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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

A hollow victory: The slow unraveling of Libya

Libyan men attend a funeral in Benghazi, Libya, Monday, March 5, 2012 for 155 victims unearthed from a mass grave. They were killed during last year's civil war. Photo: AP Photo/Manu Brabo

Over the weekend, fighting in Sabha, in a remote southern region of Libya, killed 147. It was the latest of months-long string of horrifying stories coming out of Libya that seems to merit mostly shrugs. What is going on?

Part of the reason so few seem to know about the awful things happening to Libya is because NATO’s leadership seems determined to ignore it. Last October, President Obama called the war “a recipe for future success.” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has fulsomely praised the nascent Libyan government as making “progress.” Ivo Daalder and James Stavridis, the US Representative to NATO and the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, respectively, published an article in this month’s Foreign Affairs magazine extolling the Libyan war as a “model intervention.”

It is far too early, however, to sell the intervention in Libya as a success. Sure, the immediate danger of a Gaddafi offensive against Benghazi – the original purpose of the intervention – was averted, and no one mourns the hated tyrant’s fall. But even the campaign to unseat Gaddafi was fraught with questionable moral decisions by the rebels that NATO so enthusiastically supported. Last July, Human Rights Watch reported, Libyan rebel groups were engaged in looting, arson, and the abuse of civilians. By September, there were widespread reports that Arabs were targeting Black Africans for reprisals and violence.

This has not been a few isolated incidents from the confusion of combat or the exuberance of the rebel victory. In January, Reuters reported in January that violence and lawlessness are slowly taking over the capital, Tripoli. Rival militias, no longer unified by their struggle against Gaddafi, are now openly clashing in the streets, and the new government’s inability to impose control has resulted in a skyrocketing of crime and random violence.

Also in January, Amnesty International reported the Libyan rebels had engaged in “widespread torture and ill-treatment of suspected pro-Gadhafi fighters and loyalists.” These acts of torture are being committed by “officially recognized military and security entities as well by a multitude of armed militias operating outside any legal framework,” Amnesty said in a statement. The group Doctors Without Borders suspended work in the eastern city of Misrata earlier this year as a result of the systemic torture and murder committed by the rebel forces.

Focusing on the abuses of the rebel movement, however, doesn’t mean Gaddafi’s forces were innocent. Far from it: Human Rights Watch has assisted in the unearthing of mass graves filled with the bodies of innocent civilians murdered by pro-Gaddafi forces during the fighting. The war between Gaddafi’s forces and the rebel forces unleashed terrible suffering, with up to 8,000 missing or “disappeared” since the start of the fighting – on both sides.

But more anodyne and negative forces are at work in Libya. The Washington Post reported on Saturday that even something as simple as a landfill – a critical public health issue – prompts machine guns and turf battles.  It’s part of an ecosystem of rival gangs and turf wars that have been unleashed by the downfall of Gaddafi.

The intervention in Libya has carried other costs as well. Gaddafi’s fall let loose a massive cache of uncontrolled weapons, which found their way to the Tuareg rebels in Mali. Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat who has worked in Mali and Niger, has angrily accused the recent coup in Mali as an example of the “blowback” caused by the collapse of the Gaddafi regime.

From a strategic perspective, Libya has created a roadblock in the UN Security Council. NATO ignored the text of the UN Security Council Resolution that rejected regime change as an outcome of intervention.  As a result, now other UNSC members, namely Russia and China, will assume that any future moves to invoke the UN to safeguard civilians will be a interpreted as code for advocating regime change. Russia and China oppose regime change on principle, and don’t want to see their own policies and integrity attacked in the name of human rights. But by discarding the limitations the UNSC placed on the intervention in Libya, NATO also discarded much of the legitimacy of the UNSC itself – thus making it less likely that the UN can be effective tool for protecting civilians in the future.

Calling Libya a victory is still premature – we have no idea if Libya will turn out well. Like the war in Libya, the U.S. invasion of Iraq began in March and seemed early on to be a blazing success – by December of 2003, joyous Iraqis celebrated the capture of Saddam Hussein and thought their nightmare was at an end. War supporters either ignored or explained away the growing acts of violence and disorder as the pitiful actions of a few regime dead-enders… even as the country slipped into a nightmarish chaos.

We would do well to avoid the same sort of early, and wrong, declarations of victory in Libya. The country remains far from unified, or even settled. And the constant drumbeat of bad news – gun fights, rival militias, torture, arbitrary detention, and so on – do not yet bode well for Libya’s future.

Libya may well turn out to be better without Gaddafi than under his boot. But right now, no matter the euphoria expressed by the few Libyans contacted by western journalists, it’s far too early to say.

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and a columnist for The Atlantic. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group.