The two wars in Libya

Libyan rebels.

[For more left views on Libya, click HERE.]

By Art Young

April 4, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – Two wars are being waged simultaneously in Libya. One has grown out of a revolutionary struggle for democracy; the other is an attempt by imperialism to strengthen its domination of the country. Both wars appear to share the goal of “regime change” but they stand at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

The regime change that the revolutionary struggle seeks to achieve is the overthrow of the Gaddafi dictatorship and the establishment of a system of democratic rule. As is the case in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world, the struggle for democracy in Libya encompasses diverse layers of society who have come together to achieve this goal. The more thorough the democratic transformation, the stronger will be the position of Libyan workers and their allies in the ensuing social struggles.

The struggle for democracy in Libya is an integral part of the great Arab awakening of 2011, a movement of millions of people that threatens the imperialist status quo. Victory or defeat in Libya will have a major impact on the revolutionary struggles unfolding across the region. For all these reasons, it deserves our wholehearted support.

The military form of the struggle today (now with many aspects of a civil war) was largely imposed on the movement by Gaddafi’s regime. During the first couple of weeks the liberation struggle took the form of largely spontaneous uprisings in one city after another, spreading quickly across the country. Sections of the army and major figures of the regime defected. The pro-Gaddafi forces were paralysed by the speed and power of the movement and the readiness of many to die in the cause of freedom. At this point it looked like Libya would follow the path of Tunisia and Egypt. But Gaddafi had other ideas – and the resources to implement them. He unleashed a systematic bloodbath. The insurgents were forced to take up arms to defend themselves as best they could. (The defecting army units seem to have melted away. They have played little or no role in the fighting, which has been the work of heroic but untrained and ill-equipped volunteers.) Gaddafi’s forces took no quarter, murdering many peaceful demonstrators and reducing entire cities to rubble. Gradually they gained the upper hand and began to march toward Benghazi, the heart of the insurrection.

The US and its NATO partners are waging a very different war. It took only a few days for them to transform the supposed UN-sponsored police action to protect civilians into an all-out war against Libya. The “regime change” they want is to replace the Gaddafi clique with clients who can defend their interests more reliably. The NATO allies also hope to cow the rebellious Arab peoples with a demonstration of how foreign powers can still frustrate their attempts to win freedom. This is a reactionary war without an ounce of progressive, humanitarian content.

Resolution 1973 of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), adopted on March 17,  gave the green light to foreign intervention in Libya. A wide-ranging debate in liberal and left-wing circles has ensued, with figures such as Gilbert Achcar and Juan Cole supporting the resolution’s call for a no-fly zone to protect civilians and others opposing it. (Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal has published many articles on this issue.)  

Debate superseded by events

While this writer is in the latter camp, the debate over the no-fly zone has been superseded by subsequent events. There is little value in continuing to discuss whether the intervention authorised by the UNSC resolution “saved” Benghazi from imminent massacre, whether one might in principle somewhere at some time support foreign intervention, or whether certain historical precedents apply in this case. The Libyan people aren’t facing an abstract no-fly zone. They are the victims of a far-reaching imperialist assault that includes cruise missile attacks, a naval blockade, bombing of military and strategic infrastructure targets, close-in air attacks (the so-called no-drive zone) and any other facilities and assets the NATO commanders wish to destroy. A growing number of reports attest to the presence of boots on the ground of special forces from France, Britain and the United States, some of whom are “training” the insurgents.

This assault on the Libyan people was the real objective behind the smokescreen of a no-fly zone. Indeed, the UNSC resolution was carefully worded to allow for an open-ended escalation of the conflict by NATO.

How has the situation evolved in recent weeks?

On the ground in Libya, the fighting has produced a somewhat unstable equilibrium. On the eve of the foreign intervention the rebellion was in desperate straits, reeling from a string of military defeats. Now the rebel forces have consolidated their position in Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city, and in the cities and towns further east. West of Benghazi, a see-saw battle continues on the road from Ajdabiya to Brega. Further west, Misurata, the third-largest city located between the Gaddafi strongholds of Tripoli and Surt, remains largely in the hands of the insurgent local population who have resisted weeks of merciless heavy bombardment from loyalist forces. The Gaddafi loyalists have consolidated their hold on the western part of the country, often through ruthless repression of cities and towns that dared to rebel during the first phase of the uprising.

It must be noted, though, that the pro-democracy forces have paid a huge political price for the respite that they have achieved in the east of the country. The imperialists have succeeded in entangling Libya’s war for democratic freedoms with their war against the country’s sovereignty. The rebel bands – still very far from a coherent armed force – are far too weak to defeat the loyalists without military assistance from the outside powers. The air war and the advance or retreat of the rebels on the ground appear as complementary activities of a single strategy. (The denials notwithstanding, it strains credulity to believe that the fighting and bombing are not being closely coordinated.) The indigenous character of the freedom struggle risks being overshadowed by the war of aggression of the great powers. Meanwhile the imperialists lay claim to the mantle of the freedom fighters.

Political retreat

This observation is not meant as criticism from afar of the leaders of the rebellion or a form of “what if” speculation. Rather it is offered as an assessment of the situation as it has evolved; we should not close our eyes to the political retreat from the moral high ground, independent of the ebbs and flows of the military struggle.

Whether or not the insurgency could have pursued a another course is a different matter. They had to contend with many constraints over which they had little or no control – not only Gaddafi’s murderous refusal to yield an inch, but also the specific history, culture and social structure of Libya. They were forced to wage their struggle under conditions much less favourable than those faced by their counterparts in Egypt, for example.

Quite apart from the political retreat of the opposition, it is apparent that the imperialist war has greatly strengthened Gaddafi’s political standing within Libya and internationally, allowing him to appear as the defender of the unity and sovereignty of the nation, thereby appealing to wavering elements and strengthening the resolve of his loyalists to fight on. Indeed, the disintegration of the dictator’s forces came to an end and the loyalist counteroffensive began just as the NATO powers’ threats of war reached their peak. Gaddafi’s hand is further strengthened by the “collateral damage” produced by the Western air attacks. Despite the silence of the mainstream media, the civilian victims are no doubt numerous.

Should we therefore conclude that the entanglement of the two wars in Libya means that the revolutionary democratic struggle has been defeated? Has the anti-Gaddafi rebel movement been reduced to a simple appendage of the NATO forces who aim to conquer and rule Libya in the interests of imperialism? Are the rebels the new Quislings?

Struggle for democracy is still alive

That is certainly one possible outcome of the current situation and a number of contributions posted here and elsewhere argue along these lines. But in my opinion such a conclusion is premature. It is also unduly pessimistic. The revolutionary struggle for democracy is still alive and its future course remains an open question.

We should note the repeated complaints from the British and US leaders that they “do not know” the leaders in Benghazi. Of course they know them. They are saying that they do not trust them – they are not sure that the base, the rebel fighters, who are armed, will submit to the big powers’ plans for the country or that the Benghazi leaders will be able to keep their base under control, above all in the context of the wave of change sweeping the region. Moreover, the continuing resistance in Misurata and the lengthy resistance in Zawiyah. a city just west of Tripoli, attest to the deep-rooted, plebeian, and nation-wide character of the freedom struggle. Future developments in the region, particularly in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, will also influence the outcome of the struggle.

Still, the situation remains highly fluid and we should remain alert to the shifting political sands in Libya.

[Art Young is a long-time socialist and solidarity activist based in Toronto, Canada.]


This is a useful approach and recalls the late Ernest Mandel's analysis of WWII as "five different wars": an inter-imperialist war;a just war of self-defence by the people of China, an oppressed semi-colonial country, against Japanese imperialism; a just war of national defence of the Soviet Union, a workers state, against an imperialist power; a just war of national liberation of the oppressed colonial peoples of Africa and Asia; and a war of liberation by the oppressed workers, peasants, and urban petty bourgeoisie against the German Nazi imperialists and their stooges.

Mandel, in turn, followed the approach of Lenin who had described WWI as "at least two wars, and we want to introduce a third one", the first being an inter-imperialist war, the second being wars of national uprising by oppressed nationalities, and the third being the proletarian civil war against the bourgeoisie which in actual fact came out of the war in Russia.


The advantage of this approach is that it reveals the inter-related dynamics at play that leftists who have approached this question with a more static, formulaic approach have ignored or downplayed one aspect or another.

For instance some of the leftists who support the US-NATO intervention only want to see a heroic Libyan revolution against the repressive Gaddafi regime, and the contribution by Marce Cameron and Iggy Kim does this. Cameron and Kim get carried away with their romantic imagined image of this. Playing loose with historical analogy (a common pitfall of left scholasticism) they end up making an argument to support anything that helps bring down the Gaddafi regime.

The opposite error is made by those leftists who only see an imperialist war against the Gaddafi regime and consequently reduce the Libyan rebels to agents of imperialism.

In fact, the history of these two wars began with imperialism and the Gaddafi regime on best terms and an unexpected rebellion inspired by the "Arab Spring" sweeping the region. But then the imperialists saw an opening to intervene in their own interests - not just in Libya but against the broader struggles engulfing the region - and opened their war which they sell as a defensive, humanitarian intervention (neither of which it is).

We need to see that war for what it is - an imperialist war - and oppose it, not least because while it purports to save the Libyan democratic rebellion it really aims at liquidating its democratic content. Further, another of this war's consequences was to politically strengthen the Gaddafi regime, as Art has explained.

We don't know yet whether it will completely succeed in liquidating the Libyan democratic rebellion but there are already bad signs, not least of which are the clear statements from Robert Gates and US military chiefs that they have no desire to arm the rebels, don't believe they can win what has now become a civil war, and don't believe they can be trusted to govern Libya.

So the imperialists are shaping a more suitable potential rebel government - one which includes key Gaddafi regime defectors (including some of its chief privatisers, chief repressors aka interior minister, war criminals, etc). It seems that from the imperialists' point of view the best alternative to the Gaddafi regime may be a Gaddafi regime without Gaddafi!

There are other elements (besides a few failed CIA-backed exile groups seeking reinsertion) in the rebel side, including the brave rebel youth who have armed themselves and have been throwing themselves into battle in wave after wave of unsuccessful attempts to retake ground from more disciplined, trained and better armed Gaddafi troops and militia (it appears that some people were armed and are fighting willingly and fiercely on Gaddafi's side).

But we should not be dreamy-eyed about the possible fates of this rag tag army. They have discovered already how vulnerable they are to the imperialist bombs and missiles. The imperialists have already conspired to allow some of them to be killed, bruised and demoralised. The imperialists can and will do more of this and if necessary used their bombs on these rebels again, even as the same rebels urge the imperialists to escalate the war. And this is not tomorrow's battle - it is taking place now.

But surely the masses won't let the imperialists get away with it, the pro-intervention leftists have countered. But they will get away with it if the left and the anti-war movement in the imperialist countries isn't mobilised against this imperialist war on Libya.

Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) arrived on the continent a couple of weeks ago just in time for the big doings. Ham, who had only taken over his new post three days earlier, conferred with local and U.S. military and political officials in the east African nation of Djibouti, in the words of the newspaper Stars and Stripes, just as the United States and other nations debated “whether to place a no-fly zone over Libya.” If that were to happen, the paper said, AFRICOM “would play its first lead role.” Djibouti’s chief of defense, Maj. Gen. Fathi Ahmed Houssein, is said to have “advised circumspection, since any use of military force in Libya would have long-term ramifications.” Ham said he took it under advisement.

Ham’s visit to Djibouti, where the U.S. maintains its only military base on the continent, the timing of it and its subsequent use as coordinating point for the attacks on Libya, speak volumes about the quandary of U.S. policy toward Africa. It forms a contentious backdrop for the tour President Barak Obama in planning there for later this year.

Ham, who once served as an advisor with a Saudi Arabian National Guard Brigade, is based at AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. That it is not located somewhere in Africa owes to the fact that most African governments view it with, at best, suspicion and all the countries that really matter have refused to host it.

Ham’s predecessor in the job was Gen. William “Kip” Ward, one of the highest-ranking African Americans in the U.S. military. The new chief faces “some tough questions about the mandate and intentions of the nascent command” said Stars and Stripes. Ward “had gone to great lengths to assure African nations that the United States does not seek to build bases on the continent,” the paper said. And “Ham said that while he was looking at other locations in the U.S. and Europe as a long-term command headquarters, and will decide on one next year, he would not rule out Africa, either.”

The troubling little matter of where the command is to be headquartered is something that most major media reports leave out, along with another aspect of the current story. In a number of respects tiny Djibouti could be considered in some ways the Bahrain of Africa.

Since the early 1990s Bahrain has been the site of the U.S. military base at Juffair, home of the headquarters for the United States Naval Forces Central Command and the U.S. Fifth Fleet involving about 1,500 military personnel. Built by the colonial French, Djibouti’s Camp Lemonier is home to about 2,000 U.S. military personnel attached to the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. But the similarities don’t end there.

There are said to be no foreign correspondents stationed in Djibouti but that’s no excuse for a paucity of news from there. There has been plenty of time to get someone there because, drawing inspiration from events in North Africa, people in Djibouti have taken to the streets in large number since early last month. Their calls for reform have been beaten back by clubs, water cannons and sometimes bullets. Political parties have been outlawed and opposition figures jailed. Last week, the government expelled a group of U.S. election monitors there to witness a disputed presidential election slated for next month. Opposition groups are boycotting the vote because they say the current regime is repressing dissent.

“The country is nominally democratic, but events leading up to the April 8 presidential election appear to show a hard line approach by President Ismail Omar Guelleh at a time when democracy movements are upending administrations,” the Associated Press reported last week from nearby Kenya.

“The unrest in the Arab world has spread south to the small Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, host to the only official U.S. military base on the African mainland,” wrote Stephen Roblin on ZNet March 10. “In what have been called protests triggered by a wave of political unrest sweeping through the Middle East, Djiboutians numbering in the thousands have taken to the streets in opposition to President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who has held power since succeeding his uncle in 1999. The Guelleh family has maintained its grip over the small nation of 750,000 people since its independence from France in 1977.

“Demonstrations broke out in anticipation of the upcoming election in April, when Guelleh hopes to extend his reign by winning a third term. His bid for presidency comes a year after he scrapped the two-term limit in the constitution in a move the opposition considers unconstitutional.

“The first political rally took place on January 28 and was attended by an estimated 2-3,000 people. Djiboutians continued to organize demonstrations throughout the month of February,” wrote Roblin. “The Guelleh regime responded by ordering state security forces to disperse demonstrators through force and perform mass arbitrary arrests in a campaign to stifle the democratic opposition.”

An estimated 30,000 Djiboutians calling for Guelleh to step down gathered in Djibouti City March 19. (Again, there are only 750,000 people in the country.) They “were met by riot police, who violently dispersed the protesters,” wrote Roblin. “Unlike in Egypt, where citizens temporarily took control over Tahrir Square, state violence in Djibouti successfully repressed the attempt by pro-democracy forces to establish a permanent protest camp in the center of the capital.”

“Djibouti's primary donor, the United States, is fully aware of the harsh economic conditions facing the country, as well as the government's poor human rights record and corrupt rule,” wrote Roblin. “But the paymaster has been willing to put aside its unflinching commitment to high principles due to the Guelleh regime's well-demonstrated reliability as a regional client.

The Guelleh regime is also charged with direct involvement in the US CIA’s secret detention and rendition program that saw alleged terrorism suspects secreted off to foreign locations for interrogation said to have involved torture.

The similarity of Bahrain and Djibouti these days is apparent in another respect: The failure of the U.S. to resolutely condemn the brutal repression by the regime on the former is in line with the soft gloves treatment and even support to the regime in the latter – as Ham’s visit attests.

Events these days in Djibouti certainly shed light on the real scope of AFRICOM’s mission. On March 21, Eric Schmitt of the New York Times wrote from Washington that it was ‘the military’s first ‘smart power’ command. “It has no assigned troops, no headquarters in Africa itself, and one of its two top deputies is a seasoned American diplomat,” he wrote.

“Indeed, the command, known as AFRICOM, is designed largely to train and assist the armed forces of 53 African nations and to work with the State Department and other American agencies to strengthen social, political and economic programs in the region including improving H.I.V. awareness in African militaries and removing land mines.”

Descriptions like that have floated through the media repeatedly over the three years of the command’s existence. And now, suddenly it blossomed into control center for war in a neighboring country.

For three years, critics of AFRICOM in Africa and the U.S. have charged that it serves to militarize U.S. foreign policy in the region, as opposed to aid and diplomacy. Schmitt says Ward and others have consistently emphasized that AFRICOM’s role is “to train African militaries only when requested by governments.”

“Now the young, untested command and its new boss, Gen. Carter F. Ham, find themselves at their headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, setting aside public diplomacy talks and other civilian-military duties to lead the initial phase of a complex, multinational shooting war with Libya,” wrote Schmitt.

Obama will no doubt have trouble explaining that away as he arrives in various African capitals.

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.


April 10, 2011 -- As residents of Benghazi take up arms with little or no training, students who have taken weapons from Gaddafi's depots say they are now most comfortable when carrying their rifles. With the international debate continuing over whether to send guns to anti-Gaddafi fighters, the arming of Benghazi society has gone almost unnoticed. Al Jazeera's Laurence Lee, reporting from the city on Libya's coast, examines residents' new interest in weaponry.

"Humanitarian" Bombs fall on Libya

By: Jorge L. Rodríguez González

2011-04-11 | 11:03:28 EST

Protecting the civilian population is but the pretext, while NATO's deliberate bombing campaign is aimed at paving the way for the rebels to do away with Gaddafi. The West wants the Jamahiriya.

The Colonel had to be taken out of the picture. And that is what they are trying to do. They first bet on the opposition for this objective, but as Gaddafi was closer to defeating the rebellion, there came the rush to get a Security Council resolution and then the "humanitarian" bombs began to fall. If the rebellion had failed, they would surely have to withdraw their companies from the rich Libyan oil reserves.

However, top US military circles in Washington are still doubtful that Gaddafi may be defeated, due to his forces' capacity for resistance. The rebels are not very well organized either.

As initially predicted by the promoters of the military operation, it could last longer than expected. And the United States stresses that the bombing campaign will only conclude if Gaddafi steps down from power and leaves the country, which suggests that many other tricks may still be cooking in the back burner.

FULL ARTICLE (substantially longer)…


We're a country where millions are unemployed, uninsured, and uneducated yet we can spend millions of dollars to lob missiles, provide air support, and fund underground resistance groups over some place most Americans couldn't point out on a map.