1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

NATO's Libyan legacy

October 21, 2011

The debate over whether NATO's mission in Libya was a clear success for the much-maligned alliance, whether it covered up its failings and whether it exceeded its UN mandate in favor of regime change has already begun.

Police in Tropli stand in front of a sign that reads "Thanks NATO"
Libya is grateful to NATO but did the alliance cross the line?Image: DW

Although it is now finally free of its now-deceased dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Libya still has a long way to go to recover from the nearly nine months of civil war which tore the country apart and destroyed much of its infrastructure. However, the end of NATO's mission to protect the Libyan people is much closer.

After the fall of Tripoli in August and with the focus of the ground war turning to the final bastions of regime resistance in Sirte and Bani Walid in the past month, NATO had already started winding down its air campaign against Gadhafi forces over the past few weeks. The strike on the Libyan leader's convoy, shortly before Gadhafi was cornered by forces loyal to the National Transitional Council (NTC) and killed, looks to have been the last major assault by alliance jets.

A day after Gadhafi's death, NATO officials met to consider a recommendation from its commanders to end Operation Unified Protector at a special meeting in its Brussels headquarters on Friday. After considering the state of security in the country and the continuing safety of the civilian population, NATO announced that it would end the alliance's seven-month mission in Libya at the end of the month.

"We agreed that our operations are very close to completion and we have taken a preliminary decision to end Operation Unified Protector on October 31," said NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen following the talks. "I'm very proud of what we have achieved, together with our partners, including many from the region," he said.

NATO would continue to monitor the situation, he added, and would maintain the capacity to respond to threats to civilians while also consulting with the NTC and United Nations.

The debate will then begin over the legacy of the NATO intervention. It is said that history belongs to the victor and the fact that Libya is now free of a despotic dictator and on the tentative path to democracy can be greatly attributed to the intervention of NATO and its Arab allies. To call the Libya mission a success while the faces of happily tearful and smiling Libyans swamp the media is easy. Whether a deeper examination produces the same conclusion remains to be seen.

US Vice President Joe Biden is one of those who is firmly in the "absolved" camp - those who pushed for action despite concerns at home and abroad. "NATO got it right," he said in the hours after the confirmation of Gadhafi's death. President Barack Obama added that NATO's success "demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century."

"It was clearly a success in a sense that NATO - once again, and unlike other institutions - proved to be able to act if needed," Dr. Karl-Heinz Kamp, the director of the research division at the NATO Defense College in Rome, told Deutsche Welle.

"At the same time though it has to be clear that this was not the victory of NATO but of the Libyan people," he added. "NATO assisted according to its mandate but Libyans liberated their own country."

Speed, focus and unity

That NATO managed to mobilize not only its own forces but those of Arab states like Qatar, Jordan and the UAE in such a short amount of time was a feat in itself.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron
France and Britain took the lead in gaining UN approvalImage: AP

The United Nations was told in early March that time was running out for the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and that a slaughter would occur there if there was not an international intervention. Within days of the British and French plan transforming into UN resolution 1973 on March 31, NATO was providing air and sea cover for rebel forces under the mandate to protect Libyan civilians.

Some 26,000 air sorties later and Libya was free; a figure that supports a strategic view that concerted air power can still be more effective than the deployment of large ground forces and lengthy occupations.

With NATO constantly having to poke various alliance members with sticks to get them to contribute troops, the Libya mission hinted at a new approach; one which could be based on quick planning, a small footprint and limited duration engagements. NATO showed it could provide a ready-made coalition capable of conducting a far-reaching, expeditionary operation without the need of coercing its members into contributing large ground forces.

In truth, as a public relations exercise, NATO couldn't have hoped for a better opportunity to shore up its wobbly reputation than the civil war in Libya. Its proximity to European air bases in Italy, Sicily and Cyprus made it possible to sustain the air campaign with relative ease once it was up and running. The concentration of Libyan cities on the coast also made it easier for its warships to engage from the Mediterranean.

Libya's location also provided NATO's European members - often those who are accused of not pulling their weight - to take a perceived lead and prove their worth to the alliance (when in truth, more than a quarter of all the air missions involved US planes and all the unmanned surveillance drones used were American). In addition to all this, at the time of Gadhafi's death, no NATO personnel had been killed in the duration of the mission.

"NATO set out to keep civilian casualties to a minimum and you could say that they did that, as well as completing the mission with no casualties of their own so you could say that this was a success," Daniel Keohane, a security and defense expert at the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), told Deutsche Welle.

"There were tensions over the war aims, with some grumbling over how clearly Sarkozy and Cameron had sided with the rebels in the civil war, but as this has been declared a victory for the rebels, then the NATO leadership could claim to have had a hand in a successful outcome."

Dr. Kamp believes that the Libya mission has strengthened NATO's reputation for a number of reasons. "Firstly, NATO did not act without the support of international and regional institutions such as the UN and African Union," he said.

"Secondly, we had partners from the region and thirdly, it was not an occupation to assure access to energy but the support of the legitimate struggle of a Muslim population against bad governance."

However, not everyone believes that NATO has come out of the Libya exercise bathed in glory.

Cracks papered over

A US Navy F-18C Hornet flies above the US aircraft carrier Enterprise
The US picked up the slack from less committed membersImage: AP

Despite admiration for countries like Denmark and Norway which were perceived to have gone beyond the call of duty, the view among many in the United States is that NATO has come out of the operation looking weaker, not stronger, and that the US once again had to pick up the slack from other NATO members which held back and those, like Germany and Poland, who played no part at all.

"It became obvious that NATO Europe is still not able to act autonomously without US military support - even if Libya was a comparably 'easy' target," said Kamp. "On the other hand, it needs to be assessed whether 'leading from behind' is the new role for the US in future operations and what 'from behind' means."

Far from being a welcome exercise in unity, the Libya mission once more exposed the alliance's regular shortcomings; uneven participation, inadequate supplies, communication breakdowns and counter-productive duplication of tasks in areas such as intelligence gathering.

Even in the warm glow of victory, NATO's leaders are at odds over what - if any - involvement there should be in the coming months as the NTC struggles to unite Libya's militias and form a government.

Some believe that, while they didn't necessarily break it, they do have a certain responsibility to help fix it. Others say the job is done and everyone should pull out and leave the Libyans to determine their own future.

"There were fewer robust contributions from those involved in Libya and there were some countries which stayed out of it all together so this raises big questions about NATO unity," Keohane said. "This was still a small operation in relation to the Kosovo mission – about three times as many sorties were flown there – and yet there were still divisions over contributions."

"There were also problems in regard to capabilities," he added. "France and Britain were nearing the end of their military limits so for this reason alone, they will be glad it's all over. But there could still be very big problems for NATO in future operations."

Click here to read more about NATO's Libya mission

UN cover for regime change?

Perhaps the greatest damage done to the reputation it was trying to enhance comes from the accusation that NATO over-stepped its mark and went beyond its UN mandate to protect civilians, bending the concept of humanitarian intervention to depose and effectively kill off a dictator that many of its leaders had once welcomed and done business with.

picture of Libya's ousted leader Moammar Gadhafi is seen in the ashes in downtown Sirte, Libya
NATO changed its focus to target Gadhafi regime targetsImage: dapd

NATO has been accused of interpreting UN resolution 1973 to its own ends while undermining the UN by expanding its mission after Benghazi was secured to target Gadhafi forces and strongholds all over the country in an open-ended operation which turned out to be one resembling regime change. This, it has been argued by critics such as Russia and China, had been the objective from the very beginning.

Dr. Kamp argues against the idea that NATO was guilty of mission creep – either by accident or design. "NATO did not over-interpret the mandate but individual nations might have done so," he said. "Had there really been a NATO intention of regime change, then boots on the ground would have been necessary. The fact that NATO at no time thought seriously about this option shows that there was no mission creep towards regime change."

Even if regime change was never on the agenda, certain boundaries were crossed. An arms embargo put in place by the UN was contravened and eventually quashed to allow weapons to be supplied to the rebels while US and European Special Forces were deployed in front line positions with rebel units tasked with hunting down Gadhafi. While NATO claimed that the protection of Libyan civilians effectively started with the removal of Gadhafi, this was not what many in the UN signed up to.

A template for the future

Many of those who have hailed the NATO operation in Libya as a success, while ignoring the other side of the argument, are also among those who are viewing it as a template for the alliance's future military interventions.

While nobody has yet to mention it by name, it can only be a matter of time and further deterioration of the situation before such a model - however hypothetically - will start to be applied to Syria.

US Special Forces in training
NATO could adopt a more streamlined approach in futureImage: picture alliance/abaca

The template of surgical air strikes, supported by Special Forces on the ground and the covert training of indigenous, opposition forces seems tailor-made for missions where large-scale invasions would be counter-productive at best, and hugely inflammable at worst. US planners are already using such tactics against al Qaeda affiliates in Africa and Central Asia and are thought to favor such an approach should the option of military action against Iran become a reality.

However, critics claim that Libya was a one-off and that the circumstances that combined to allow NATO to mount its campaign with relative ease would be unlikely to happen anywhere else. Other possible theaters, such as Syria - or anywhere else in the Middle East - would be far more complicated.

"There is a broad agreement on stabilization missions in NATO based on three criteria: a clear and undisputable case to be made for an engagement; a strong mandate by the United Nations, and visible support from the region," said Kamp. "All three existed in Libya but they would not be given in Syria - except probably the first one. This is why NATO will not get engaged there."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Mark Hallam