Post-Gaddafi Era Made Permanent

Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi was killed earlier today marking, as President Obama put it, “the end of a long, painful period for the Libyan people.” His death raises several interesting questions.

The “How” is more-or-less settled. Tim Gaynor and Taho Zargoun reporting for Reuters (“Libya’s Gaddafi caught hiding like a “rat”“):

Shortly before dawn prayers on Thursday, Gaddafi surrounded by a few dozen loyal bodyguards and accompanied by the head of his now non-existent army Abu Bakr Younis Jabr broke out of the two-month siege of Sirte and made a break for the west.

But they did not get far.

NATO said its aircraft struck military vehicles belonging to pro-Gaddafi forces near Sirte at about 8:30 a.m. (7:30 a.m. British time) on Thursday, but the alliance said it was unsure whether the strikes had killed Gaddafi.Fifteen pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns lay burnt out, smashed and smouldering next to an electricity sub station some 20 metres from the main road, about two miles west of Sirte.

They had clearly been hit by a force far beyond anything the motley army the former rebels have assembled during eight months of revolt to overthrow the once feared leader. But there was no bomb crater, indicating the strike may have been carried out by a helicopter gunship, or had been strafed by a fighter jet. Inside the trucks still in their seats sat the charred skeletal remains of drivers and passengers killed instantly by the strike. Other bodies lay mutilated and contorted strewn in the grass. Some 50 bodies in all.

Gaddafi himself and a handful of his men escaped death and appeared to have ran through a stand of trees towards the main road and hid in the two drainage pipes. But a group of government fighters were on their tail. “At first we fired at them with anti-aircraft guns, but it was no use,” said Salem Bakeer, while being feted by his comrades near the road. “Then we went in on foot. One of Gaddafi’s men came out waving his rifle in the air and shouting surrender, but as soon as he saw my face he started shooting at me,” he told Reuters.


“Then I think Gaddafi must have told them to stop. ‘My master is here, my master is here’, he said, ‘Muammar Gaddafi is here and he is wounded’,” said Bakeer.

“We went in and brought Gaddafi out. He was saying ‘what’s wrong? What’s wrong? What’s going on?’. Then we took him and put him in the car,” Bakeer said.

At the time of capture, Gaddafi was already wounded with gunshots to his leg and to his back, Bakeer said.

Other government fighters who said they took part in Gaddafi’s capture, separately confirmed Bakeer’s version of events, though one said the man who ruled Libya for 42 years was shot and wounded at the last minute by one of his own men. “One of Muammar Gaddafi’s guards shot him in the chest,” said Omran Jouma Shawan.


Video footage showed Gaddafi, dazed and wounded, but still clearly alive and gesturing with his hands as he was dragged from a pick-up truck by a crowd of angry jostling group of government soldiers who hit him and pulled his hair. He then appeared to fall to the ground and was enveloped by the crowd. NTC officials later announced Gaddafi had died of his wounds after capture.

Here’s the video in question, which isn’t exactly of the highest quality:

It’s not at all clear at this juncture how Gaddafi sustained the wounds seen at capture. Were they sustained in the air attack? By a guard, as claimed? James Blitz and Hugh Carnegy, reporting for the FT (“Confusion over Nato role in Gaddafi death“), indicate that, while the Alliance may well have been responsible for killing Gaddafi, they don’t want the credit.

Nato insisted on Thursday that whatever the circumstances of Col Gaddafi’s capture and death, the western alliance had never targeted individuals in its 215-day campaign. “It is important to stress that Nato does not target individuals,” said the spokesman. “We only target military assets that pose a threat.”
If Col Gaddafi was in the convoy, this may raise questions about the extent to which Nato commanders were aware that they were helping forces on the ground to bring about the former Libyan leader’s capture. Throughout the conflict, Nato has been bound by UN resolution 1973 which insists that military operations must be focused purely on the protection of civilians.

Nor is it yet known whether Gaddafi died from his wounds or was killed from abuse subsequent to capture.

Those questions are not trivial, in that it tells us something about the rule of law in Libya. Still, the more interesting questions are: What does this mean for the NATO mission in Libya? And what, if anything, does it mean about the next stage in the transition to a now permanently post-Gaddafi Libya?

NATO member nations have been anxious to unburden themselves of this mission, which has been universally controversial domestically among participating and non-participating allies and partners alike, and it appears that the termination of the figure who was the cause of the intervention will trigger its end. ABC News (“NATO Could Decide Tomorrow to End Libya Mission“):

With Moammar Gadhafi’s death in Libya today, NATO could decide as early as tomorrow that the time has come to end the mission in Libya.

A NATO official says it’s likely that the NATO Council will meet in Brussels Friday in a special meeting to receive an updated recommendation from its military commanders about the status of the ongoing mission in Libya. The NATO Council meets every Wednesday and received a regular Libya update yesterday, which is now outdated given today’s events.

“It’s anticipated this new assessment will come with a recommendation with regards to the operation,” says the official. ” I can’t speak to the recommendation…but there have been dramatic events today that will no doubt have a bearing on the commanders view of where to go next.”

This official says that if the NATO Council were to decide tomorrow to terminate the mission in Libya, it would not occur immediately. Like most military operations he says it would end in a phased manner, much as it started. The official says that’s because it’s prudent to ensure that the mission doesn’t end until they’re absolutely sure how the situation will be resolved in Libya.

The updated assessment will likely include a recommendation that will be made by Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, who is based in Naples has been running the operation; he’ll pass it on to his superior, Adm. Sam Locklear who’ll then pass it to NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Adm. James Stavridis. Stavridis would then approve it for endorsement by the NATO Military Committee in Brussels which will then forward it to the NATO Council. If the 28 member nations agree with the recommendation they’ll pass along new instructions to NATO’s military commanders.

The same report notes Pentagon estimates that as of September 30, the US military mission in Libya has cost $1.1 billion. Given the economic and political situation, this alone is powerful incentive to wrap things up quickly.

What’s next for Libya? Obviously, it’s still to soon to say. Reports over the last several months have made it clear that there was little appetite in NATO capitols–or anywhere else, for that matter–for post-regime-change stability operations. So Libya may well be left to its own devices.

Many of us have drawn parallels to Iraq, where the capture of Saddam Hussein turned out not to end things but actually led to the escalation of a civil war. There’s little reason to think this will be the case in Libya, in that regime change was initiated by local action rather than foreign invasion and we’re not going to see power turn from a hated religious minority to a bitter majority.

On the other hand, Iraq had strong institutions and Libya has none. It remains to be seen how well the National Transitional Council manages to set up viable elections, what constitutional structures will emerge, and how well a new government manages a delicate situation.

The safe bet, though, is that whatever emerges will be better than what was permanently left behind by today’s actions.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.


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