NATO Troops to Enter Libya?


Can the west resist the urge to send in troops?

Max Boot reiterates the fact that the fall of Qaddafi is not the end of the problems facing Libya and concludes that the presence of western troops in is essential for the prolonged success of the Libyan revolution:

But there remains a real danger of catastrophe, a la post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, which each succumbed to chaos after the ouster of their dictators. To avert such a dire outcome, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or failing that, the U.N., will have to offer economic assistance, expert advice and, most likely, peacekeeping troops.

There are certainly major obstacles to peace facing the Libyan people – and Boot touches on nearly all of them: a lack of familiarity with anything but despotism, national mourning of perhaps 30,000 martyrs, reintegration of a million refugees and 240,000 internally displaced persons, massive economic losses from the disruption of the oil sector, the possibility of an Iraq-style insurrection, disunity and disagreement among the TNC, and many others. Even after Qaddafi finally and officially falls, the Libyan revolution will face major challenges. But is the answer to send in western troops?

NATO has been planning for a limited role in post-Qaddafi Libya – presumably focusing on advising and funding, but has not ruled out placing peacekeeping troops on the ground. Sending troops into Libya is certainly not ideal, but some argue that it may be unavoidable. From The Economist:

Then, the same official said, there will be the much thornier question of “boots on the ground”. At a minimum, if Libya finds itself welcoming teams of international aid workers, engineers or advisers on reconstruction, and if the post-Qaddafi situation looks “semi-permissive” (ie, dangerous but not lethal), such foreigners will need protecting. If, in a worst case scenario, fighters from Benghazi start taking revenge on tribes that were previously loyal to Colonel Qaddafi, then the question of peacekeepers arises. Western countries would like regional partners to “step up to the plate”. That means troops from Arab or African countries, in plain English.

There is talk of troops from Qatar, from Jordan or the United Arab Emirates, or from the African Union, a regional grouping which already provides peacekeepers all over its home continent). But this may not work, said my source, and African Union peacekeepers “don’t have a great reputation”. The EU is looking at NATO to see what that alliance might do, and NATO is looking at the United Nations. But any mandate from the UN to authorise peacekeepers in Libya would take many weeks, and that leaves “a gap”, the official said. That may leave everyone pondering the unhappy prospect of western peacekeepers on the ground, a development that would trigger alarmed cries of mission creep in London, Paris, Berlin, Washington DC and (perhaps most importantly) across the Arab world.

Those who supported the intervention in Libya are already feeling vindicated, despite the many warnings that the trouble is far from over. A premature declaration of victory from western forces may lead to pressure to ensure the sustainability of that supposed victory through the use of ground troops. Britain and France have not ruled out the use of troops and Britain even has 200 troops in Cyprus ready for deployment (though Andrew Mitchell has said that the British government does not see “any circumstances” in which British troops would be deployed.) The United States has already ruled out the use of American troops – and has already been criticized as well.

It seems likely that NATO will be involved in Libya for sometime. Western planes will continue to impose a No Fly Zone and there seems to be an opening for western troop involvement. Several questions:

  • Would it be wise to send in troops?
  • Would the Libyans want or accept western troops?

The answer to the first question is certainly debatable. As the post-Qaddafi situation in Libya deteriorates (as it most certainly will) there will be calls from interventionists – such as Boot and Haass – to protect the interventionist victory by sending in troops. Western troops would undoubtedly help mitigate the challenges facing Libya by beefing up the security sector of the new Libyan government and would also demonstrate the commitment of the west to the R2P.

Of course, the presence of troops on the ground increases the likelihood that an insurgency could lead to the death of western soldiers. With many in the west believing that NATO has fulfilled its mission, the death of a single western soldier would be seen as an unnecessary sacrifice. In other words, the west could face another Mogadishu situation that could demonstrate the unwillingness of western governments to accept western casualties. Moreover, sending in western troops means that – like Iraq – troops will need to remain in Libya until a lasting victory is assured, which could require a long-term troop presence.

The answer to whether Libyans would want western troops seems simple. From the beginning of the uprising, Libyans have rejected the use of western troops. Nationalism will assuredly play a major role in the post-Qaddafi period, much as it did in the post-Mubarak period in Egypt. The result will likely be a strengthening of the Libyan rejection of western troops and foreign intervention in general. If western peace keepers are sent into Libya against the will of the Libyan people, it could help portray a Qaddafi-loyalist insurrection as a struggle against western imperialism while strengthening the insurrection forces. After all, it was not long ago that many Libyans were fighting against the US occupation of Iraq.

Only a small amount of foresight is necessary to predict major troubles lay ahead for the Libyan people. Even if Qaddafi goes quickly and quietly, the challenge of pleasing the various groups in Libya while constructing a national government is immense. It is certainly tempting to push for western ground support to ensure that the Libyan people can and will overcome these challenges, thus protecting the victories scored this week in Tripoli. Yet the potential political and military consequences of sending in troops are massive. It is nearly guaranteed that ground troops will mean at least some casualties and it is highly unlikely that the Libyan people will reject the ‘westernization’ of their revolution. In other words, while it is nice for academics to push for troops on the ground in order to protect the gains that have been made, doing so would inevitably lead to the criticism of western leaders at home and in Libya.

Consequently, I find it unlikely that the west would risk sending in troops. Rather, as the situation in Libya deteriorates, we are likely to see more calls for a potentially disastrous western troops presence. The major question is whether western leaders will be able to resist sending in troops while watching Libya potentially fall.

Photo from Wake Up 2010


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