The Middle East Channel

Does Libya really need European peacekeepers?

The Libyan war has offered American commentators ample opportunities to mock Europe’s militaries. Many NATO allies made token contributions to the campaign against Gaddafi or avoided getting involved at all. Even those that fully engaged frequently failed to offer hi-tech capabilities the U.S. treated as standard. But as Libya enters the post-Gaddafi era, many American ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

The Libyan war has offered American commentators ample opportunities to mock Europe’s militaries. Many NATO allies made token contributions to the campaign against Gaddafi or avoided getting involved at all. Even those that fully engaged frequently failed to offer hi-tech capabilities the U.S. treated as standard. But as Libya enters the post-Gaddafi era, many American defense analysts are suddenly Europhiles again. They believe that a peacekeeping operation may now be necessary and that it should primarily consist of European troops.

Daniel Serwer of Johns Hopkins made this case in these pages last week, arguing that the EU has "serious capabilities" to offer including "the ability to deploy hundreds of paramilitary police needed to stabilize a city like Tripoli." Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations has argued since early in the war for the dispatch of a largely European post-conflict force, apparently modeled on the one which was sent into Kosovo in 1999.

This may sound like common sense. Libya is on Europe’s doorstep and both NATO and the EU have spent years developing rapid reaction capabilities to deploy in cases just like this. When peacekeepers were needed in Lebanon in 2006, EU members led by France, Italy, and Spain fell over each other to deploy. Even Hungary sent a cartographic unit.

Earlier in the Libyan war, EU officials were briefly excited at the idea of deploying troops to the besieged city of Misrata to help the U.N. deliver aid. U.N. humanitarian officials, who did not want to look like accomplices to a Western military adventure, did not pick up on the offer. That may have been for the best, as Gaddafi’s forces could hardly have resisted the temptation to take a few EU personnel hostage. But with Gaddafi’s supporters seemingly now broken, an EU-flagged peace operation would be a good opportunity to show that the Union still retains some energy after a difficult year.

Yet there are three obstacles to a deployment of this type. Firstly, Libya’s new governors may not want it. Secondly, EU governments may not be able to afford it. And thirdly, European troops and police officers might well struggle to mount an effective operation.

The first of these obstacles is the most fundamental. Even if Washington’s analysts may see the case for peacekeepers, it’s not clear that Libya’s rebels will tolerate an outside force. They have borne the brunt of the battle against Gaddafi, even if NATO shaped the battlefield. It is unlikely that they will want to submit to international tutelage while their neighbors in Egypt and Tunisia define their own democracies, however turbulently.

This week, Libya’s (anti-Gaddafi) ambassador to the United Arab Emirates underlined that his country would need assistance but not foreign troops. The U.S. and European powers have won significant allies in Libya by fighting against Gaddafi. They could lose those friends by imposing a ponderous European peacekeeping force on the country.

Yet even if they wanted to deploy such a force, the costs would horrify European treasury departments. In 2010, finance officials across the EU forced austerity savings on the bloc’s militaries. They now have to fund the latest Greek bail-out and prop up the Euro more broadly. An open-ended commitment in Libya would only complicate their sums.

While European citizens are dissatisfied with the new age of austerity, this is one topic on which they can agree with their treasuries. Hans Kundnani, an expert on Germany at the European Council on Foreign Relations, notes that German voters feel burned by the way that the "peacekeeping" mission in Afghanistan slid into war-fighting. Neither they nor their counterparts in other European countries will want to take the same risk in Libya.

Nonetheless, it’s possible that the security situation in Libya could deteriorate to such a degree in the months and weeks ahead that some sort of foreign intervention is essential. The rebels have not always been able to sustain order in the areas they have controlled to date, not least Benghazi, the economy will take time to restart, and a range of tribal and factional differences linger on. All these factors could contribute to persistent disorder.

Could the European powers manage a medium-term mission to manage such disorder? U.S. officers with experience of serving alongside European troops in other Muslim countries might doubt it. In Iraq, the British, supposedly the Americans’ military twins, were unable to stabilize Basra and (unlike U.S. forces) did not adapt to the insurgency.

With luck Libya will look less like Iraq or Afghanistan and more like Bosnia or Kosovo, where there has been no sustained insurgency and European forces have made up the bulk of peacekeepers. But even these comparatively benign Balkan precedents aren’t entirely reassuring: in 1999 and again in 2004, NATO forces were out-maneuvered by ethnic Albanian rioters in Kosovo. Further, since Kosovo declared its independence, NATO has not been able to impose itself in the Serb-majority north of the country. This year, NATO troops had to step in after a mob attacked border posts on the disputed frontier with Serbia. Police officers provided by the EU were reported to have fled the scene.

European soldiers can point to a lot of peacekeeping success stories, too, such as a rapid deployment to the Congo to bail out beleaguered UN troops in 2003 and a logistically challenging 2008 operation to help get aid to refugees from Darfur trapped in Chad. Nonetheless, it’s hard to predict how European commanders would react if called on to deal with angry mobs in Tripoli or Sirte, which might be nastier than those they know from Kosovo. Would they really crack down and run the risk of inflicting civilian casualties if such robust tactics could whip up tribal anger or even encourage Islamist radicals?

There are alternatives. As Bruce D. Jones, Jake Sherman, and I argued on these pages back in April, the U.N. might be able to deploy a large-scale force to Libya at a far lower cost than the EU or NATO. European troops and policemen could slot specialized units into a larger U.N.-led structure for short periods of time, or an EU or NATO force could be kept on standby to deploy from Italy or France in a major crisis.

UN forces typically take some time to haul together, as we noted in April. In the case of Libya, it might be possible to bring in units from other Arab countries quickly by land and sea. Still, it hardly needs saying that UN forces aren’t 100 percent reliable either, although they have done well in places like Haiti and Liberia. In the near term, the best step forward would probably be for the EU, NATO and U.N. to set up a joint planning cell — based in either Tripoli or, more politically sensitively, over the water in Italy — to look at the contingency options for stabilizing Libya if the rebels prove unable to handle public disorder or gradually turn on each other.

This sort of cross-institutional prudent planning — combined with early warning of impending trouble from the growing host of international officials, diplomats, and spooks already in Libya — might help deter or contain trouble in future. For now, however, those U.S. commentators who want to see European forces deploy to Libya on the Balkan or Afghan models may be advocating a post-conflict security set-up that won’t work. European peacekeepers have a mixed record, and their governments don’t look very well-positioned to take on the very hefty costs and risks of taking an extended stay in Libya.

Richard Gowan is associate director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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