Voices from Benghazi: ‘We have lived through the worst five years’

Peter Oborne’s letter from Libya

2 January 2016

9:00 AM

2 January 2016

9:00 AM

In their interview in the Christmas edition of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth asked the Prime Minister whether he now considered that his intervention in Libya had been a mistake. David Cameron accepted that matters could have gone better since the fall of Gaddafi, but insisted that ‘what we were doing was preventing a mass genocide’. Like Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Gaddafi’s genocide seems to have been a fiction. It was reiterated over and over again by government and in the media in order to whip up support for the imposition a no-fly zone in March 2011. However, there was never any convincing evidence. Later that summer the International Crisis Group concluded that ‘There are grounds for questioning the more sensational reports that the regime was using its air force to slaughter demonstrators, let alone engaging in anything remotely warranting use of the term “genocide”.’

Whatever the true reason for the Franco-British intervention in Libya, there is no question that it resulted in disaster, as The Spectator warned at the time. When I arrived in Benghazi last week, I asked to be taken to Liberation Square, where Mr Cameron promised Libyans that he would ‘stand with you as you build your country and build your democracy for the future’. I was told this would not be possible as, in common with almost all of central Benghazi, it was in rebel hands. One third of the population have been driven from their homes, the economy has collapsed by 50 per cent, the school system doesn’t work and assassination squads roam the streets. When I visited the mayor of Benghazi in his temporary office (the town hall being in rebel hands), he told me that since the fall of Gaddafi, ‘We have lived through the worst five years of our history.’

Meanwhile Britain is making matters even worse, supposing that was possible, by failing to support the Libyan government. Based in the east of the country, it is internationally recognised, having been democratically elected in the spring of 2014. It has, sensibly enough, sought to take control over its own resources and finances by establishing a national oil company and a central bank, but has been blocked at every turn by Britain and the international community. This means that it has no money to fund schools, hospitals or support public services, let alone fight the latest menace to have turned up on its doorstep — Daesh.

A month ago the Libyan prime minister, Abdullah al-Thani, wrote to Philip Hammond offering to cooperate against Daesh, and also the people-smuggling rackets that funnel migrants from sub-Saharan Africa across the Mediterranean into Europe. He still hasn’t received a reply. Instead, over Christmas, the British have sanctioned a United Nations move to oust Mr al-Thani and impose an unelected prime minister. As far as I can discover, this is the first time that the UN have sanctioned a coup d’etat against a democratically elected government. Predictably this latest initiative has been rejected not just in eastern Libya but also in Libya’s rival power in Tripoli (where it is impossible for any person or institution to operate except with the support of the coalition of militias that totally control the city). The UN have compounded their policy failures by an arms embargo, making it even more difficult for the government in Tobruk to take on and defeat Daesh.

Are there any Canadians out there? Heroic Major Akram Algomatey is one of 800 policemen and officials targeted for assassination in Benghazi since David Cameron made his vainglorious pledge to stand with Libya in Liberation Square. Akram crawled alive out of his car after it was bombed. Unfortunately, he says, ‘I left my leg behind.’ Within six months he was back at his desk, and he has arranged — and paid for — a new leg to be fitted in a Canadian hospital. But the authorities are taking their time over a visa. Major Akram has promised his fiancée they will not marry until the operation is complete. I can think of few worthier cases. Perhaps Prime Minister Trudeau could speed things up?

At an army base I had lunch with one of the few men who has taken on the SAS and won. Special forces commander Abdulah al-Shaafi, a veteran of 40 years in the Libyan army, told me how he had captured a detachment of British soldiers and intelligence officers when they were found wandering round the desert at the start of the Libyan uprising in 2011, then handed them over to the UK chargé d’affaires. He claimed it had all been good-natured. Now Colonel al-Shaafi is dealing with another problem — Daesh. His Brigade 204 in Fweihat, west Benghazi, is fighting Daesh and the other Islamist groups which control large parts of the city. The commanding officer, Colonel Mahdi, told me he was leading a force of civilian volunteers, 100 of whom have been killed over the last year. What were Daesh fighters like? Colonel Mahdi told me, ‘They are smart but act like idiots.’ He explained they were skillful fighters but lacked support among local people. ‘They are well-trained but the main factor is their beliefs,’ he said. ‘You have to fight the fighter, and you have to fight his beliefs.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Peter Oborne is an associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • davidofkent

    Some of us said it would end in tears. I claim no special expertise for this. I simply read a lot of history. The faces change, but history repeats itself century after century. All that is required is for roughly a generation to pass and even some of the people who have actually read some history will say “it’s different this time”. And it never is.

    • Mary Ann

      It’s like having children, each generation has to make its own mistakes.

  • Too easy to be critical.
    Too easy to forget the siren cries for help.
    When we “help” – it goes wrong.
    When we help by using violence and invading – it goes wrong.
    When we help by using violence and not invading – it goes wrong.
    When we help by doing nothing – yes, it goes wrong.
    Tricky, really.
    Perhaps they should sort themselves out?
    Oops, then the “Arab Spring” goes wrong, and of course, it’s still our fault.

    • Thanks Tank

      It was of no concern to Britain and given the mess that was Iraq and that was growing in Syria it was obvious that it would be a disaster.

      The scale of that has yet to be realized but it has given a base to the Islamic State where it can grow and threaten North Africa and near by Europe.

      Dave wanted something for the history books.

  • carl jacobs

    At least the intervention in Libya put paid to the idea of “the Responsibility to Protect.”

    ISIS is essentially a bunch of guys in trucks with AK47s. They are a gang and not an army. ISIS isn’t strong. The West is weak. Principally, the people of the West are 1) allergic to the responsibility of conceiving & raising children and 2) allergic to the idea of joining the army. So then. Gather your collective will and fix it. If you really think they are a threat to Europe, then:

    1. Build an army. Somewhere in Europe there must still be the capability to build an army that can project power.

    2. Send it to Libya. No, you don’t need the UNSCs permission. You have two permanent members in Europe.

    3. Drive ISIS out of Libya, preferably by killing as many as possible.

    4. Give leadership of Libya over to a general, and tell him to run the country such that Libya won’t make problems for Europe. That seems to be the retro-actively preferred solution for Iraq these days. Implement it in Libya.

    5. Go home and look the other way.

    6. Figure out how to increase your birthrate above replacement so you won’t be so scared of your Muslim population.

    • Yew Leaves

      Now sit back in you armchair – you’ve deserved it General.

      • carl jacobs

        What? Do I lie? Is anything I said untrue?

        Europeans b*tch and moan and whine and complain about Iraq without so much as giving a second thought to the consequences of not fighting that war – principally because all of those consequences would have fallen to the US. “Look at the terrible refugee problem Iraq created for Europe!” But when I suggest that you get off your collective backsides and actually do something about it, this is the best response you can manage?

        • Texas Sunday Morning

          No, we simply don’t see why we should spend our blood and treasure to deal with the family squabbles of the Bushes and the House of Saud.

          • carl jacobs

            Libya wasn’t an American operation. The US got involved simply because Europe didn’t have the ability to perform the mission by itself. It needed American capability – refueling, intelligence, and especially air defense suppression – to pull it off.

          • Cobbett

            It wasn’t ”Europe” but Britain and France who were acting on the say so of America(Clinton pushed hard for intervention)…another disaster.

        • Tamerlane

          We learned from listening to Americans on Mexicans.

        • Cyril Sneer

          What a croc of sh t. You must be an American.

  • omgamuslim

    Should you carefully read the story of “a detachment of British soldiers and intelligence officers when they were found wandering round the desert at the start of the Libyan uprising in 2011” and the British person who, ostensibly helping out for the previous six months as a farming expert in Libya, welcomed them there, it will be quite apparent to you that Brit Intelligence were already hard at work stirring up things there before the whole shooting match began.

  • Cobbett

    Not liking their ”democracy & Freedom” then?

  • GoJebus

    You would think that after living through a forty year dictatorship the Libyans would have embraced democracy and human rights like no other people. Unfortunately though, they are 97% Sunni Muslim, making that impossible.

    In most countries where there is a Muslim majority, the choice for the West seems to be either to deal with an undemocratic Islamist or Islamic government, or a dictatorship. Either way, when things go wrong they will not want to hear from us.

    So, there should be no brow-beating about the right way to deal with these countries, there isn’t one. Majority Muslim populations seem not to give a hoot for democracy or Western values and those from their societies that do are easily extinguished (murdered, forced to emigrate, silenced by fear) by those who don’t: democracy is ‘haram’ under Islam after all. Maybe Turkey will prove me wrong, but it is looking increasingly unlikely under pious cave-man Erdogan.

    • Julieann Carter

      This is helpful Makes clear why Libya was targetted. (Same reason Saddam was).

      Life for Libyans under Gaddafi was far superior than Brits life under Cameron. Free healthcare, education, & energy. A human right to a home. If you wanted to be a farmer, Gaddafi set you up with livestock, home, & seeds. Needed medical care unavailable in Libya, Gaddafi paid for Libyan to have treatment abroad. Gaddafi did not house his own father until every Libyan had a home. His pledge.
      His people loved him, he travelled around in open topped cars with no fear of assassination from own people.
      All that, until we brought “Freedom & Democracy”.
      After we brought “Freedom & Democracy”, we ethnically cleansed all blacks out of Libya.

      • GoJebus

        A lot of what is in that video is interesting and perhaps contains some truths, but I am always going to be wary of one-sided presentations, slick editing, scary music and doomsday narration. Thanks for sharing it, but it is clearly not a balanced view of modern geopolitics and who knows (I don’t), it could be part of Putin’s much discussed hybrid warfare strategy, and you could be called Sergey and not Julieann.

      • GoJebus

        Also, I do agree with you that we’ve made a bad situation a lot worse in that country.

  • Tamerlane

    Cameron only went into Libya because he wanted to give new Lab a bloody nose and highlight their relationship with Gaddafi.

    (Btw calling it ‘Daesh’ doesn’t make it any less Islamic. Trust you get that. You can call it ‘Supper Evil Vanilla Peppa Pigs’ if you like but it’s still Islam.)

    • Todd Unctious

      When did Cameron go in to Libya? Not a single boot on the ground other than his idiotic photo op,’

  • Jacobi

    Matters have been a disaster since the fall of Gadaffi.

    Libya is no longer a state and has disintegrated into factions. A s a mainly Sunni country it will be another breeding and training ground for the
    Saudi/Sunni/ ISIL and now Turkish campaign to Islamise the West.

    Libya is still one of the two main routes, (the other being through Turkey into Greece) for the Islamic religious influx into Europe and no doubt they are
    looking forward to a bumper season in 2016.

    And yet as a failed state it is the ideal place to set up a proper internment area under proper USA, UK and EU military control to ensure this influx is contained and reversed,