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Younes’ death could not have come at a worse time for NATO. The humanitarian organization Human Rights Watch has accused the rebels of crimes in the cities and villages of Western Libya they have raided or recaptured from Gaddafi’s forces. Their human rights violations have caused a loss in international support. US Senator John McCain demanded in a letter sent to the rebel government two days ago that it investigate and stop these abuses or risk losing American backing. Embarrassingly, the United States and other Western governments had recently recognised the NTC as Libya’s government.
The Western European countries involved in the Libya operation are also becoming weary of the length and cost of the war. Europe is facing its own financial crisis with Greece, which makes it more difficult to justify the continued expense of the Libyan conflict, especially since it appears the side the Europeans are supporting is just as brutal in violating human rights as Gaddafi. And the fact a rebel faction may just have murdered its own commander-in-chief discredits the rebel cause even further.
But with Younes’ death and the subsequent inter-rebel fighting, NATO’s greatest fear now is that the rebel cause will disintegrate into tribal fighting. Arab countries have been called tribes with flags, and Libya seems to bear this out. The war in Libya is first and foremost a tribal fight.
Younes, for example, belonged to the Obeidi tribe, the largest in the rebel stronghold of Eastern Libya. After his assassination, fighters from his tribe went to the hotel where a press conference concerning his murder was being held and shot out the windows to show their anger. Wisely, the rebel ruling council appointed another member of the Obeidi tribe as his replacement.
So even if the rebels do manage to depose Gaddafi, the war may not be at an end. As when the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, Gaddafi’s defeat may just represent the first stage of a multi-phase war, in which the tribes will fight over the spoils, like control of the oil or Western aid money, and the Islamists in their ranks will battle to establish an Islamic state. The lack of discipline in the rebel forces that the Younes killing revealed indicates this is more than a distinct possibility.
Such a development would represent a disaster for NATO’s war aims. While NATO states it got involved in the Libyan conflict to protect Libyan civilians, this excuse now appears highly unlikely. The most likely reason for NATO’s involvement is that countries like France and Great Britain wanted to secure the Libyan oil deposits they feared Gaddafi was going to turn over to China and India.
The desire to secure and protect Libya’s oil infrastructure even saw NATO allow an International Criminal Court fugitive, Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, to send troops into southern Libya to provide security for an oil-producing area against Gaddafi’s forces. Allowing Bashir, who is wanted for committing genocide in Darfur and South Sudan and is currently preparing to exterminate the Nuba in central Sudan, into Libya hardly corresponds to NATO’s stated desire to protect civilians.
But the lack of stability under a tribally-fractious, rebel-ruled Libya may never allow these NATO countries to develop the all-important oil deposits, similar to the way the violence in Afghanistan is holding that country’s development back. And a failure to depose Gaddafi would also have a similar, constant, destabilising effect. As long as he and his thugs are armed and free, the Libyan people would always be in danger, and civil war would eventually be resumed, even if Libya was to be partitioned.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson called the developing Vietnam War “just the biggest damn mess I ever saw.” By refusing to commit ground troops early in the uprising to depose Gaddafi and attempting instead to wage war through the United Nations, NATO has probably also created “the biggest damn mess” it will ever see. But in the long run, it is the Libyan people who will have to pay for this inexcusable short-sightedness.
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