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Last week, the Washington Times ran a series of articles about former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s leadership during Libya’s civil war of 2011, citing new “secret tapes” and anonymous intelligence and military sources who allege massive failures on her part. Of course, many in Washington think that the timing of the articles, and the documents and sources relied on, are part of the lead-up to the 2016 presidential campaign in which Hillary is likely to run. The truth, as is often the case, is more nuanced and mixed. Beyond domestic political considerations and new revelations of what happened in 2011, the questions before the US and its European allies now are: What do these revelations mean? Why is Libya still important? What should we do about it?

The significance of the revelations:

Most well-placed Libya observers and experts already know that none of the revelations in the Washington Times articles are particularly new. They also know that this is indeed part of more such articles about Hillary that are yet to come this year and the next. Most, in fact, know that much of the narrative about Libya in 2011 was exaggerated for the sake of political expediency, in line with one of Washington’s most treasured traditions.

Whatever the motive behind the new revelations, the facts stated are confirmed, in some cases even publicly, by what many Libyans on the ground have been saying since 2011. For example, Mustafa Abdul Jaleel, who was head of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) in 2011, the official body that represented the anti-Muammar Gaddafi revolutionaries, publicly admitted in an interview in 2012 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLvIlu-orAY) that the Gaddafi regime had ordered that no force should be used against protesters in Benghazi or elsewhere. In addition to that, many members of the NTC and its Executive Office (EO) — which functioned as a sort of cabinet in 2011 — confirm privately that there were many “extremist” elements in the ranks of the Libyan “revolutionaries” that everyone kept quiet about in order to retain the support of western countries. Some have gone as far as to say that it was those extremists themselves who shot the initial group of protesters in Benghazi on the night of February 15, 2011, to inflame the situation and trigger a much larger revolt.

These public and private admissions, as well as the unsurprising failures of what was known then as the “Libya Stabilisation Team”, an arm of the Executive Office of the NTC, show clearly that there were no serious plans for post-regime change. This Stabilisation Team was tasked in June 2011 with preparing a post-Gaddafi road map. But the plans, as it turned out, were more or less “pies in the sky”. As we now know, once the rebels entered Tripoli on October 20, 2011, they simply began a campaign of revenge against Gaddafi officials and formed their own militias outside the control of the NTC and EO. The “stabilisation plans” turned out to be no more than pipe dreams intended to convince senior officials representing the countries that formed the “Libya Contact Group”, including its most important member, the then secretary of state Hillary, and who were meeting in various capitals to asses whether western and Arab countries should trust and recognise the NTC and EO and support them as credible partners with serious plans and the capacity to control post-Gaddafi Libya.

The basic strategy of those who self-selected themselves under the banner of NTC and EO to head the “Libyan Revolution” then — and who were largely unknown — seems to have been, on the one hand, simply to peddle fantasies and exaggerations about massive rapes, aerial bombardment and “genocide” by the much-hated Gaddafi forces, with the help of some international media outlets owned and operated by sympathetic Arab regimes, in order to create an urgency before the international community and public opinion to intervene to topple the Libyan regime. On the other hand were “plans” on paper for post-regime change to convince those who were already sympathetic to the cause and desperately did not want to miss the boat on a new phase of the “Arab Spring” — as they had missed the boat in both Tunisia and Egypt — to rally international support. The trouble was, on both counts, and as evidenced from the past four years, they were grasping at straws and did not do due diligence. Something that should not have happened, especially after the massive intelligence failures in Iraq. Although in the Libyan case, the failures seem to be with the political centres of power, not with the intelligence community, which was apparently steamrolled into the Libya war despite its doubts.

Some basic lessons to learn:

The significance of the emerging body of Libyan and western realizations that major chunks of the narrative on Libya were at best exaggerations and at worst entirely fabricated, is obviously the failure to learn from the past. The case of Afghanistan after the Soviet retreat, when the US ignored evidence of hardliners taking control of the country and its subsequent re-emergence on the international scene with the 9/11 tragedy, coupled with the failures of intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and its aftermath of goading the US and Nato into a massive intervention that has cost far too much in lives and treasure, should have been enough to teach America, the European Union (EU) and Arab policy-makers not to repeat those mistakes in Libya.

It is now, however, very clear, almost four years to the day of the “Libyan Revolution”, that did not happen. We now know all too well that most of what those “Libyan interlocutors” — the US and the EU — have relied on since 2011 have been less than trustworthy and have led the international community astray with their wishful thinking and lies that were driven by self-interests and a spirit of revenge rather than the interests of Libya as a whole. Sadly and ironically, this is not very different from the exiled Iraqi figures who led the US into Iraq in 2003.

The second lesson that we should have learned is that no military intervention should ever be contemplated without nailing down first and foremost a credible plan for post-conflict and post-regime change that does not rely too much on the assumption of goodwill or national interest on the part of the few who are the loudest voices in support of that intervention and have the most to gain from it. The continued willingness of the international powers to listen to and include these people in their efforts to resolve Libya’s on-going civil war is very puzzling and counter-productive.

The third lesson should have been a realisation from the start that the Libyan conflict of 2011 was and still is a civil war between different currents inside the country. Gaddafi, and irrespective of what one may think of him and his regime, was a Libyan, supported by Libyans, and in conflict with other Libyans. As such, one can hardly think of any better words to describe his war against others in 2011 than a “civil war”. The denial of that simple fact has cost Libya and the international community the ability to understand what was happening then, and prevented them from putting in place the necessary process of resolving the resultant problems, including a reconciliation process, an amnesty programme, post-conflict reconstruction, disarmament, among others.

Why is Libya still important:

While Libya is by itself of limited strategic importance to the US in particular, it is quite significant when viewed from the larger lens of regional strategic importance. For one, Libya is a massive land mass that occupies the centre of three important regions of the world. The Mediterranean, where Libya has the longest coastline of all countries; North Africa; and the African Sahel countries. Instability in Libya could quite easily lead to instability across one or more of these regions, putting us face to face with a failed region, instead of just one failed country. The resultant mayhem can easily reach southern Europe itself.

Secondly, Libya has massive financial, oil and gas resources that can become an ATM machine, as many have said before, for terrorist groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and can link many extremist groups across Mali, Algeria, Tunisia, Chad, Niger, Sudan and Egypt, in addition to Libya itself. On the other hand, stabilising Libya, can contribute immensely in the opposite direction, turning it into an important anchor for stability across these regions.

Finally, Libya has become a litmus test for the potency of the international community and American leadership, given that it is a rare example of international unanimity and collective will. The catastrophic failure of Libya, a relatively small, uncomplicated country, gives rise to an international impression that ‘If we can’t get even Libya right, what chances do we have in other more complex countries and situations?” This, of course, undermines the prestige of the international order and US capacity to deal with emerging crises around the globe and would encourage many extremist groups and hostile nations elsewhere to overstep the international order.

What should we do about Libya?

The simple, most straight forward answer to this question is mustering international political will and courage to deal with the Libyan civil war and its real and potential ramifications without the need for getting everyone in the country to agree to “play nice” and join the process and in sizing up these groups as they really should be sized up.

Pragmatically speaking, Libya is an international problem and if Libyans do not want to or cannot solve it themselves, the world should and must solve it one way or another.

This calls for a clear strategy that combines a carrot-and-stick approach to ensure that the country reaches acceptable levels of stability. And this is irrespective of whether the new system is democratic or not, or whether it comprises the old devils we knew before 2011, and dealt with, or is from within the ranks of the new devils that we do not know and who have misled us and mismanaged Libya’s transition so far, or is a combination of both.

Hafed Al Ghwell is a senior non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Centre in Washington DC. You can follow him on www.twitter.com/@HafedAlGhwell