The Libyans are lucky that Muammar Gaddafi did not hold out longer. If he had, there might not be much of the country left. Nato long since ran out of military targets, and it had to hit something to get the ragtag rebels into the royal palace before they ended up shooting one another. ‘At present Nato is not attacking infrastructure targets in Libya,’ General Sir David Richards told the Sunday Telegraph in May. ‘But if we want to increase the pressure on Gaddafi’s regime then we need to give serious consideration to increasing the range of targets we can hit.’ (UN Security Resolution 1973 grants no authority to increase the range of targets, its stated intent being to protect Libyan civilians from an onslaught on Benghazi.) The running total for Nato air strikes is 7459. At about 2000 bombing runs a month, another six months would have added 12,000 sorties. As bad as Libya looked when the rebels at last forced the gates of Tripoli, it would have looked a lot worse by next February. Diminishing military targets had to be replaced by something.
In Vietnam, the Americans called the enemy’s non-military assets ‘Viet Cong infrastructure’. In Afghanistan, they are ‘terrorist infrastructure’. In Vietnam, it could mean a village that fed insurgents. In Iraq, which the US and Britain bombed from 1991 until their invasion of 2003, it meant the electricity system, water supply, sewage treatment, television transmitters, bridges, oil storage facilities, highways and houses. By the time Coalition troops rode into Baghdad, there was not much of modern life left. Libya has been spared that fate, apart from Nato’s blasting parts of its electricity grid.
The other aspect of previous military humanism that Libya has avoided, so far, is the arrival of a Jerry Bremer to take the country back to Year Zero. Nato for the most part limited its presence to the airspace above Libya, facilitating and directing rebel gains. On the ground there were British and French trainers and advisers, the least covert of history’s covert operations. One of them will some day write his Andy McNab tale about leading reluctant teenagers into Bab al-Aziziah, after which the British and French governments will go on pretending the rebels were running their own war all along.
Whatever form the Transitional National Council (or National Transitional Council, depending on which faction’s translation you choose) takes, it should not emulate Baghdad’s Coalition Provisional Authority. With Bremer at the helm, the CPA raided the Iraqi treasury, doled out the locals’ cash to American contractors without contracts, demobilised the army and police, eliminated the judiciary and decided which companies deserved lucrative oil contracts.
Those who opposed the Nato intervention in Libya on legal or moral grounds can be thankful, as can the Libyans, that it was not much worse. On the plus side, a vicious and absurd dictator (who combined Idi Amin’s brutality with Silvio Berlusconi’s buffoonery) is out of power. His equally ruthless sons will not succeed him. However, many of his henchmen will. Even Abdul Salam Jalloud, the country’s poisonous enforcer when Libya paid for the murder of British hostages in Lebanon and shot PC Yvonne Fletcher in London, joined the rebel cause. The commitment of other Gaddafi security and political personnel to freedom and democracy must be measured against the crimes they committed until they scented power coming from another direction.
Most of the TNC’s military hierarchy served Gaddafi in suppressing previous rebellions and in pushing his mini-imperial ambitions in Chad. The word ‘opportunist’ comes to mind, and it remains to be seen whether young idealists (including jihadists) prevail over the men of sense who dealt for Gaddafi and now serve as interlocutors for the West. An Arab journalist who interviewed the TNC chief Mustafa Abdul Jalil told me he refused to answer questions he thought insufficiently deferential and had an autocratic personality reminiscent of Gaddafi’s.
Will Nato’s latter day Lawrences of Arabia go home and leave the Libyans to govern themselves? Or will Nato planes land at the Americans’ old airbase, Wheelus Field, from which a young Colonel Gaddafi expelled them after he took power? Can the TNC prevent Wheelus, which every Libyan I ever spoke to in Tripoli or Benghazi detested as a symbol of foreign domination, from reopening as part of Washington’s Africa Command? As rebuilding begins, advisers and contractors from the facilitating countries – Britain, France and the United States – will expect payback. One Nato spokesman, Colonel Roland Lavoie, reminded reporters: ‘Our mission is not over yet.’ Uh oh.