August 19, 2011
Humanitarian Intervention in Libya - Considering the Endgame
Guest Writer -- Kuba Wrzesniewski
On the 19th of March, in order to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973 mandating the use of force in the protection of civilians against Libyan forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, the United States began airstrikes against targets in Libya. This marks the sixth major humanitarian intervention carried out by US forces since the end of the cold war. Once considered a distraction from the core mission of the US military -- the protection of America and American interests from rival powers -- humanitarian interventions have become a major and regular component of US security strategy. This development has been a bipartisan affair. Major interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and now Libya were launched by Democratic Presidents, while military force was deployed to Somalia and Iraq by Republicans (though Iraq also suffered airstrikes during the Clinton administration).
Although humanitarian interventions have become an increasingly 'normal' element of US security policy, the conditions that give rise to them tend to be very particular and episodic. Considerations regarding interventions tend to be driven by moral urgency rather than security calculation, with advocates tending to argue from negative cases. Intervention came too late in Bosnia, and didn't come at all in Rwanda, and the result in both cases was genocide. This case was made most eloquently in A Problem from Hell, a study of genocide that propelled it's author, Samantha Power, to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and, later, to a post as Special Assistant to President Obama's foreign policy team. A more complete evaluation of the implications of humanitarian interventions should include an examination of all the cases where it was attempted. Such comprehensive study could help inform security thinking about the current Libyan operation.
We cannot offer such a fulsome treatment, here. But we can offer a starting point for the discussion...
Of the major interventions undertaken by the US since the end of the Cold War, two can be considered outright failures - foreign intervention in Somalia did not prevent its descent into anarchy, and the mission to Haiti has failed to ameliorate conditions there. The results of the interventions in Iraq -- beginning with no-fly zones over Kurdistan and the south initiated under George H.W. Bush, continued with sanctions and airstrikes during the Clinton period, culminating with the 2003 invasion launched by George W. Bush -- are ambiguous. The Kurds were certainly spared large scale massacre, and have experienced something of a golden age for their region since 1991, but the rest of the country suffered extreme privation under the sanctions regime and brutal violence in the wake of the US invasion.
There's only one intervention which is generally accepted as a success, and that is the 1999 wave of airstrikes to protect the Albanian population of Kosovo. Given the facts of the intervention itself, the experience of Kosovo makes a persuasive case for intervention. The population of the province was 90% ethnic Albanian by population, and the avowed goal of the Milosevic regime in Belgrade was the establishment of Serbian dominance in the area at the expense of this majority. It was not until ethnic cleansing began that NATO intervened. All in all, it's estimated that 700,000 civilians were displaced by intimidation and organized violence carried out by Serbian military units and paramilitary irregulars. The pressure created by airstrikes, together with aggressive multi-lateral diplomacy and ground operations by the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army, forced Serbia to cede de facto control of the region, preventing further Serbian atrocities and allowing the return of the refugees to their homes. Further, all of this was accomplished without the use of ground forces, as the KLA swiftly occupied the province and established order.
This is typically where accounts of the Kosovo experience end - job well done, mission accomplished. However, even in this best of cases there were outcomes that fell quite short of the humanitarian ideals that motivated Western intervention in the first place. While NATO forces were scrupulous in their conduct, the lack of Western forces on the ground meant that the KLA operated largely without accountability. As a result of the Serb withdrawal from the province, local Serbs - both fighters and civilians - became vulnerable to KLA reprisals, which occurred in sizeable numbers throughout the province. The violence against the Serbian minority took an especially grisly turn. As a recent Council of Europe report documents, KLA militants took scores of prisoners during the conflict, selecting the healthiest to have their organs harvested and sold onwards to international traffickers.
The organ extraction did not end with the conflict. Even after the arrival of the UN for post-conflict stabilization, hundreds of Kosovars (mostly Serb) were taken by militants in purges or reprisals. The healthiest were subjected to tissue typing tests, with a small sub-set eventually selected for summary execution and kidney extraction for the organ trafficking network. If these were excesses by rogue elements of the KLA, then this perhaps could be considered an isolated criminal matter unrelated to the broader political strategy for Kosovo. However, the report indicates that KLA leadership were implicated in the forced disappearances, the kidney harvesting and organ trafficking, including Hashim Thraci, current Prime Minister of Kosovo and head of a government seeking EU accession and “permanent friendship” with the United States.
While the Kosovo intervention itself may have been a humanitarian success, the post-conflict political development of the province indicates that the strategy remains incomplete, with an uncertain and underdeveloped end game.
The intervention in Libya seems to be playing out similarly to the initial, positive phase of the Kosovo operation. Airstrikes by the US and its partners have certainly prevented a massacre in Benghazi and eastern Libya and significantly degraded Gaddafi's ability to repress the revolt. However, there are also parallels to the leadership issues that bedevilled post-conflict Kosovo - the Libyan opposition is inexperienced, leadership is unclear, and the movement shows more heart than organization.
Fortunately, this is generally recognized, even by the Libyans themselves, and the awareness of past mistakes in post-conflict stabilization is driving both analysts and practitioners to examine how to ensure transition from an odious, oppressive regime into a political system consistent with Libyans' expectations and international norms. While the outcomes in Libya remain uncertain, one thing is clear: achieving clean and positive results will require a great deal of forethought and study from security and foreign policy leadership. Let us hope they are doing their homework.