Lessons from Libya

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Much as been written in the last month-and-a-half on the situation in Libya, some of it reprinted elsewhere on these pages.

As is now well known, a series of protests against regional marginalisation and for more democratic rights in long-time dictator Muammar Gadhafi’s strange secular kingdom, was violently suppressed with initial reports talking about “mercenaries”, ships, aircraft, helicopter gunships, tanks and artillery firing on crowds. The truth of much of this must still be established and the International Criminal Court is doing just that.

At the time of writing, the conflict has taken on the characteristics of a civil war between east (Cyrenaica) and west (Tripolitania) with both sides using heavy weapons and aircraft. The international response – in the form of the United Nations Security Council (on which South Africa currently sits) was quite swift and has now led to a “no-fly-zone” over Libya along with an arms embargo, asset freezes and the authorisation to UN members to take any measures they deem necessary to protect civilians. Equally swift was military action from the ad hoc coalition led by France, Britain and the United States – implying that some contingency planning had been taking place for some time.

Obviously, it is too early to draw a comprehensive set of lessons from the conflict. What immediately springs to mind is how quickly the crisis arose and how quickly the situation in Libya deteriorated, requiring some countries to send in warships and military aircraft with Special Forces aboard to rescue their nationals. South Africa was fortunate the military could use a charter flight and a functioning civil airport to evacuate some 40 people. What if that had not been possible?

Evacuating embassy staff and protecting ships and aircraft is a defence function in terms of the 1998 Defence Review, which noted: “The threat against these assets is mainly one of piracy and international terrorism. Protection by host nations may not always be forthcoming or effective,” the DR notes. “Although the impact of such contingencies is relatively low, the probability of their occurrence is relatively high. The capability to protect and release captured embassies, ships and aircraft should therefore be provided for in the core force. This capability must be at immediate readiness since the contingency may arise with little or no warning.” Is this the case?

Next, what are the implications for equipment acquisition? The now-cancelled Airbus Military A400M would, on the face of it have been ideal for the Libya mission. And should civil war resume in the Cote d’Ivoire, as seems imminent, would something like the long-talked about “strategic support ship” (Project Millennium) be a help? As far as can be established there are just a handful of South Africans in that benighted country, so the combat support ship SAS Drakensberg, or a Valour-class frigate, should be sufficient to evacuate them. Indeed, that ship has spent the last three months on station in the Gulf of Guinea on a mysterious mission perhaps related to that country.

While utterly unlikely, one can ask what would happen if South Africa wanted to intervene in either Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, even Somalia. Do we have the capability to get there and stay there? If not, could it be developed? Should it be developed? It has been argued that “just because you are not ready for the mission does not mean it will not arise”.



But fools rush where angels fear to tread. The reported squabbling inside the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is also instructive. What is the mission? How far will the alliance, however defined, go to achieve it? What is “victory”? What thereafter? What is the “exit strategy”? It is interesting that with such a volume of theory and analysis available on interventions, and much past experience, European politicians, French president Nicholas Sarkozy included, have rushed into a venture so ambiguous.