Four years after Colonel Gaddafi’s overthrow, action must be taken to prevent the country acting as a safe haven for criminal gangs and Islamist terror cells
This month marks the fourth anniversary of the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, but I very much doubt anyone in Whitehall will be celebrating Britain’s prominent role in removing the Libyan tyrant.
On the contrary, ministers – or at least those members of the Coalition who were involved in the fateful decision to intervene in Libya in 2011 – should hang their heads in shame for the mess they have made of a country that, at the time of Gaddafi’s demise, posed no serious threat to our well-being. Now, with Calais besieged by migrants smuggled into Europe from Libya, and mounting evidence the gunman responsible for murdering 30 British tourists in Tunisia was trained at a Libyan terrorist camp, the country heads the Government’s list of security priorities.
Ministers have certainly moved a long way from the period immediately after Gaddafi’s downfall, when they boasted that Britain’s involvement in Libya provided the perfect template for future British military interventions. Former Foreign Secretary William Hague never missed an opportunity to remind me that, unlike the messy and lengthy conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, regime change had been successfully accomplished in Tripoli without having any British boots on the ground, and without incurring a single British casualty.
Setting aside the fact that a goodly proportion of Britain’s Special Forces were deployed on the ground in Libya, the limitations of the Tories’ preference for waging war by remote control have now been exposed for all to see. As highly-experience military commanders like Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, the former head of our Armed Forces, warned at the time, if you do not deploy ground forces during a conflict it is very difficult to have any say in how the country is administered once the military campaign has fulfilled its objectives.
And this is precisely what happened in post-Gaddafi Libya where, rather than helping the Libyans to get back on their feet after decades of misrule, we effectively left them to their own devices, with the result that a country three times the size of France is now a popular safe haven for criminal gangs and Islamist terror cells.
It has taken the Sousse killings – the biggest terror attack targeting British citizens since the July 7 bombings in 2005 – to shake the Government from its view that any further involvement in Libya should be avoided at all costs. On the contrary, even David Cameron, who once regarded Libya as his great foreign policy triumph, now privately concedes that he has a “moral obligation” to fix Libya.
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that there’s been talk of sending British troops to Libya as part of a European stabilisation force tasked with restoring some semblance of order to the war-ravaged country. But the fact that such a thing is even being discussed marks a remarkable change of heart given that Britain’s mantra had previously been: “no boots on the ground”.
The sheer scale of the disaster Libya has become means the Government has no choice. Moreover, if the stabilisation plan is to have any chance of success, then we will need to rely heavily on the support and cooperation of Egypt, which poses its own problems for Mr Cameron.
Relations between London and Cairo have been strained since, at the height of the so-called Arab Spring four years ago, Mr Cameron campaigned for the overthrow of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, despite the fact that the Egyptian leader had been a reliable British ally for more than thirty years. Like Mubarak, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s current leader, hails from a military background, and only came to power after masterminding a coup to overthrow the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government established after Mubarak’s removal.
Intense diplomatic efforts are now being taken by Whitehall to repair relations with Cairo. Visiting Egypt this week for the opening of the Suez Canal extension, Michael Fallon went out of his way to praise the new Egyptian government, praising Mr Sisi’s “vision of a more prosperous, more democratic society”: a view that might not be shared by the thousands of political prisoners currently languishing in Egypt’s rancid jails.
But repairing relations with Cairo is the least of the Government’s problems if it really is serious about stabilising Libya. The deep-seated hostility between the rival Libyan governments in Benghazi and Tripoli means it will be difficult to find credible Libyans we can work with. The British public, too, will need to be reassured that we are not embarking on another ill-conceived foreign adventure where, as happened in Afghanistan, British forces that were originally sent as peacekeepers ended up fighting for their lives.
That said, leaving Libya to its own devices is not an option any rational politician can contemplate. If we really want to stop the spread of Islamist terrorism, then fixing Libya is a good place to start.