Wednesday, 20 April 2016

In Such Terrifying Circumstances

Peter Oborne writes:

Every day, it becomes more evident that David Cameron's decision to bomb Libya and replace Colonel Gaddafi was an unmitigated disaster.

The decision by an inexperienced Prime Minister, in alliance with the strutting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to intervene in the North African country may possibly have been well-intentioned — but it has left a country at the mercy of rampaging militias.

Even U.S. President Barack Obama, normally sympathetic to Britain and a close ally of the Prime Minister, has expressed his contempt for Mr Cameron's Libyan fiasco.

Despite all this, it now emerges that Cameron's Government is contemplating a fresh Libyan entanglement. There have been rumours that a sizeable detachment of British troops may be sent there.

These deeply disconcerting suggestions came after a briefing from King Abdullah of Jordan was leaked last month, indicating British special forces had been sent to Libya to fight alongside Jordanian troops.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has added to the speculation this week with a surprise visit to the Libyan capital Tripoli, during which he hinted that British troops were ready to train Libyan forces.

Significantly, this was the first visit by a Foreign Secretary to Libya since William Hague went there after the fall of Gaddafi more than four years ago.

I know from experience that conditions have got a great deal worse in the meantime. There is no doubt that Libya badly needs help.

The country is a lawless hell and an increasing danger to Europe because, as I saw on a recent trip, Islamic State has taken advantage of the anarchy to establish a base in the north of the country.

It is imperative that this threat is confronted, because if not, the extremists' power will increase and the problem will get far more dangerous.

Another factor is how the problems have led to an increase by 42 per cent (compared with last year) of the number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe from Libya.

Certainly, having helped to create this unholy mess, Britain has a moral duty to help sort it out. However, there are profound concerns about how it might go about this.

Most worryingly, recent ministerial statements have suggested that the Government may be prepared to send British troops back to Libya — without first consulting Parliament. 

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told MPs this week that 'the Prime Minister and I have to take decisions about the deployment of ships and planes and troops, and we do not want, as the House will understand, to be artificially constrained in action to keep this country safe'. 

Of course British troops must have flexibility to act at short notice to protect the British people, but history teaches that in practice — and particularly when it comes to warfare — a situation can escalate without warning. 

Mr Fallon tried to reassure MPs by saying that ministers would seek parliamentary approval 'before deploying British forces in combat role into a conflict situation'. 

However, the fact is that the British people will not be so easily convinced.

Raw in everyone's mind is the way Tony Blair was accused of leading this country into an illegal war in Iraq — even though he did get parliamentary approval first.

Indeed, we are still awaiting the publication of Sir John Chilcot's report into how Mr Blair took Britain to war, which will undoubtedly expose whether the Labour prime minister bypassed democratic processes and reveal how he fawned to Washington. 

Indeed, there is abundant evidence that Mr Blair's determination to appease President Bush resulted in his government abandoning its principles and facilitating the torture of terror suspects. 

Since time immemorial, soldiers have found themselves drawn into combat situations without intending to be — what is nowadays called 'mission creep'. 

Most notoriously, America's involvement in the terrible Vietnam quagmire began with the dispatch of a handful of advisers to help government forces in South Vietnam. 

History also shows that — often for understandable reasons of official secrecy and security — governments never tell the complete truth about military operations. 

 So what is going on now with regard to British troops and Libya — and can we trust ministers to do the right thing when they speak about not wanting to be 'artificially constrained in action to keep this country safe'? I'm afraid that I think the answer is 'No'. 

It is not simply that Mr Cameron's first Libyan intervention, which took place with parliamentary approval, led to disaster. 

Worryingly, the PM has made little secret of his frustration with the role of Parliament in derailing his much more ambitious plan to intervene in Syria in 2013 (though Parliament finally did vote for bombing raids against Islamic State two years later). 

Ironically, Mr Cameron had called for Parliament's role over war-making powers to be strengthened in the aftermath of the Iraq conflict. 

Indeed, Mr Hague, as Foreign Secretary, pledged to 'enshrine in law the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action' in 2011. 

Crucially, the current mixed messages from the Government about its freedom of manoeuvre when it comes to military issues is fresh evidence of why we urgently need to see the publication of the Chilcot report, which was finally delivered to Downing Street this week. 

The report is more than five years late — and never have its lessons been more desperately needed. 

Ever since the disaster of our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been an uncertainty about Britain's military strategy. 

There has been a wariness about putting combat troops into battle. 

Instead, there has been a preference for attacking with aircraft or drones — increasing the risk of innocent civilian casualties, while reducing the risk of incurring our own casualties. 

Above all, I believe that by far the biggest lesson of recent military initiatives — most conspicuously the British invasion of Iraq — is that governments must be honest about their war aims. 

Evidence presented to Sir John Chilcot shows that the Blair government repeatedly lied to the British people about the reasons for going to war — meaning the Labour government took us into Iraq in what was a false prospectus. 

If Mr Cameron's government is planning a new military involvement in Libya, it is essential that the PM — who once claimed he was the 'heir to Blair' — avoids that error. 

Sadly, there are signs that his Government hasn't. 

For example, the Foreign Secretary's statement to the Commons yesterday following his return from Libya contained several falsehoods and misleading statements. 

He claimed that Libya had a 'government of national unity'. That is not true.

Also, Mr Hammond appeared to have no idea that Libya has two rival governments.

One, in the east of the country, had been regarded as legitimate by the international community — but it does not control the capital city, Tripoli, to the west.

Mr Hammond was even unable to give a convincing account of who the British soldiers would train (there is no Libyan army in the normal sense) and where the training would be done.

When I travelled to Libya shortly before Christmas, local politicians and militia leaders were unanimous on one point: if British troops do return to Libya, they will be targeted as foreign invaders.

That is what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In such terrifying circumstances, government ministers must think very hard before embarking upon such a risky enterprise again.

Above all, they must also be honest about what they are seeking to achieve.

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