of the struggle for Libyan freedom. Had I been a young Libyan I surely would have found myself on the frontlines of the conflict armed with whatever I could find to fight and die among my friends for some collective dream. And had I been older and more established as an old American expat vet from another time I could easily see myself working either directly or indirectly for the rebels pulled to yet another conflict, this time at least for a halfway decent cause. In the end though, as we are all victims of our own time, circumstance, and coincidence this conflict simply came and went mostly outside my radar screen. Still, as I am trying to develop and operationalize some type of a new concept for the use and utility of our military forces in the aftermath of this great adventure in Central Asia and Mesopotamia this war will surely prove to be a worthy case study as more information reveals itself and the nation-building situation on the ground continues to play itself out. I just hope we can learn the right lessons from this conflict and use them to better our understanding of our world and the power we have to shape it.
In the end, this conflict will may go down in history as Obama’s first war of choice, the manifestation of R2P in a real war, a national struggle for freedom that cannot be quelled by even the most determined and oppressive of dictators, or a string of countless other narratives surely to be revealed in time. I just hope to God that we take the right lessons from it and that in time our collective wisdom is built from the sacrifices of so many. For the Libyans, you have earned your freedom. Now it is up to you to do something with it. May God save the Arab Spring.
Peace be upon you,
24 AUG 2011, 2330 AST, Orgun-E, Paktika, Afghanistan