Peter Oborne

Benghazi notebook

Peter Oborne’s letter from Libya

Benghazi notebook
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In their interview in the Christmas edition of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth asked the Prime Minister whether he now considered that his intervention in Libya had been a mistake. David Cameron accepted that matters could have gone better since the fall of Gaddafi, but insisted that ‘what we were doing was preventing a mass genocide’. Like Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Gaddafi’s genocide seems to have been a fiction. It was reiterated over and over again by government and in the media in order to whip up support for the imposition a no-fly zone in March 2011. However, there was never any convincing evidence. Later that summer the International Crisis Group concluded that ‘There are grounds for questioning the more sensational reports that the regime was using its air force to slaughter demonstrators, let alone engaging in anything remotely warranting use of the term “genocide”.’

Whatever the true reason for the Franco-British intervention in Libya, there is no question that it resulted in disaster, as The Spectator warned at the time. When I arrived in Benghazi last week, I asked to be taken to Liberation Square, where Mr Cameron promised Libyans that he would ‘stand with you as you build your country and build your democracy for the future’. I was told this would not be possible as, in common with almost all of central Benghazi, it was in rebel hands. One third of the population have been driven from their homes, the economy has collapsed by 50 per cent, the school system doesn’t work and assassination squads roam the streets. When I visited the mayor of Benghazi in his temporary office (the town hall being in rebel hands), he told me that since the fall of Gaddafi, ‘We have lived through the worst five years of our history.’

Meanwhile Britain is making matters even worse, supposing that was possible, by failing to support the Libyan government. Based in the east of the country, it is internationally recognised, having been democratically elected in the spring of 2014. It has, sensibly enough, sought to take control over its own resources and finances by establishing a national oil company and a central bank, but has been blocked at every turn by Britain and the international community. This means that it has no money to fund schools, hospitals or support public services, let alone fight the latest menace to have turned up on its doorstep — Daesh.

A month ago the Libyan prime minister, Abdullah al-Thani, wrote to Philip Hammond offering to cooperate against Daesh, and also the people-smuggling rackets that funnel migrants from sub-Saharan Africa across the Mediterranean into Europe. He still hasn’t received a reply. Instead, over Christmas, the British have sanctioned a United Nations move to oust Mr al-Thani and impose an unelected prime minister. As far as I can discover, this is the first time that the UN have sanctioned a coup d’etat against a democratically elected government. Predictably this latest initiative has been rejected not just in eastern Libya but also in Libya’s rival power in Tripoli (where it is impossible for any person or institution to operate except with the support of the coalition of militias that totally control the city). The UN have compounded their policy failures by an arms embargo, making it even more difficult for the government in Tobruk to take on and defeat Daesh.

Are there any Canadians out there? Heroic Major Akram Algomatey is one of 800 policemen and officials targeted for assassination in Benghazi since David Cameron made his vainglorious pledge to stand with Libya in Liberation Square. Akram crawled alive out of his car after it was bombed. Unfortunately, he says, ‘I left my leg behind.’ Within six months he was back at his desk, and he has arranged — and paid for — a new leg to be fitted in a Canadian hospital. But the authorities are taking their time over a visa. Major Akram has promised his fiancée they will not marry until the operation is complete. I can think of few worthier cases. Perhaps Prime Minister Trudeau could speed things up?

At an army base I had lunch with one of the few men who has taken on the SAS and won. Special forces commander Abdulah al-Shaafi, a veteran of 40 years in the Libyan army, told me how he had captured a detachment of British soldiers and intelligence officers when they were found wandering round the desert at the start of the Libyan uprising in 2011, then handed them over to the UK chargé d’affaires. He claimed it had all been good-natured. Now Colonel al-Shaafi is dealing with another problem — Daesh. His Brigade 204 in Fweihat, west Benghazi, is fighting Daesh and the other Islamist groups which control large parts of the city. The commanding officer, Colonel Mahdi, told me he was leading a force of civilian volunteers, 100 of whom have been killed over the last year. What were Daesh fighters like? Colonel Mahdi told me, ‘They are smart but act like idiots.’ He explained they were skillful fighters but lacked support among local people. ‘They are well-trained but the main factor is their beliefs,’ he said. ‘You have to fight the fighter, and you have to fight his beliefs.’

Peter Oborne is an associate editor of The Spectator.