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NATO must take responsibility for spiralling violence in Libya

Firefighters clean up after an explosion in Tripoli. EPA/STR

Libya has drifted out of our news recently, swamped and obscured by other conflicts. But the repercussions of the NATO intervention, and the subsequent failure of any credible central government to control the powerful militias, have led to a series of increasingly serious incidents.

These include kidnappings (even the abduction of the prime minister), bombings, assassinations (both attempted and successful), and the massacre of protesters on the streets of Tripoli – all this on the watch of a western-installed government charged with protecting its citizens.

Escalating violence over the past few months has led several major oil companies to pull out and expatriate staff, and fuelled fears that Libya’s economic recovery could be delayed as a result. New Libya envoys have been appointed by the UK and US and terms like “civil war” are starting to circulate.

All this after the West declared Libya a victory for liberal interventionism.

Unlike Bush and Blair’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the western “victory” in Libya was achieved without boots on the ground and principally by allowing locals to take the lead. Much of the clamour to intervene in Syria invoked the Libyan “success”, and the West’s reluctance to dive into that conflict has prompted accusations of weakness in the White House. The Economist, for example, running the headline What Would America Fight For?.

But the violence now mounting in Libya makes it clear this was a serious misrepresentation. Instead, Libya should serve as a warning that an apparently simple military intervention can still have dire consequences – especially for the people who actually have to live with them.

The Libyan parliament after protesters stormed it in March 2014. EPA/Sabri Elmhedwi

What might have been

Once Gaddafi fell, Libya was supposed to be free, but Libya now appears to be stuck in a cycle of escalating violence. This reached its nadir when the CIA-linked General Hiftar launched his second coup attempt in three months; the chief of staff called on the Islamist militias to defend the government as the country heads towards elections.

Hiftar was head of the National Salvation Front and enjoys some external support from the US in his opposition to the Islamists. He is also openly supported by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and by the Egyptian regime of General Sisi, which has shot a number of its own Islamists.

Blowback from Libya has also managed to spread insecurity across north Africa and into the Sahel, where the Sahara desert fades into the Sudanese savanna. The first country to experience this was Mali, where Tuareg fighters returned from Libya armed with military-grade heavy weapons. They tipped a fragile balance in northern Mali when they allied with Islamist groups and marched south, and the violence in the country is still a major regional crisis.

Another group to benefit from this lax arms control was Boko Haram, who have similarly laid hands on a formidable new arsenal brought in to the north of Nigeria via the Sahel.

The result of all this has been a cross-border version of whack-a-mole, with an escalating involvement of American, British and French forces in virtually all of the countries bordering the Sahel.

External intervention in north Africa has not just stirred up violence; it has also produced its own backlash across the region, as support for Islamists becomes the popular form of dissent.

The Libyan intervention precipitated a human security crisis; it also sent waves of violence, instability and chaos through the whole of north Africa. Its effects are unlikely to stop there. If the West is to deal with the security crisis it created, it has to tackle both the weak institutions charged with maintaining security but also the root causes of the grievances that lead to popular recruitment to these Islamist groups.

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