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Libya Post Conflict: We Must Learn From the Failures in Iraq

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For Libya to succeed in its transition, we are told repeatedly, we must learn the lessons of the failure to plan for the post-conflict phase in Iraq.

This claim is misleading and obscures the real lesson from Iraq. It is a matter of record that there was extensive planning for post-conflict Iraq in the State Department but this was thrown away when responsibility was passed to the Pentagon, a few months before the invasion. There was also quiet but comprehensive planning led by the United Nations, under the leadership of the then Deputy Secretary-General, Louise Frechette.

The UN work was kept low-key, because the threatened invasion of Iraq was so controversial and divisive, but it was coordinated with international agencies representing many countries across the world. Even after the invasion, a bitterly divided international community agreed at the IMF/World Bank Spring meetings in Washington in April that if the UN led the reconstruction effort, there would be widespread support . The possibility of international cooperation behind a UN lead was thrown away for reasons of hubris and as Jack Straw so elegantly put it "We took the risks and bore the costs, we cannot let the French and Germans get their noses in the trough".

The Libyan rebels have done the fighting and dying. NATO has organised 7,500 airstrikes and provided advice and some supplies, stretching the mandate from the UN. Commentators, close to the military, have told us repeatedly how disorganised and divided the rebels have been and stressed the dangers of the conflict going on indefinitely. Then suddenly Tripoli falls and David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and President Obama take to the airwaves to outline what the Libyans must do. It is notable that David Cameron, who appeared to cast doubt on respect for human rights in the wake of the riots in the UK, instructed the Libyans to have full respect for human rights.

As with Iraq, there has been considerable UN planning led by the Secretary General's special envoy for Libya, former Jordanian foreign minister Abdel Elah al-Khatib, and his special advisor on post-conflict planning, Ian Martin who is British and has a strong record of work for the UN in Nepal, East Timor, Haiti and elsewhere.

There have also been four meetings of the contact group which was established at the London Conference of 29 March with a view to coordinating international efforts in support of Libya. The Contact Group met for the fourth time in Istanbul on 15 July 2011 under the co-chairmanship of the Republic of Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Representatives from 32 countries and 7 international organizations, including the United Nations, European Union, NATO, the League of Arab States, the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, the Gulf Cooperation Council and, as an invitee, the African Union "discussed recent developments and reviewed progress with a view to taking further steps in support of the quest of the Libyan people for a democratic and free Libya". It is notable that the participants reaffirmed that "the Contact Group remains the appropriate platform for the international community to be a focal point of contact with the Libyan people, to coordinate international policy and to be a forum for discussion of humanitarian and post-conflict support".

The lesson from the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan is surely that if outside powers try to dominate and control the post-conflict settlement, resentment will grow and things will go wrong. This does not of course mean that Libya is not facing real challenges and problems. The Transitional National Council will need international support, but the requests must come from Libyans through the United Nations and the US France and the UK must not believe that they can dominate the post-war settlement and seek to do so to gain economic advantage.

The nature of the Gaddafi regime means that Libya has very weak national institutions and is a divided society because natural differences were perpetuated by divide and rule policies. But people from all sides joined the rebellion and Libya has a small population of only 6 million,vast oil wealth and many highly educated citizens. The government in waiting, is planning to move its base from Benghazi to Tripoli. The National Transitional Council has issued a constitutional declaration that plans the appointment of an interim government to run the country and organise elections to a transitional assembly in 6 -8 months. But in the immediate future, the challenge will be to establish security across the country given the danger of a highly armed population, continuing resistance from Gaddafi loyalists and the risk of demands for vengeance.
We should respect the achievements of the Libyan rebellion and offer our support, through UN channels in response to Libyan requests. The Secretary-General plans to convene a meeting before the end of the week, he has announced that his Special Envoy and his Special Advisor for post-conflict planning, will travel to Doha, to meet with the leadership of the NTC and said that the United Nations is ready to assist in areas such as security and the rule of law, social and economic recovery, constitution-making, human rights and transitional justice. It is my view that If support to re-establish security is required, help from Turkey would be more appropriate than from Western countries with tainted records.

We must wish the Libyan people well, put away our ulterior motives and understand that an open, democratic Libya is in the interests of the people of Libya and everyone else, and there is no need for any country to try to gain special advantage. We should also celebrate the fact that the Arab Spring has acquired new momentum. A third dictatorship has fallen. Building the new society is a longer term, more difficult task and a little western humility would not come amiss.

We armed and supported the dictators and failed to stand up for international law and human rights and thus promote peace and justice in the region. The US and the EU would do better to look to their intelligent self interest and that of Israel and the wider Middle East, and cease to collude in the oppression and suffering of the Palestinian people that boils away at the centre of this transforming region.