The Forgotten War: The Libyan War and Its Legacy

by John Whitehead



Of the 21st century wars waged by the United States, the Libya War is perhaps the most forgotten one. The 2011 war waged by the United States, France, Britain, and other nations to overthrow the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi lasted only about seven months, in contrast to the years of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. No Americans died in the war, as the United States and its partners relied on bombing and arming anti-Qaddafi rebels rather than sending their own troops into Libya. Compared to other recent American wars, Libya seems almost a footnote.


Yet the consequences of the Libya War have been long-lasting and devastating. Ten years after the anti-Qaddafi war came to an end in October 2011, we can look back and see what the military intervention’s results were. Qaddafi’s overthrow, far from bringing about a stable, more democratic Libya, led to internal strife in Libya that eventually broke out into a civil war that remains unresolved today. The 2011 Libya War has yielded dire results for the country, region, and world—and teaches sobering lessons about wars of regime change.


The war began with an uprising in February 2011 against Qaddafi’s 42-year rule. Qaddafi responded to the uprising with repression, and the United Nations Security Council imposed various sanctions and penalties on his regime. When regime forces threatened the rebel-held city of Benghazi, France, Britain, and various Arab nations called for creating a “no-fly zone” over Libya to prevent repression by government air forces. After some internal debate, President Barack Obama’s administration also supported intervention to stop Qaddafi. (Although a later investigation suggested fears that Qaddafi would massacre civilians may have been exaggerated.)


The pro-intervention forces successfully lobbied the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution authorizing not only a no-fly zone over Libya but also “all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.” This resolution passed on March 17, 2011, and two days later a coalition of nations, including the United States, started bombing Libya. Later that year, the United States began supplying weapons to anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya.


The tide turned in the rebels’ favor, and they seized Libya’s capital, Tripoli, in August. By then, the United States had already recognized the rebellion’s Transitional National Council as Libya’s new government. The war reached a grisly conclusion in October, when rebels captured, tortured, and killed Qaddafi. The United Nations officially declared the intervention over by the month’s end. The war to stop a dictator’s repression seemed to be successful. Creating a new Libyan government proved far more complicated. Libya’s rebel leaders successfully held elections in 2012 for a new parliament. However, they failed to disarm the many armed rebel groups created in the uprising and provide the rebel fighters new, civilian jobs. This failure left large armed militias playing major roles in Libyan politics. Armed groups influenced the 2012 elections and also carried out attacks on westerners, such as the 2012 attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi that killed four Americans.


The breaking point came in early 2014. Armed groups that followed an extremist interpretation of Islam came to wield more influence in Libyan politics. General Khalifa Haftar, a former Qaddafi commander turned rebel, responded to the extremist groups’ growing power by declaring the current government dissolved and launching a military campaign to seize control of Libya. Haftar described himself as trying to “eliminate extremist terrorist groups.” His actions plunged Libya into civil war.


Libya has been divided ever since. Haftar’s forces continue to struggle against the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) for control of the country. Various outside countries have given support to the opposing sides: Egypt, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates are among those backing Haftar; the GNA’s supporters include Qatar and Turkey. National elections planned for the end of 2021 offer a faint prospect for improvement in Libya.


The 2011 Libya War and its aftermath have had several dire consequences:


Wartime Suffering. How many Libyans have died in the past decade’s conflicts is unclear. The conflict has been brutal, though. A recent United Nations report describes widespread human rights violations in Libya since 2016: mass executions, attacks on hospitals and schools, civilians killed in airstrikes, use of child soldiers, and violence against women and LGBTQI people. All parties to the conflict, including external actors, have likely been involved in such atrocities.


The oil-rich country, which once boasted a welfare state and relatively high living standard, has been impoverished. Oil production has been disrupted, the public health system has been devastated, and electricity supplies are uncertain. In 2020, United Nations estimates indicated almost a quarter million people were internally displaced and more than 1 million needed humanitarian assistance.


Human Trafficking. Libya’s internal chaos has made the country a haven for those who exploit African migrants seeking to reach Europe. Migrants have suffered slavery, inhuman living conditions, and violence, including sexual violence, from traffickers operating in Libya. The European Union has encouraged Libyan authorities to stop the flow of migrants to Europe. This has led to migrants being confined in Libya in conditions scarcely better than with the traffickers.


Diplomatic Fallout. The Libya War had a less tangible but still important consequence. Prior to 2011, relations between Qaddafi’s regime and the United States had improved. In 2003, Qaddafi abandoned his pursuit of nuclear weapons, which led to the restoration of U.S.-Libyan diplomatic relations.


That these events were followed by the United States and other nations overthrowing Qaddafi could send a powerful message to other rulers: Never give up nuclear weapons. And if you don’t have such weapons, acquire them, so you have insurance against attack. If other heads of state draw such a lesson from the Libya War, efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to promote disarmament will suffer. That will be one more toxic legacy of the war.


The lesson peace advocates should draw from the Libya War and its terrible consequences is that violent regime change all too often leads not to justice or freedom but to chaos and more violence. This is a sad lesson too many policy makers still need to learn.


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