Alamin Shtiwi Abolmagir
The recently published US strategic plan for Libya, termed a 10-year strategy document, demonstrates all the weaknesses of the American policy planning and diplomatic establishment. A closer analysis of the plan reveals what it is: a strategic abdication, an instrument of surrender on Libya’s political future. Once again, the US has abandoned a crucial opportunity to shape the Greater Middle East, at best in another act of policy laziness, which is at worst yet more evidence, as if it were needed, that US policy making in the region continues to be completely mistaken. With another country, Sudan, on the brink of collapse, the US must seriously revaluate its Libyan approach or risk further disasters.
The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan signalled the failure of two decades of American policy, not only in the context of counterterrorism, but also in that of broader geopolitics. The failure stemmed from, at bottom, an inability to address root causes. The root cause of Afghanistan’s instability from 2001 onwards was not some broader sociological issue with development or a lack of cultural cohesion. Rather, it was that Pakistan, the US’ long-time ally and Afghanistan’s most consequential neighbour, never viewed a stable Afghanistan as in its interests, and therefore allowed the Afghan Taliban to reconstitute within Pakistani territory. The Taliban insurgency was “defeated” multiple times, insofar as its immediate operational objectives were denied during Afghanistan’s fighting season. But a strategic victory was impossible as long as Pakistan viewed a stable state ruled from Kabul as against its interests.
Perhaps Pakistan’s closely-held interests in Afghanistan advised against any sort of long-term commitment to security and stability in Kabul. Perhaps it dictated a policy of far more active collaboration with India. Or perhaps it implied a middle road approach with a lighter US footprint. The point, however, is that traditional strategic considerations – those of geography and power – are at the heart of even those political confrontations that seem non-traditional, those within fragile states that include insurgencies. The US refuses to grasp the fundamental similarities between these confrontations and more obviously military rivalries for a variety of reasons: political chauvinism, a lack of historical intuition, and simple bureaucratic inertia.
Yet in the context of Afghanistan, American failure, while bitter and undeniably corrosive to American deterrence, was not necessarily strategically disastrous simply because Afghanistan is far away. Of course, the current Afghan government, the Taliban, remain close to al-Qaeda. It is increasingly probable that al-Qaeda will stage some sort of attack in the West now that it again has a safe haven from which to reconstitute. But because Afghanistan lies between central and south Asia, it is quite simply more difficult for Afghan-based terrorists to threaten the US and Europe, although they may cause significant strategic problems within India, China, and ironically enough Pakistan.
By contrast, Libya lies at the Mediterranean’s heart, within a geopolitical stone’s throw of Italy and the EU more broadly. It has major resource deposits that remain integral to Europe’s energy mix. It is viciously unstable, still deeply scarred by two civil wars. The UN-brokered Libyan Political Dialogue Forum failed to generate a consensus between Tripoli and Benghazi. Russia, Turkey, and the UAE remain thoroughly engaged in Libya. The fact that fighting has not resumed stems overwhelmingly from the fact that all three powers have other strategic issues to confront, not from a congruence of interests or a constructive settlement between them, let alone between Libyans, who still lack a unifying figure or a mutually-agreed process for political progress.
Libya, in short, is primed to explode once any of the major external powers deem it reasonable to put a thumb on the scales once again.
Europe cannot afford another political-military explosion in the Mediterranean. The last time such a fracture occurred, Turkey and France nearly exchanged fire over Libyan interests. The instance before that, a refugee wave poisoned European politics with obvious ramifications still felt today. An unstable Libya is inimical to European interests.
It is also inimical to American interests. Winning the Ukraine War requires that the US preserve European unity, while winning the peace in Ukraine demands that the US present a coherent vision for Europe’s future that preserves the Atlanticist security network that has defined Europe since the Second World War. A Libyan cataclysm would severely complicate both efforts by splitting strategic attention and providing Russia with more ammunition to meddle in Western societies.
Given the sheer importance of Libya to Western interests, both European and American, the US Plan for Libyan Stability is shockingly inept, and demonstrates a severe lack of strategic sense. The text is primarily meaningless. It is filled with vapid statements about promoting stability, security, and development, and creating a framework for Libyans to engage over time in a democratic transition but without any clues as to how to get there, and absent any detail or analysis of Libya’s history and political culture. Libya was once a parliamentary democracy, Libya once had a legitimate constitution that protected minority rights and free expression, and Libya once had a political culture designed to enable a slow but inexorable shift towards democratic stability under a popular constitutional monarch. None of these factors receive even brief consideration.
The plan’s attempt at regional nuance, its focus on the Libyan south, has little more substance than an undergraduate term paper composed for a class in a Western university’s sociology or history departments. The south is not the key to Libyan political questions, nor is the south’s marginalisation acute, brutal, or systemic. Libya is a country divided between east and west, stemming from the distinction between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. The only group to unite both parts of Libya and construct a coherent Libyan identity, the Senussi family, is not mentioned, nor is their strategy of depoliticisation and economic and social stability identified. That would conflict with the bizarre narrative the Department of State has apparently manufactured without historical or contemporary evidence.
The results of the US’ inattention to Libya are on full display in Sudan. Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, almost certainly with Russian assistance, has funnelled weapons to the Rapid Support Forces – reconstituted Janjaweed militias that executed the Darfur Genocide – that enabled the current rebel attack on Sudan’s capital. A massive civil war appears imminent unless the RSF can win a Taliban-style overwhelming victory. This will have an undeniable impact upon the long-term stability of the region and offer international revisionists the opportunity to disrupt African politics. It all feeds the root issue, moreover, of Libyan instability.
In reality, the US plan constitutes an abdication of American strategic responsibility to articulate a real long-term framework to address a continuous political problem for the US and Europe. The alternative is easy to identify, and requires only institutional will. The US and Europe could engage with Libyans, could examine Libyan history, and could realise that Libya’s pre-1969 history, its democratic and constitutional past, holds a set of answers for its long-term future whilst providing a viable and practical path to achieving the transition to democracy. But that would require knowledge of the situation beyond that of a cursory scan of colonial academic literature, the abandonment of a failed “cookie cutter” approach to foreign policy, and, of equal importance, an understanding of strategic interest.
Alamin Shtiwi Abolmagir is the Deputy Director of the Libyan Organization for the Return of Constitutional Legitimacy.