By Colum Lynch
The 2011 Libyan intervention pitched the region into a decade of chaos and undermined U.S. confidence in the wisdom of using military force to save lives.
There is little doubt that the U.S.-led air campaign averted a regime offensive against the city of Benghazi, saving the lives of many civilians and enhancing the United States’ standing in Libya.
But the military effort went beyond its mandate to protect civilians, as NATO-backed Libyan militias sought revenge against regime elements, culminating in the grizzly, videotaped execution of Qaddafi in his hometown of Sirte. Attempts to patch together a governing coalition proved elusive despite some early successes.
In July 2012, the oil-rich nation held its first nationwide parliamentary election, a political landmark that helped fuel hopes that it could transition to democracy.
“You really had the impression it was great,” Araud said. “As a diplomat, I was proud of my country, saying we were going to prevent a massive slaughter. But afterward, everything started to crumble.”
“Let’s be cynical,” he added. “Honestly, I really think my national interest would have been better served to keep Qaddafi. We had a dictator, but a stable dictator, who was closing the gates to African refugees. In national interest terms, I think we shouldn’t have gone there.”
U.S. policymakers were beginning to have their own regrets.
Stevens, the U.S ambassador to Libya, was killed by Islamist militants along with three other U.S. officials on Sept. 11, 2012, in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. He was the first U.S. ambassador murdered in the line of duty since 1979.
Republican lawmakers accused Clinton of responsibility for the ambassador’s death and charged Rice with lying about the role of Islamist extremists in the attack during a series of television interviews, an unsupported allegation that contributed to derailing Rice’s nomination for U.S. secretary of state.
Ten investigations, including six conducted by House Republicans, turned up no evidence to support the claims. But the episode soured U.S. policymakers in both parties on Libya as the country descended into full-scale civil war by 2014.
The fighting led to the closure of foreign embassies in Tripoli in July and August 2014, as the United States, Britain, France, and others moved their diplomatic missions to Tunisia.
In subsequent years, the United States focused its attention narrowly on combating an emerging terror threat, launching air and drone strikes against members of al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which had secured footholds in Libya amid the chaos.
Other countries have gradually returned to Tripoli—including Italy, Britain, and even Egypt, which backs a rebellious leader in the east. But the United States has decided to stay in Tunis. “There is a reluctance to move forward and bring the U.S. embassy back to Tripoli,” Williams said.
A Renegade General
At the center of Libya’s troubles is a dissident Libyan general, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who once served as a CIA asset during the Reagan administration.
Haftar, who holds dual U.S.-Libyan citizenship and spent years in exile, returned to Libya during Qaddafi’s final days and helped pitch the country into all-out civil war, leading the Libyan National Army, a coalition of Libyan officers and militia in eastern Libya, against the internationally backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli.
Portraying his cause as a bulwark against Islamists, Haftar found powerful foreign backers, including Russia and the United Arab Emirates, who have violated a U.N. arms embargo, according to a U.N. panel of experts, while professing support for a U.N.-backed peace process.
On April 4, 2019, the same day U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres arrived in Tripoli for a peace conference, Haftar launched a major offensive against the country’s U.N.-recognized government.
Washington, meanwhile, was sending mixed signals.
While then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced support for the U.N.-recognized government, Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, reportedly signaled to Haftar before the assault that the United States would not object to him launching a military attack as long as he could carry it out quickly.
Bolton declined to respond to the claim through a spokesperson.
Trump, who had been lobbied by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to back Haftar, spoke to the renegade Libyan commander by phone during the offensive.
According to a read-out released by the White House, Trump “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources.”
On Tuesday, a U.N. panel of experts investigating violations of the U.N. arms embargo released a report detailing more than two dozen cases in which arms, planes, and tanks were shipped from Egypt, Jordan, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates since October 2019 to Haftar’s forces.
But any illusions of a swift military victory were thwarted as Turkey entered the fray, supplying the U.N.-recognized government with weapons and fighters, stalling Haftar’s military offensive, and bringing the war to a standstill.
The panel detailed nearly 20 transfers of weapons and materiel—including surface-to-air missiles, frigates, and armed drones—from Turkey to Libya over the same time period in support of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.
“The arms embargo remains totally ineffective,” the U.N. panel wrote. “For those Member States directly supporting the parties to the conflict, the violations are extensive, blatant and with complete disregard for the sanctions measures.”
The panel also linked Erik Prince, a private security entrepreneur and donor to Trump, to a botched operation to provide armed groups associated with Haftar with an array of military services and equipment.
The scheme, dubbed Project Opus, was intended to help Haftar attack sea lanes used to transport weapons from Turkey to forces loyal to the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.
It also aimed to provide Haftar’s forces with the capacity to “identify and strike land targets, and terminate and/or kidnap high value targets,” according to the panel’s report.
The operation planners initially sought to purchase surplus military equipment from Jordan, but the Jordanian government blocked the deal.
They then turned to a series of companies allegedly owned by Prince, who sold the team several utility helicopters, a light attack aircraft, and surveillance aircraft, according to the report.
Prince’s lawyer, Matthew Schwartz, referred Foreign Policy to a statement he had issued in response to earlier leaks of the report. “Mr. Prince had absolutely no involvement in any alleged military operation in Libya in 2019,” he stated. “He did not provide weapons, personnel, or military equipment to anyone in Libya.” “Any claims to the contrary are false,” he added.
Egypt’s, Jordan’s, and Turkey’s U.N. missions did not respond to requests for comment sent by text or email. A spokesperson for the UAE did not respond to a question about its role in Libya, referring to a January statement by the country’s U.N. ambassador Lana Nusseibeh, in which she said “foreign intervention in the conflict must end now.”
A spokesperson from the Russian mission to the U.N. declined to comment and referred to remarks by Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, who claimed that reports saying a Russian security firm, Wagner Group, was backing Haftar were based on “fabricated data, and are aimed at discrediting Russia’s policy in Libya.”
The deadlock in Libya has provided an opportunity for diplomacy.
In October 2020, a Libyan military commission with officers from both sides of the conflict brokered a cease-fire that called for all foreign fighters to leave the country and backed U.N.-led political processes aimed at holding elections in December 2021.
El Gomati said elections alone are hardly the answer to Libya’s troubles. What is required, he said, is that Libya form a new national identity where a professional military vows loyalty to a new civilian government. The United States, he said, could play a critical role in promoting that kind of reform.
But in the end, the Libyans will have to get their own house in order. “I don’t think the Libyans are any longer under the illusion that the international community is there to protect civilian life in Libya, to uphold the rule of law, or to help Libya transition to a democratic nation,” El Gomati said. “They recognize that they have to do this on their own.”
But Williams said Libya could still use help from Washington. The United States, she said, is in a unique position to “herd the cats” among regional powers to end the proxy wars and observe the U.N. arms embargo.
“The idea that you can leave it to the Europeans, I think the last five years have shown, is not a sound strategy.”
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. He is Foreign Policy’s award-winning, United Nations-based senior diplomatic reporter. He received the 2011 National Magazine Award for his blog reporting at FP. Before coming to FP, Lynch worked for more than a decade for the Washington Post. He previously reported for the Boston Globe. Lynch has an undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.