Libya: A new Afghanistan?

On a day in which news of the death of another British soldier — this time Captain Lisa Head, who was killed in an explosion while clearing bombs from a roadside in Helmand Province — filters out to the world, we’re also faced with news of the deaths of photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya. They were caught in shelling in Misurata. Meanwhile, the UK — along with Italy and France — has committed its first ground troops to the conflict in Libya: ten soldiers briefed to provide Libyan rebels with the combat strategies they need to overcome Muammar Gaddafi.

The UK’s defence secretary, Liam Fox, has openly acknowledged in the Daily Mail that “the situation is not that different from what’s happening in Afghanistan”, suggesting that he may be bracing the country for another long, drawn-out foreign war in which the lives of British servicemen and women are lost and millions of pounds are poured into an effort with few discernible benefits.

As hope of a swift and decisive military solution recedes rapidly, senior military commanders have apparently described the government’s position as “clutching at straws”. Dubious-sounding approaches such as employing ex-Special Forces personnel to act as forward air controllers for the rebels are reportedly being considered: this might well increase the accuracy of air strikes against Gaddafi, but the idea that the British government might resort to funding mercenaries to overthrow Gaddafi is far from comfortable.

Even more ominously, this whole scenario takes place against a backdrop in which the only legal foundation for UK intervention comes in the form of UN resolution 1973, authorising action to protect civilians from Gaddafi. Employing former SAS commandos stretches this remit to its absolute limits, if not beyond them.

Conservative MP John Baron commented that he believed there is a “fair chance” that David Cameron misled parliament during the initial vote authorising action in Libya, causing further concern that the UK’s presence in the area is unjustified. The questions now are: ‘are we making matters better, or worse?’; ‘are we setting ourselves up for a primary role in another unwinnable conflict?’, and ‘are we setting the stage for counter-insurgency in Libya as military action fails to meet the promises of its initiators’?

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