The UK’s foreign service has messed up big-time in Libya
When Lockerbie bomber El Megrahi landed back in his own country in August 2009, Colonel Gaddafi lost no time in ignoring promises made to Gordon Brown – and leaking details of the repatriation deal to all and sundry.
Two years on, David Cameron’s publicly expressed willingness this week to give Colonel Gaddafi a damn good thrashing was the act of a circus clown offering to fill in for the highwire act. He knew that the chances of him ever being taken up on it (or allowed to prepare for it by our allies) were zero in the first place.
He also knew that the chances of Britain mounting, fuelling and then dispatching such an operation are far beyond our current capacities as a military power; and it is in this bit of his gung-ho performance that the Prime Minister has ended up looking like a complete clot.
Oh how the Opposition laughed: all the King’s horses and men are pensioned off, and then asked to invade Libya.
It will be interesting to see if any miltary intervention does take place. So many lessons have been learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that it seems unlikely any major power would be mad enough to do it….and thus further risk the ire of Islamists who use every such move to suggest imperial ambitions on the part of the heathen.
On the ground and away from the media’s fascinated gaze, things are very different. But here too, Britain’s power-transfer preparations are all over the place.
The essential reality is that – as with most of Africa – military power, revolutionary cells and tribal loyalties are only ever just below the surface of so-called politics. Libya has over 130 tribes, but the country itself emerged from a botched Frankenstein monster in which just a few main groups tend to battle for supremacy. Gaddafi’s own tribe the Qadhadhfa are strongest around Tripoli, and their adverseries the Senoussi have a main power-base centred on Benghazi.
Oddly enough, neither of these is the biggest Libyan tribe. This honour goes to the Warfala – a collection of nearly a million Tuareg peoples who threw their lot in with the opposition to Gaddafi two weeks ago. Their influence could prove to be decisive. As you might imagine, Britain’s FCO isn’t well-connected to it.
Then there’s the role of the military. A prominent figure here is Abdul Fatah Younis al Obidi, former Libyan General and minister involved in homeland security. Although he is thought to have contacts in the Kremlin, it is notable that Britain’s William Hague has been frantically engaged in using the military strongman for information about ‘what’s going on’. He did this on FCO advice; but this advice may also be ill-informed.
Although Younis was quick to declare the opposition to Gaddafi ‘a revolution’, he was effectively a Gaddafi enforcer who saw the rocks coming, and jumped ship at the last minute. Anti-Gaddafi forces are highly unlikely to forget this. Hague and the FCO are probably way off the mark in identifying him as a likely future leader.
Indeed, the FCO/MI6 blind attachment to the Gaddafi regime was supported by this morning’s Daily Mail revelations asserting that ‘The board of a study centre at the London School of Economics with links to the Gaddafi regime in Libya includes no fewer than four men who have served at the highest levels of the British Intelligence community’.
In the light of later events – and the damage done to US/UK relations – that must rank alongside Pier’s Morgan introducing Paul McCartney to Heather Mills as the most disastrous bit of marriage-broking in British history.
The most virulent opposition to Gaddafi (albeit on a relatively small scale as yet) has come from the Libyan Fighting Group, a loose cell of Al Q’eida with links to the larger gropu in the Maghreb, sometimes referred to as AQIM. Added to their numbers now are Islamic militants released from political incarceration during the initial days of the Libyan revolt.
The influence of this combined tendency is growing rapidly: although small in number, they are well-organised, politically savvy, and the nearest thing Libya has to the Bolsheviks of 1917 in Russia. The UK has no contacts among these either – although it’s possible we have agents within it.
Russia itself is running hard to catch up in Libya. As The Slog posted last week, almost all the RF’s contacts were with the old regime – as were all its oil, arms and construction contracts.
Vladimir Putin – himself a former senior KGB operative – has however taken a personal interest in the situation. He initially sought to contain the situation by refusing to endorse a NATO-backed intervention in the country, but last Tuesday he removed Russian opposition to sanctions.
Insiders say that, having played for time, he is fully focussed on worming his way into the opposition groups, and the Kremlin line is now openly rebuking the dictator. Speaking earlier this week, puppet President Dmitri Medvedev condemned “the use of force against civilians” by the Libyan government.
Putin is smart, however, to continue to denounce the US no-fly-zone idea: his proaganda teams are already positioning it inside Libya as more evidence of the Satan’s wish to hijack the revolution. This sort of thing, as you’d imagine, plays well there.
The Americans are better placed but equally nervous. Early in the summer of 2010, US General Petraeus obtained Pentagon approval to massively expland covert operations in Libya, but it is thought by some that these were primarily aimed at destabilising the Al Q’eida cells there. These folks also feel that some tacit agreement with Gaddafi himself was probably involved in this action: the former leader hates Al Q’eida with a venom that far surpasses anything in the West.
However, sources close to CIA veteran Michael Vickers (the outgoing head of US cland-ops in the Middle East) dispute this, arguing that Vickers’ main aim was to get Gaddafi out. Vickers will probably be succeeded soon by a revolt-fomentation specialist, former US counterterrorism ambassador Michael Sheehan. It is, indeed, rumoured that he already has an agent network in place in Libya.
Once again one is left wondering what the point of our diplomatic service is any more. Frequently undiplomatic, often behind the music, and nearly always wrong, the Foreign Office must have incriminating evidence of such toxicity on the political class, it cannot be dismantled. (This was the case in the US for decades with the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover).
One main argument for its retention is obviously MI6, Britain’s overseas intelligence agency. It is still formally answerable to the Foreign Office, and many of its agents operate from British embassies and high commissions abroad under diplomatic cover. ‘Second Secretary’ is the classic non-job under which spies operate.
However, MI6 has operated almost entirely against rogue States and terrorist groups for some years. In this capacity too, its sources have called most things wrong: Saddam’s WOMD fantasy was a particularly dark hour – although the sexed-up Campbell dossier made the intelligence gaffe look even worse.
Either way, to pretend that we have any influence in this theatre is ridiculous. Mr Cameron has huffed and puffed and blown out the last candle of his rapidly dimming reputation over Libya. William Hague continues to ably demonstrate the folly of listening to anything the FCO says. Nobody has a clear idea yet what will come out the other end of this bloody tunnel. The only certainty is that Britain will have no more influence on the new regime than it did on the old one.