NATO’s Libya mission: “an historic success” or “catastrophic failure”?

NATO’s seven-month air and sea campaign that helped topple the Gaddafi regime formally came to an end at one minute to midnight Libyan time on the 31 October. It followed a unanimous vote at the UN Security Council to end the mandate to protect civilians there. Despite these expected formal announcements that NATO's mission is over, several alliance powers are likely to be involved in Libya for some time, under separate security assistance protocols that are currently being discussed. In addition, a small team of military advisers remains on the ground to aid the National Transitional Council (NTC). US and British experts are also trying to ensure that the glut of weapons in the country do not end up in the wrong hands.

Ivo H. Daalder US permanent representative to NATO and Adm. James G. Stavridis, supreme allied commander, Europe, wrote in an opinion piece that this mission closure marks “an historic victory for the people of Libya”. Other senior political and military figures within NATO and its member states have talked in similarly glowing terms about the mission.  "It's great to be in free Libya," Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO Secretary General, told a media conference in the capital Tripoli. "At midnight tonight a successful chapter in NATO history will come to an end. You have already started writing a new chapter in Libya's history," he said.

However, this is not a view universally shared. Critics say that NATO exceeded its mandate to protect Libyan civilians and became the rebel air force in a civil war. If the purpose of NATO intervention in Libya was to "protect civilians" and save lives, it has been a catastrophic failure, said one such critic, Seumas Milne. He suggests that while the death toll in Libya when NATO intervened was perhaps around 1,000-2,000 (judging by UN estimates), eight months later “it is probably more than ten times that figure. Estimates of the numbers of dead over the last eight months – as NATO leaders vetoed ceasefires and negotiations – range from 10,000 up to 50,000”. The NTC puts the losses at 30,000 dead and 50,000 wounded, including many non-combatants.

Of course critics of this specific intervention, and ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) more generally, also need to acknowledge that non-intervention also has consequences—as it did in Rwanda and Darfur, and as it might have done in Benghazi and elsewhere in Libya. Likewise, those blowing the trumpet for the Libyan campaign as a new model for intervention, also need to look more closely at some of its more unsavoury aspects, especially towards the close. For example, NATO dropped thousands of leaflets written in Arabic while it was bombing Sirte asking the Gaddafi forces to surrender. The only people they could surrender to were the rebels shelling the surrounded city. And some who surrendered were later killed by the rebels during reprisals. Why did NATO ask people to surrender when they could not guarantee their safety?

So, overall, was the NATO mission an historic success or catastrophic failure? The truth probably lies somewhere in-between—although more towards the ‘success’ end of the spectrum should the people of Libya go on to create a working democracy. But before making sweeping judgements on the Libya mission, we really need to know more of the facts.

Daalder and Stavridis also acknowledge this when they say that “Every operation offers lessons to be learned”. And this one is no exception. That is why NATO Watch is calling on the NATO Secretary General to establish an independent inquiry to evaluate Operation Unified Protector in its entirety. Since 31 March, when NATO assumed control of the operation, alliance warplanes have flown more than 26,000 sorties over the North African nation, including 9,600 strike missions against largely military but also ‘dual-use’ targets, such as command and control networks. NATO also enforced an embargo on arms shipments to Gaddafi forces and secured a "no-fly" zone in Libyan airspace.

NATO‘s midwifery of Libya‘s liberation from dictatorship raised many complex issues before and during the intervention.  Before formally closing the operation, NATO needs to identify and articulate the hard lessons of the intervention with candour and objectivity.