Unhappy families: Libya and Afghanistan

Posted on August 25, 2011


I have a new article on Egremont today, pointing out worrying similarities between the intervention in Libya – and its alleged success – and the mistakes we made in Afghanistan in 2001/02. We helped a loose coalition of factions to topple a regime without knowing much about them or about what we wanted the postwar environment to look like. As a result, our uncoordinated actions empowered individuals and created problems which undermined the illusory peace of 2002/05.

The comparison is not an exact one, obviously; as Tolstoy wrote, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I would remark derisively that at least there was a good reason for the intervention in Afghanistan. Another difference is that there isn’t a Pakistan in the mix; I don’t know enough about the politics of the region to posit Algeria as a possible enabler of/safe haven for a loyalist insurgency, but things don’t seem to have gotten off to a good start anyway.

Shashank Joshi and I have had a back-and-forth on this on Twitter this afternoon. He queried my contention that postwar planning has been scant and asked what kind of things would have allayed my concerns. To name one, I would have liked it if we had spent the last six months deciding which countries should lead the peacekeeping mission and having a force ready to deploy once Tripoli fell. In Afghanistan: How the West Lost its Way (2011), Tim Bird and Alex Marshall point out:

In post-conflict stabilization scenarios the window of opportunity to provide a basic foundation of security is usually small, to the extent that (as Iraq would demonstrate all too soon) it can be measured in months. Security vacuums tend to be filled, in one way or another. Such was the case in Afghanistan through 2002. The result was predictable. Warlords, from the traditional “big beasts” of the north and west to the new “American warlords” of the south and east, consolidated their power and influence. The chance to marginalize corrupt local power brokers was lost.

This is what I was hinting at when I wrote a few weeks ago that at Paris, at the glitzy conference on Libya in September, politicians and diplomats will be making decisions about a postwar environment that has already been shaped, right under their noses. By not planning for what comes next – as I say in my Egremont piece, thinking about war and peace sequentially because they happen sequentially – that window of opportunity to shape the country will have been closed.

Now, Shash says that the expectation in London is that the Transitional National Council (TNC) will be able to stump up stabilization forces themselves, with some assistance from NATO. Although they are a loose coalition of factions, the rebels can work together if expedience demands it, as the fall of Tripoli ought to show. Personally, I am sceptical. They have cooperated expediently to achieve the goal that has united them – the ouster of Colonel Gaddafi – but they suffer from the inherent problem of all coalitions. Henry Kissinger summed it up perfectly in A World Restored (1957):

It is the essence of a coalition, by definition almost, that the differences between its members and the common enemy are greater than their internal differences among each other. Since the appearance of harmony is one of its most effective weapons, a coalition can never admit that one of its members may represent a threat almost as great as the common enemy and perhaps an increasingly greater one as victories alter the relative position of the powers

My concern is that with Gaddafi gone these factions will begin to jostle with one another to advance their own interests, empowered either by Western cash and arms or their own martial prowess. It is in this situation that I can see Britain being drawn into a civil war in Libya and into nation building, against its own wishes and its own interests.

This might not happen, of course. As Alexander Hamilton once wrote, with typical common sense, ‘Evil is seldom as great, in reality, as in prospect.’ I hope Libya does suddenly become all unicorns and rainbows, as it means I won’t have to write about it anymore. However, I would have preferred it if we had avoided the possibility, and the cost if things go badly, altogether. The forces that are determining our future this century have nothing to do with the constitutional make-up of Libya; this war has been nothing but a strategic distraction.