Monday 25 August 2014

Libya: media extrapolations serve nobody

News reaches us today of further fighting in Libya, and it won't be too long before our media caravan gets bored of Iraq, moves on to Libya and blesses us with the benefits of their considerable expertise. As with Iraq, our media is focused on all the wrong things, and if we had little idea of what was happening in 2011 in Libya then we have absolutely zero now. That will not stop our media pontificating on it and drawing all the wrong conclusions, especially that this is a consequence of "Western" intervention. What we are seeing here is pretty much the usual script: a tribal uprising consisting of a loose coalition of allies now turning on each other. It could be no other way.

We have already explored on this blog how ineffectual the air operation was, but even a damning critique is to understate how useless Unified Protector was, with some rebel commanders criticising NATO for the complete absence of NATO during the critical battles to take Tripoli. By this time, in a highly fluid battle, forces on both sides comprised of convoys of Toyota pickups with improvised machine gun turrets and NATO couldn't be sure which side they were attacking. Some of this is confirmed by an uncharacteristically useful report from The Telegraph which casts doubt on some of the other certainties.

So sporadic was NATO air activity during the battle, a mere three bunkers were hit, two AA guns,  two "storage facilities" and one "tank", with the main concentration of firepower aimed at air defences which would have been a severe threat to the regime's non-existent air force.

But we are covering old ground here. Not enough has been said of the intervention on the ground. While we did not see "boots on the ground", we did see "military advisors" and various parties arming various rebels. But a simplistic extrapolations such as "the West" arming "Islamist militias" as is used by various sources including Prison Planet, Spiked Online, the Guardian, Times and Telegraph means we get an incomplete picture of what is happening now.

As we have seen with recent events, our perception of what is happening depends entirely on which prism you look through. I hesitate to say that Western media gives a single particular version when British media has a greater propensity for hyperventilation and inaccuracy that their US counterparts, though considering the Obama administration's low approval ratings, one must be careful how much weight we lend to US sources too.

American media is naturally US-centric and any stick that can be used to beat Obama will be used. But in reality, we have seen a more measured and cautious response to events in Iraq from the Obama administration than from the UK, and there is reason to believe that if we peel back the various layers of partisan exaggerations, the US and the CIA showed a great deal more care that EU participants in Libya. Initially that is. I'm no fan of Obama, but we must drop the presumption if we want to get anywhere near the truth.

What we see is the US arming "islamist militias and Al Queda" via Egyptian and Qatari proxies, with Qatar being responsible for a great many weapons going missing. We are told that Egypt's actions were independent of the US, with US diplomats urging Libya's neighbours to take a more active role. Make of that what you will. I'm not buying it.

To say that the US armed Al Qaeda is a hugely questionable statement and as to "Islamist militias", well, all militias in the region are Islamist to one extent or another. What matters is who, when, and what weapons. Unless we have comprehensive answers to these questions, any narrative based upon such interpretations are little more than supposition.

We have already examined the folly of describing the Libya intervention as Western foreign policy because we see a very distinct EU agenda, separate to that of the US, with Britain, seemingly mindless in its support of the French agenda who, as always, were serving only themselves - with the endgame of making Libya more a French colonial (for want of a better word) concern, and muscling Italy out of the picture. Hence why Italy refused to partake in Unified Protector if France retained command functions. That is why it became a NATO operation. You can hardly blame Germany for not wanting any part of it.

While the Benghazi incident absorbed the attention of US media (with little more than indifference from our own), it was the UK who's diplomatic efforts cleared the way for the French to arm militias, separate to the main effort, and it is those weapons which more than likely found their way into the hands of Boko Haram et al. US weapons are more than likely in the hands of the militias they intended them to be in, though those same groups are not now behaving as hoped. Curiously, French forces in Mali may well have faced weapons supplied by the French government.

The suggestion that the US armed elements of Al Qaeda is one of those less than accurate depictions and is more than likely a political concoction with which to beat Obama, and a stick with which the left will beat the US with in general, regardless of who is the president. What we see is rebel commanders who have worked alongside Al Qaeda, with Western weapons to fight the Russians and latterly have assisted US forces in Afghanistan in trying to combat various tribal surges.

The difficulty therein is that no counter-insurgency war or tribal uprising can be won solely through military means and the highly fluid tribal dynamics (which can change overnight) mean our diplomats and generals must work with people who only yesterday we might have called the enemy. The ISIS drama playing out at the moment sees us arming groups that only two years ago we were calling terrorists.

It is intellectually dishonest and lazy to use catch all terms to describe these various factions, and while it makes for easily digestible narratives, the lack of precision can rapidly warp our interpretation of events. There is no single Al Qaeda, the is no single ISIS, there is no single Taliban and there probably isn't a Boko Haram as such either. We see elements of Libyan rebels feeling left out and flying the flag for the caliphate, but to assume it is all a pan-Arab Islamist movement is a gross misrepresentation of barely related tribes co-operating for short term gains. So, insomuch as we need to stop talking about "Western foreign policy" we also need to stop talking about "Islamist militias" and "terrorist groups".

But this is not to say Libya would not have been a vacation sport of choice for Islamist groups since all civil wars are a weapons bonanza (I can't think of a single one that wasn't), and in fact more Libyan weapons likely ended up in the hands of hostiles than "Western" given NATOs ineffectual air strikes. A centralised state in an oil rich country is always going to be a crown worth fighting over. The "West" did not instigate the uprising, it did not create the political vacuum, and it did not do the fighting on the ground - nor lend any substantive support to it.

We can boil it down to a simple narrative that "the West" armed "rebels" but it cannot be said that Western intervention was instrumental in the fall of Gaddafi. This assumes too much competence on our part. These tinpot regimes only ever get by on the illusion of military supremacy and tribal alliances which were already fragmented long before "the West" chose to intervene.

What can be said is that if the West was to intervene then it could have done a great deal more to ensure a rapid and decisive victory and done more to support the provisional authorities in restoring order. But we haven't done that, which is just as well since that is precisely what Tim Black and Brendan O'Neill say we shouldn't do. What we are looking at is the battle for self-determination that it was always going to be.

But those same commentators have condemned the West for our support of the coup in Egypt, returning Egypt to a military dictatorship, the likes of which could stop an ISIS style tribal uprising originating from Libya destabilising Egypt in a similar fashion. If we had done this to support Assad, then perhaps we would not be looking at an ISIS invasion in Iraq. As it happens we did the exact opposite. The question then is... why?

Again we come to the question of "Western intervention". But was it? That is outside of the scope of this particular post, but given the complexities and falsehoods said of Libya, the Syrian question will be one to revisit with a similar degree of scepticism.

The only consistent thread throughout is that there are a multitude of conflicting agendas on both sides, with the US showing an equal lack of comprehension of their allies as the "enemy". All sides are looking to blame the US when other games are at play far from the eye of our media. The US is very much still fighting the War on Terror, but Europe has other ideas.

So then you might ask what my version of events is given the doubts I have expressed. Put simply, I don't have one. We are not in command of the facts, there is a famine of reliable news, social media adds only white noise, and our political commentariat deal only in absolutes and simplistic extrapolations which are lacking in detail and nuance.

While the end result looks very much like Western intervention gone wrong, I take the view that this is a mess of their own making, was always going to be a mess, and was always going to be flooded with weapons whatever the outcome. What looks to be superficially stupid policy making with hindsight is very often the best estimation given the available information at the time which was poor throughout. This dynamic alone should be the chief caveat that influences our decision to intervene.

My peers tell me I am far too caught up in the detail but I dislike these "big picture" estimations, because there isn't a big picture. It is not a jigsaw, it's a kaleidoscope where the picture never stays the same, and if it were, we certainly don't have enough of the pieces to tell what the picture is. These commentators might well be right, but if they are, it is entirely by accident.

This is not to say my opinion will not evolve further as I dig even deeper, but this is a complex and multifaceted conflict which is not unrelated to all the other conflicts were are presently seeing including Syria, Egypt and Ukraine to an extent. The moment you start picking at loose threads you begin to discover just how badly we are served by our media. But that is nothing new.

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