Is Libya a New Model of U.S. Intervention, or an Afghanistan Do-Over?

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It’s easy to see how Libya offers a “new model” for American intervention abroad when comparing it with the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq in 2003, but the mission to overthrow the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has too much in common with the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan to mark it, at this stage, as the herald of a new era of getting it right.

TIME’s Fareed Zakaria recently offered an eloquent exposition of how the Libya mission differed from Iraq. And in a related blog post, he argued that four preconditions for U.S. involvement distinguished Libya as the first intervention of a new era of American foreign policy.

“1)    A local group that was willing to fight and die for change; in other words, ‘indigenous capacity’.
2)    Locally recognized legitimacy in the form of the Arab League’s request for intervention.
3)    International legitimacy in the form of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.
4)    Genuine burden sharing with the British and French spelling out precisely how many sorties they would be willing to man and precisely what level of commitment they would be willing to provide.”

The limited terms of U.S. involvement, the legitimacy established by fighting in concert with indigenous ground forces, the burden-sharing by allies and the low cost make Libya an appealing model for the future, he argues: “Compared to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Libya operation was a bargain.  It cost the U.S. about $1 billion.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan collectively cost the U.S. $1.3 trillion. In other words, success in Libya could be achieved at less than one-tenth of one percent of the cost of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  That’s not a bad model for the future.”

Indeed. But it’s worth remembering that most important of these four conditions (all but the extent of burden-sharing, actually), were present in the Afghanistan intervention that began in October of 2001:

* It was not the U.S. or NATO that stormed into Kabul to scatter the Taliban, but the battle-hardened indigenous Northern Alliance, which had been fighting the Taliban for five years. As in Libya, Western allies provided air support and Special Forces coaching to the indigenous forces that overthrow the regime.

* Regional legitimacy for the Afghanistan was well established ahead of the operation, so much so that Iran had even agreed to allow its territory to be used for search-and-rescue missions.

* International legitimacy for the Afghanistan intervention was affirmed by the U.N. Security Council, which in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. expressed its support for “the efforts of the Afghan people to replace the Taliban regime”. The U.N., with U.S. support, took charge of efforts to broker a new political order for Afghanistan to replace the Taliban — which the U.N. had never recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan to begin with.

* While the U.S. was the key outside player in “Operation Enduring Freedom,” British Special Forces were also involved in the initial mission. And in December of 2001, the U.N. established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to stabilize the Afghan capital and its surrounds. By early 2003, ISAF had grew to close to 5,000 troops from 28 countries, most of them NATO member states, with France, Germany and Turkey among the largest contingents. The U.S. at the same point had around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan.

The Economist acknowledges Afghan parallel, but notes that “there is no sign so far that alliance ground troops will follow in the path of pilots as they did in Afghanistan, where a 2001 air campaign against the Taliban allowed a weak and divided opposition to take over, only later to need rescuing. Libya may still require peacekeepers but nobody is yet volunteering NATO for the task.”

Well, not yet, anyway. But it’s worth noting that there are more than ten times the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan today than there were three months after the Taliban was overthrown. The Western powers that ran the war effort certainly hope things will turn out better for the Transitional National Council — the Benghazi-based rebel leadership most of them recognized as the sole legitimate government of Libya long before the Libyan people had cast a vote in the matter — than they did under the government of President Hamid Karzai. But there are plenty of indications that tribal, ethnic and factional divisions will be major obstacles (as they were in Afghanistan) to establishing a stable post-Gaddafi order.

There’s something decidedly Afghan-esque about the fact that the rebels’ Tripoli Military Council, which played a leading role in the insurrection inside Gaddafi’s capital, is led by a former jihadist commander of the Libyan chapter of al Qaeda. And news that key leadership elements of the Gaddafi regime may have taken shelter in neighboring Algeria, which appears for its own reasons to be cool to the Libyan rebellion, also harkens unfortunately to Pakistan’s stance in the Afghan conflict.

If Libya does descend into fratricidal conflict and some foreign military presence is deemed necessary, nobody will absolve the countries that enabled the rebel takeover of Tripoli from responsibility to help stabilize the country.

Finding indigenous partners for U.S. interventions is not that difficult. The Kosovo Liberation Army, in 1998 when it was still on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, took up arms against Serbia precisely in order to win Western military intervention. And Libya has already prompted some groups in Syria to advocate following suit.  But international authority via the U.N. will be harder to come by for the foreseeable future.  To the Russians, Chinese and most of the non-Western world, Libya will have simply confirmed a suspicion that the U.S. and its allies can’t be trusted to abide by the limits of any international mandate. Success in ousting Gaddafi doesn’t change the fact that UNSC Resolution 1973 authorized military intervention to protect Libyan civilians and create conditions for a political solution to the conflict; a handful of NATO powers used it as cover for providing combat air support to one side of a civil war.

But the sad lesson of Afghanistan is that indigenous allies, regional and international authority and shared responsibility among allies are necessary, but not sufficient preconditions of success — particularly in a country with weak institutions and riven by ethnic and tribal conflicts. When intervening in distant conflicts over the past two decades, Western leaders have routinely overestimated the competence and political authority of their indigenous allies, and underestimated the resilience and support base of their foes. And the cost and consequences of serious setbacks are, inevitably, a deeper and more open-ended entanglement. Before we proclaim Libya the post-child for future interventions, we need to know how it plays out long after the “ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead” moment. Or, to borrow from Chinese leader Zhou Enlai’s 1972 answer when asked about the historical significance of the French Revolution, when it comes to Libya’s grander significance, it may simply be “too early to tell.”