Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK's future policy options Contents


67.Muammar Gaddafi spent 40 years building an authoritarian regime in Libya. When his Administration collapsed in October 2011, security, basic governmental services and the rule of law collapsed with it.145 Alison Pargeter told us that “Libya was a country with no institutions to speak of. When you took Gaddafi away, you took everything away.”146

68.The lack of effective government and internal security resulted in fragmentation, lawlessness and violence.147 For example, Islamist militants attacked the United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi in September 2012, killing the United States Ambassador Chris Stevens. And the then UK Ambassador Sir Dominic Asquith survived an assassination attempt in Benghazi in June 2012. The collapsing security situation made it increasingly difficult for United Nations officials and non-governmental organisations to work in Libya.


69.The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) told us that “The guiding principles of the UK’s response planning on stabilisation were that it should be Libyan-owned and co-ordinated by the UN.”148 Stabilisation was the key requirement in the aftermath of the Libyan civil war. If internal security had been consolidated in late 2011 and early 2012, it might have been possible to fill the administrative vacuum left by the collapsed Gaddafi regime.149 The RAND Corporation estimated that the deployment of a stabilisation force of some 13,000 troops might have provided sufficient security to allow the reconstruction of the Libyan state in late 2011.150

Libyan ownership

70.Sir Dominic Asquith told us that “given the state of the Libyan capacity to administer after Gaddafi…Libyan-led did not necessarily mean well-led.”151 Alison Pargeter provided an example of how Libyan ownership worked in practice:

The Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defence were largely in the hands of militias. The head of the armed forces, Youssef al-Mangoush, did not want to create armed forces; he favoured channelling money to the Libya Shield, to some of the brigades, and so did his successor Al-Abedi.152

Libya Shield is a militant Islamist militia. It was reportedly responsible for killing anti-militia protestors in Tripoli and Benghazi in 2013.153 Sir Dominic Asquith told us that he warned Libyan leaders

time and again about the dangers of relying on militias to provide security, effectively giving them permission to operate. That was why the number of revolutionaries mushroomed in the next year from the 20,000 to 25,000 who fought in the revolution to 140,000…as groups who did not take part in the fighting were effectively established to keep order around the country.154

71.Lord Hague explained how the use of militias to provide security weakened Libya’s institutional capacity:

The decision by Libyan leaders…to involve militias in trying to stabilise the security of the state, rather than progressively exclude militias from one city and then another city, which would have been an alternative model, meant that the state’s security in order to mobilise its resources was never there.155

72.The Libyan state weakened its own limited institutional capacity by paying militias to provide security. The growth of state-funded militias with local rather than national loyalties was a key destabilising factor after 2011.

United Nations leadership

73.Libyan institutional incapacity meant that the United Nations was left to lead on stabilisation. Lord Hague told us that “the UN programme was not prescriptive enough.”156 Sir Dominic Asquith concurred with Lord Hague:

it would have been more helpful if the UN had been more prescriptive in identifying the priorities for a Libyan Government or helping that Government to identify those priorities, and then accessing and leveraging out of the international community the sort of assistance that would have helped a Libyan Government to do the things it needed to do, rather than the posture that I think UNSMIL (United Nations Support Mission in Libya) were happier with, which was, “We will absorb, wait and listen to what the Libyan Government says it needs and then react.”157

74.The Libyan people’s desire to own their own future after 40 years of rule by Muammar Gaddafi was understandable. However, the lack of institutional capacity and political experience in post-Gaddafi Libya meant that the international community needed to exercise leadership rather than reacting to events. We were told that the United Nations was especially ineffective in leading and supporting the provision of policing and internal security.158 Ian Martin, United Nations Special Representative to Libya from September 2011 to October 2012, acknowledged that the international community’s “greatest failure was the lack of progress in the security sector”.159 The lack of internal security undermined other economic and political reconstruction initiatives implemented by the United Nations and its partner organisations.160

75.With the benefit of hindsight, Lord Hague concluded that “a coalition of the willing working on Libyan stabilisation and reconstruction might have been more effective than a UN-led process.”161 The FCO should lead the international community to review whether the United Nations is the appropriate body to co-ordinate stabilisation and reconstruction in a post-conflict environment and whether it has the appropriate resources, and if not to identify alternatives that could be more effective. Such a review is a practical and urgent requirement, because the United Nations might be asked to co-ordinate a similar mission in Syria, Yemen or Iraq in the near future.

Supporting democracy

76.The United Nations performed most effectively in its role co-ordinating and overseeing elections to the new democratic assembly, the General National Congress.162 A government with a democratic mandate was needed to build legitimacy, but we were told by Alison Pargeter that the elections may not have been well timed:

The Libyans themselves were complaining, “Why have elections been foisted on us?” This is a country with no political culture, no experience of politics, not even any experience of civil society or any kind of political activism. Elections happened very quickly. I think that political parties had about 18 days to campaign, in a society totally unfamiliar with that political system.163

77.The limited stock of effective Libyan politicians was further reduced by the elections. For example, Lord Hague expressed his admiration for the work done by Mahmoud Jibril and Abdul Jalil on the appointed National Transitional Council. Unfortunately, those experienced figures “disappeared from the scene very quickly” after the elections.164 Lord Hague concluded that “There is a major issue, for interventions in the future where there has been a fall of a regime, as to how quickly elections are held.”165

Reconstruction: planning

78.The FCO told us that the UK worked closely with the United Nations on post-conflict planning.166 Sir Dominic Asquith highlighted the “extensive planning by the stabilisation unit here in Whitehall”.167 However, those plans were founded on the same incomplete and inaccurate intelligence that informed the initial military intervention [see paragraphs 25 to 30]. Sir Alan Duncan MP was a Minister in the Department for International Development in the immediate post-conflict period. He stated that the Whitehall planners “did not know what was happening on the ground.”168 He added that the plans were undermined by the recurring failure to understand and take account of the tribal nature of Libya.169

79.Sir Alan Duncan also pointed out that the planners failed to appreciate that stabilisation and political reconstruction were preconditions for the successful implementation of ‘normalisation’ plans:

the stabilisation plans were unrealistic…I recall writing on the “Advice to Ministers”, “fanciful rot.”…it was an unrealistic desktop exercise. It was very theoretical. In a perfect world, yes, let’s have water, sanitation, schools, political dialogue and so on, but in the absence of a proper political settlement and indeed a settled state, there was no forum in which stabilisation could take place.170

Lord Hague stated that

there was a lot of planning, but lack of ability to implement it because of the condition of Libya and the lack of stable institutions and capabilities there afterwards. I don’t think in this case it would be fair to say that there was a lack of planning.171

Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Tobias Ellwood observed that

In 2011 and 2012 new Libyan Ministers were overwhelmed with plans and project proposals from different countries and organisations from across the globe. It is clear now that there was a lack of institutional capacity to manage the flow of ideas and advisors and to translate advice into policy implementation.172

While the UK Government was not guilty of failing to plan for the post-conflict period, it did not plan effectively in that it relied on plans that were incapable of implementation.

Reconstruction: resources

80.Sir Dominic Asquith told us that “Libya, with a small population of roughly 6 million, would have considerable assets at its disposal and the provision of money or funding was not the highest priority.”173 However, Libyan resources to fund reconstruction were constrained by the international freeze on financial assets and by reduced oil production and exports due to the volatile internal security situation. Bearing those points in mind, we examined the UK contribution to supporting Libyan reconstruction.

81.Unpublished House of Commons Library research found that the UK spent some £320 million on bombing Libya and approximately £25 million on reconstruction programmes.174 However, those figures do not include the UK’s contribution to multilateral reconstruction projects, such as those run by the United Nations. In addition, Dr Adrian Gallagher, University of Leeds, pointed out that the Government reduced its estimate of the cost of the military intervention from £320 million to £234 million.175 Taking into account UK contributions to programmes run by the United Nations, which had overall responsibility for co-ordinating reconstruction, and the European Union, Dr Gallagher concluded that the UK “spent just under half as much (48.72%) on rebuild than on intervention.”176

82.Lord Hague commented that Libya “is a naturally rich country, particularly given its small population, but you can only utilise those resources if you have a functioning state.”177 President Barack Obama highlighted the lack of “any kind of structure there that we could interact with and start training and start providing resources.”178

83.The level of funding provided by the international community and the UK was not the decisive factor in the collapse of the Libyan state. Nevertheless a key problem was institutional incapacity to absorb financial and other resources provided by the international community, and this is something that should have been foreseen and planned for.

Securing weapons

84.Libya purchased some £30 billion of weapons and ammunition between 1969 and 2010.179 Many of those munitions were not issued to the Libyan Army and were instead stored in warehouses. After the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, some weapons and ammunition remained in Libya, where they fell into the hands of the militias.180 Other Libyan weapons and ammunition were trafficked across North and West Africa and the Middle East.

85.The United Nations Panel of Experts appointed to examine the impact of Resolution 1973 identified the presence of ex-Libyan weapons in Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Gaza, Mali, Niger, Tunisia and Syria.181 The panel concluded that “arms originating from Libya have significantly reinforced the military capacity of terrorist groups operating in Algeria, Egypt, Mali and Tunisia.”182 In the 2010-15 Parliament, our predecessor Committee noted that the failure to secure the Gaddafi regime’s arms caches had led to “a proliferation of small arms and light weapons, and some heavier artillery, across North and West Africa”. It identified that Libyan small arms had apparently ended up in the hands of Boko Haram militants.183

86.Dr Fox told us that securing anti-aircraft weaponry was a key objective in 2011.184 Muammar Gaddafi had acquired some 20,000 man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) in the course of his 40-year rule.185 MANPADS are heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles that can be fired at aircraft by a single individual or small team. They pose an especial threat to civilian airliners, which are not designed to evade surface-to-air missiles. In January 2014, Egyptian Islamist insurgents used an ex-Libyan MANPAD to shoot down an Egyptian Army helicopter in the Sinai.186

87.We asked Dr Fox what steps he had taken as Defence Secretary to secure MANPADS in Libya. He explained that

It was and is always an unavoidable consequence of not having ground forces that you can have leakage of weapons of that nature. We were aware of convoys leaving Libya and heading south, and yet because of the possibility that there could be trucks with civilians in them, they were not assessed as legitimate targets. If you limit your involvement purely to air power, in any conflict there will be a limit to what you can do in terms of interdiction of weaponry in that way.187

Lord Richards told us that it was a policy objective to secure ex-Gaddafi regime weapons and ammunition in the aftermath of the civil war. However, he could not remember the UK “doing anything to achieve it”.188

88.The international community’s inability to secure weapons abandoned by the Gaddafi regime fuelled instability in Libya and enabled and increased terrorism across North and West Africa and the Middle East. The UK Government correctly identified the need to secure weapons immediately after the 2011 Libyan civil war, but it and its international partners took insufficient action to achieve that objective. However, it is probable that none of the states that intervened in Libya would have been prepared to commit the necessary military and political resources to secure stocks of weapons and ammunition. That consideration should have informed their calculation to intervene.

A failure of strategy

89.Dr Fox helpfully explained his strategic criteria for UK participation in a military intervention:

No. 1: what does a good outcome look like? No. 2: is such an outcome engineerable? No. 3: do we have to be part of the engineering? No. 4: how much of the aftermath would you like to own? I think that there is, and has been in our history, a tendency to answer No. 1 without answering the rest of the questions. It is not responsible for any Government at any time to go into any conflict and to deploy our armed forces without answering all four questions.189

The answer to question No. 1 was “civilian protection” in February 2011. In that case, the UK Government had plausible answers to questions Nos. 2 to 4. As Lord Richards explained, it had a coherent strategy based on protecting civilians and pausing to explore political options [see paragraph 50]. However, it could not influence its coalition partners to agree and implement that strategy. Instead, it suddenly changed its answer to question No. 1 to “regime change” without addressing questions Nos. 2 to 4. This strategic incoherence formed the root of the international community’s failure to stabilise Libya.

90.In September 2011, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2009, which set out the mandate for the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).190 UNSMIL was empowered to “support” and “assist” Libyan national efforts to restore security and state authority. Resolution 2009 did not empower UNSMIL to exercise leadership, which was a fatal omission bearing in mind the limited capacity of the Libyan state and politicians.

91.President Barack Obama expressed his disappointment in the UK and France for not exercising leadership on stabilisation and reconstruction, stating that “I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.”191 He added that the then Prime Minister David Cameron stopped paying attention and became “distracted by a range of other things.”192

92.We recognise that the damaging experience of post-war intervention in Iraq engendered an understandable reluctance to impose solutions in Libya. However, because the UK along with France led the military intervention, it had a particular responsibility to support Libyan economic and political reconstruction, which became an impossible task because of the failure to establish security on the ground.

148 FCO (LIB0012) para 10

153 Joseph Walker-Cousins (LIB008) para 14; Human Rights Watch, Libya: 6 Months On, Scant Action on Protester Killings, December 2013

159 Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn, The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath, p150

163 Q44 [Alison Pargeter]

166 FCO (LIB0012) para 10

169 Q379; Q381 [Sir Alan Duncan]

174 House of Commons Library, Unpublished research

175 Dr Adrian Gallagher (LIB003) para 14

176 Dr Adrian Gallagher (LIB003) para 14

178 The Atlantic, The Obama Doctrine, April 2016

179 The Guardian, Where is Gaddafi’s vast arms stockpile?, 26 October 2011

183 Foreign Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2013-14, The UK’s response to extremism and instability in North and West Africa, HC86-1, para 70

190 United Nations, Security Council Resolution 2009, 16 September 2011

191 The Atlantic, The Obama Doctrine, April 2016

192 The Atlantic, The Obama Doctrine, April 2016

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

9 September 2016