Libya: Same, Same But Different

Regime change in Libya has a number of parallels with Afghanistan and Iraq – but have the proponents of intervention embraced the good and avoided the bad of previous campaigns?


1)      Aerial Intervention

Same, Same

In both Afghanistan and Libya NATO airpower proved decisive.

In Libya rebel forces were in danger of being routed in Benghazi in March before NATO airpower and 20,000 sorties against Gaddafi’s military made the difference.

In Afghanistan airpower broke a stalemate between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban in 2001. The Northern Alliance’s victory was not only down to NATO airpower. Crucially a number of former Taliban allied warlords defected and joined the push to Kabul.

Similarly the Libyan rebels have benefitted from both military and political defections – with the high profile cases of Musa Kosa and the NTC’s leader, the former Gaddafi Justice Minister Mahmoud Jibril.

But Different

NATO was very conscious of the propaganda coup that Gaddafi would win if airstrikes resulted in large scale civilian casualties. With this in mind the rules of aerial engagement were considerably tighter than in Afghanistan where B-52s were in action in comparison to Tornadoes armed with more accurate Brimstone missiles. On more than one occasion British aircraft were called off an attack during an 8-hour roundtrip mission due to concerns over civilian casualties.

2)      What of the bad guys?

Same, Same

The Taliban choose not to fight a last stand in Kabul resulting in a mad rush from the Northern Alliance into the city, best remembered by an overly excited BBC’s John Simpson claiming to have liberated Kabul. In Tripoli it was Sky’s Alex Crawford who was onboard the rebel pickup trucks as they dramatically reached the heart of Libya’s capital.

The Taliban used the poorly governed south of the country and the tribal lands of northern Pakistan as strategic depth that allowed them to retreat and regroup. As a recent attack on the British Council in Kabul proved they remain a potent threat.

It took the US 10 years to find Bin Laden who was hiding in plain view in Pakistan. Meanwhile the Taliban leader Mullah Omar remains at large

But Different

Although Gaddafi has been rumoured to have fled to either the city of Sirte or the southern Libyan Desert, there are no neighbouring countries who would provide him a safe haven.

3)      What Next?

Same, Same

The Kazai led government that replaced the Taliban suffers high levels of corruption and incompetence. The inability of the new government to provide for Afghans allowed the Taliban to return to large parts of the country.

The killing of NTC commander Abdel Fattah Younes by his own forces and the subsequent sacking of the entire cabinet does not bode well for NTC competency.

But Different

A critical difference is that the NTC have promised free and fair elections in 20-months in which none of the NTC leadership will stand in. They have also gone further even suggesting that Jibril will demand an investigation of his own time as a Gaddafi minister.


1)      Contentious Intervention

Same, Same

Both interventions attempted to use the UN as a means to justify action.

But Different

While the allies argued that previous UN resolutions gave them justification to invade Iraq, in the case of Libya a new resolution, UNSCR 1973, was eventually used to remove Gaddafi. 

2)      The Fall of a Dictator

Same, Same

Both dictators had been in power for some time; Gaddafi lasted 42 years while Saddam was in power for 33 years.

Both leaders adopted the appearance of military men despite neither having seen a single battle.

The iconic image of the end of the Saddam regime was his statue being torn down in Firdos square, while Gaddafi’s compound in Bab al-Azizya falling will remain the moment his regime can be said to have ended.

Saddam emptied the prisons and allowed civilians weapons, Gaddafi has appeared to have adopted a similar tactic with footage shot by a journalist being driven around by Saif Gaddafi on Monday night showing weapons being handed out.  

Both the allied invaders and the Libyan rebels feared that the dictator would use of chemical weapons against them.

After the fall of Baghdad Saddam was rumoured to have fled to his home town of Tikrit, similar rumours surround Gaddafi and him fleeing to his home town of Sirte.

The NTC have promised to put Gaddafi on trial in Libya. In Iraq the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein exacerbated sectarian and tribal tensions.

But Different

Operations in Libya were conducted by Libyans backed by NATO airpower, not a foreign army of invasion / occupation. Western leaders have explicitly ruling out ‘boots on the ground’, with British Foreign Secretary William Hague confirming that “we’re not looking at British troops being a significant part of a stabilisation operation”.

It took 9 months to find Saddam in a spider hole. Gaddafi has been at large for less than 24-hours since the fall of his compound.

3)      Post-Regime Chaos

Same, Same

Baghdad experienced mass looting. As well as priceless artefacts being taken from the national museum the majority of government ministries were looted down to the cooper wiring – as Donald Rumsfeld commented – “freedom is messy”.

Although the fog of war still shrouds much of events in Tripoli current reports suggest that in addition to Gaddafi compound, Hotels such as the 5-star Corinthian have been looted.  

But Different

The NTC deployed a specially trained ‘Tripoli Brigade’ made up of fighters from the city to guard the national museum and other key cultural sites. The NTC has been preparing a post-Gaddafi stabilisation plan for months.

The Libyan state is far less rotten than Iraq in 2003 where sanctions brought all forms of state infrastructure to its knees.  

The Rebels ability to get Benghazi working after the withdrawal of Gaddafi’s government is evidence of their ability to use a ‘big society’ model to govern, which included using local scout groups to control the traffic.