The UN Mission to Libya has just had its tenth birthday, but there is not much to celebrate in 2021.
For a start, its headquarters isn’t even positioned in Libya. Yes, the valiant humanitarian co-ordinator has just spent four days in Benghazi, but most of the officials meet their counterparts in Europe, or Tunisia, rather than Tripoli, or Tobruk, where the main seats of government are located.
After the UN Special Representative resigned last year because his mediation efforts were not supported by the countries arming the warring factions, we now have a graduate of the Moscow State Institute in charge. Meanwhile, Russia (through its security contractor group Wagner) and Turkey lead the way in the ongoing civil-war.
Turkey’s interest dates back to the time before 1912, when Libya was part of the Ottoman Empire. Russia’s interest only began when Colonel Gadhafi bought Soviet equipment in the 1970s. France and Italy will never be trusted in Libya due to their colonial past. America’s links with Israel make it virtually impossible for them to play a leadership role in Libya.
The country that most Libyans wish to partner with is the UK, but we are strangely reticent about accepting the invitation. See Liberating Libya for the rationale for British involvement in helping Libya solve its problems in the 2020s.
British media comments on London’s decision to join the US-Australian nuclear submarine deal seem to miss important aspects of the pact. Perhaps the wider context will come out later, but most of the focus has been on the diplomatic and economic implications, especially gazumping the French contract to supply submarines to Australia.
To my mind, this deal needs to be considered in the context of the Strategic Defence Reviews that have been announced since the economic crisis. Ever since, the government decided to prioritise maritime strategy over land operations, we have been tied to the enlightened thinking of the naval staff in the MoD. We don’t have a large enough Fleet to protect all our dependencies and we don’t have a big enough defence budget to fully equip the Fleet, so we are dependent on the USA for essential capabilities. The quid pro quo for their materiel support is to bolster American attempts to maintain dominance in a region, which militarily is of no concern to our national interest.
There are a large number of vital tasks in the Atlantic and Mediterranean that will be adversely affected by this new pact. The question we have to ask is: if we are operating in the South China Sea, what are we giving up closer to home? A similar problem faced Churchill when he was First Lord of the Admiralty before the First World War. The question was whether to abandon the Mediterranean in the event of a war with Germany; he succinctly summarised the problem in a letter to Lord Haldane on 6 May 1912: “it would be very foolish to lose England in safeguarding Egypt.”
There was a real sense of moving on from Afghanistan when the Prime Minister spoke about how to pay for Social Care on Tuesday 7 October. Never was the aphorism “today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip papers” more apposite when Afghanistan was removed from the front pages and Taliban turpitude in the outer provinces was covered up in the cause of political expediency.
It seemed there was a collective sigh of relief when Members in the House of Commons could discuss one of the most pressing issues raised by the pandemic that affects 32 Million British Tax Payers, rather than ponder how to prevent the retribution that is likely to lead to a global humanitarian crisis.
This has happened before. In 1935 the British general election was won under the banner of Peace At All Costs as the world failed to respond to Benito Mussolini’s aggression in Abyssinia. The British Prime Minister was fully occupied with domestic issues, including: a dire economy; a vocal pacifist movement; and a royal crisis created by an American divorcee. Although Stanley Baldwin held a vast majority, the government could not reconcile its contradictory policies of disarmament and resistance to brutal regimes. It was only a matter of time before the League of Nations failed and the next generation had to pay for the moral deficiency of their predecessors.
I was booked this afternoon to speak on Five Live Drive’s first item after the news, Afghanistan. Originally, they asked me to comment on the Chief of the Defence Staff’s admission that the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee was wrong in its assessment and his implicit criticism of the intelligence services. However once on air, Nuala McGovern asked me more about the Prime Minister’s statement in the House of Commons and since neither he nor anyone else in Parliament mentioned intelligence failings, I had to introduce the subject myself.
The Prime Minister is understandably trying to move on and believes that by acknowledging the courageous work of the soldiers (and airmen) on Operation Pilling and highlighting the future support to those seeking sanctuary, he can draw a line under the whole affair. However, the failings highlighted by General Sir Nick Carter yesterday should not be swept under the carpet. What he seems to be saying is that there is too much “Groupthink” in the analysis and committee discussions. This might be because people are afraid of speaking truth to power on the grounds that they might lose their job, but it could also be that we are simply relying too much on radio intercepts because our human intelligence services have deteriorated so drastically in the past decade. That was certainly my experience in Libya after the botched secret service attempt at entering the country in February 2011, for which William Hague had to apologise in Parliament (see chapter 16 of my new book Liberating Libya).
The other aspect which was equally worrying was the headline about using every “economic, political and diplomatic lever” and rallying international consensus. This mirrors the US President’s approach to the problem, but apart from the disrespect to the armed forces (or military lever) who are still working on the Afghanistan project (not just drones and surveillance aircraft), the idea of holding onto “frozen assets” will only push the Taliban into the arms of our adversaries, who are less scrupulous about providing assistance to repressive regimes.
We too need to be judged by actions not words. If we wish to influence the Taliban government, we must share the risks on the ground as men like TE Lawrence, Glubb Pasha and Milo Talbot did in the past. The answer lies in history.
The revelation in the Sunday Times and Daily Mail that the British Ambassador was ordered to remain behind in Kabul reminded me of the situation in Siberia in November 1919. For those who have not read Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners, a group of British soldiers were ordered to stay in Omsk to save the lives of British subjects fleeing from the Red Terror and help their evacuation along the Trans-Siberian railway.
There are other reminders in Afghanistan today of the end of the war in Siberia. These include: the collapse of the propped-up government, the failure of internationally trained army, the pusillanimous response of the international community, the humanitarian disaster and the acts of terrorism that overlapped with crimes against humanity are all strikingly similar.
Mark Twain is attributed as saying: “History never repeats itself; but it rhymes.” Unfortunately, the rhyming in this case is more akin to Wilfred Owen’s pity of war.