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14 September 2016

6 times David Cameron’s Libya intervention looked spookily like Iraq

The former PM tried to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors. 

By Julia Rampen

In 2011, the UK joined other major powers in supporting the overthrow of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. It started as a heroic mission to save civilians from their own ruler. But even if the UK intervened in Libya with the best of intentions, the result has been chaos. Post-Gaddafi Libya, according to a new report from MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee, has seen: “Political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.”

When David Cameron, then the Prime Minister of the Coalition Government, decided to get involved in Libya, most commentators agreed that the invasion of Iraq had been a colossal mistake. Cameron tried hard to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors. And yet, five years on, there are eerie parallels in Libya.

1. The UK followed another country into war

Just like Iraq, the UK followed the lead of another country with its own priorities for getting involved in conflict, but in this case it was France, not the US. The report referred to the views of an adviser to Hillary Clinton who believed France was getting involved to gain access to oil, increase its influence, and because the French Government considered it politically advantageous at home. 

2. The intelligence was patchy

A former ambassador to Libya told the MPs: “The database of knowledge… might well have been less than ideal”. The report noted that Libyans were known to have participated in the Iraq insurgency and in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda. It said: “The possibility that militant extremist groups would attempt to benefit from the rebellion should not have been the preserve of hindsight.”

3. There was mission creep

Although the Bush Administration couched its designs on Iraq in terms of international security, the object was regime change. In Libya, there was no masterplan, but regime change became the inevitable conclusion of intervention. The report noted the UK did not have a strategic plan: “A limited intervention to protect civilians drifted into a policy of regime change by military means. “

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4. Decision making lacked checks and balances

After Iraq, the UK Government made efforts to improve the transparency of such decisions to intervene in other countries. The report said Cameron adhered to the new guidelines. Nevertheless, it urged a review of the process: “We note former Prime Minister David Cameron’s decisive role when the National Security Council discussed intervention in Libya.”

5. Reconstruction didn’t work

The UK didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of Iraq, and Whitehall did try to plan for the stabilisation of post-conflict Libya. But the report said: “Those plans were founded on the same incomplete and inaccurate intelligence that informed the initial military intervention.” Alan Duncan, a former minister at the Department for International Development, said civil servant planners “did not know what was happening on the ground”. 

6. Libya has become a proxy war

In post-invasion Iraq, militias representing different religious sects gained backers from across the region. Iran backed Shia fighters, while al Qaeda backed Sunni ones. In Libya, the report said: “Regional actors have destabilised Libya and are fuelling internal conflict by exporting weapons and ammunition to proxy militias.”