I have just returned from Jebel Nafusa, a mountainous plateau in north-western Libya that constitutes, after Misrata in the east and Brega even further east, the third front of the war in Libya. What I saw leads me to challenge more strongly than ever the oddly defeatist declarations that have emanated from Washington, London and Paris in recent weeks.
They tell us, for example, of a rebel army that is disorganised, ill-prepared for combat, undisciplined. On the Gualich front, which is its first line of attack against Muammer Gaddafi’s forces, I have witnessed just the opposite: about 50 well-trained men, supervised by former servicemen who have defected and are proud to have retaken the 60km, separating them from the regional command base, in 10 days. In short it is the opposite of a quagmire.
The defeatists also tell us that these fighters cannot see beyond the boundaries of their villages, and are incapable of the physical and political unity that could lead to the conquest of Tripoli. Yet whether in Arab country or Berber, one sees and hears something very different: a rebellion whose objective is Tripoli; tribal chiefs for whom Libyan unity has become an imperative; officers perfectly aware of the fact that this goal is attainable only in close co-ordination with Nato’s operational commanders. Once again, this is nothing like the disorder, the improvisation, and the “tribal mindset” we keep hearing about.
A good deal of worry has been expressed about the quality of the insurgents’ weapons and the disparity of force that is supposedly the consequence of this. They are probably lacking some of the heavy weaponry necessary if they are to march on the capital. Nato should also probably respond to their requests for the bombardment of a number of positions where, as I write, enemy artillery keep their guns trained on civilians. But great progress has been made with the delivery of several dozen tons of arms, particularly by France.
Col Gaddafi’s forces have been described as an army that “could resist” – sic – the coalition. Using the fine word “resistance” in reference to the rabble of a cornered tyrant seems to me to be a blow to common sense, particularly when we have heard reports that point to the possession by this tyrant of the dirty weapon par excellence, napalm. It also happens that, at Zintan, I was able to enter a madrassa that has been transformed into a military prison as well as a hospital ward where wounded prisoners are being treated.
There we gathered two sorts of eye-witness accounts: tales of mercenaries from Niger, Mali, and Sudan, and then the account of a Libyan artillery gunner who told me how some of his comrades remain at their posts only because colleagues ordered to shoot at the least attempt at desertion are at their backs. Is that, really, the “loyalist” army ready to die for its “Guide”?
In short, I decidedly do not understand the disillusioned tone of commentators who never found 42 years of dictatorship too long but who suddenly find the 100 days or so of the liberation interminable. I understand even less the repeated calls for “political negotiations” that, alone, will permit us to escape from the “quagmire” that David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy have supposedly thrown us in to. There is only one “political solution” to the crisis that began with the offensive launched by this regime against its people: that is the departure of Col Gaddafi, and I have the feeling we’re close to it.
But on what terms? There are three conditions for success. First, the French and British do not give way to threats and must continue on the path they have begun. This war, because it targets a dictator who had pledged to drown his people “in rivers of blood”, is a just war. Second, Washington, even if it is in retreat and leaves the bulk of operations to its European allies, must not fall into the self-flagellation of viewing this Libyan war in the same light of disapproval as the absurd Iraq war. The Iraq war was based on a government lie (the famous and elusive “weapons of mass destruction”), there is no such situation with the Libyan war. The Iraq war was a war of revenge – no comparison with the Libyan war. The Iraq war, in a kind of democratic Messianism, believed in democracy brought in from outside – in Libya, we have relied on demands for democracy that come not only from inside the country, but also from the depths of its society.
Third, that the international community does not fall into the trap of turning Col Gaddafi into a “desert rat”, defying coalition forces and becoming a kind of demi-hero, with his back to the wall, alone against all. We must not lose sight of the repression visited on his people, nor of the fact that his reaction, on day one of the intervention, was to threaten to answer our air strikes with strikes on our civil aircraft.
Col Gaddafi has not changed. He has not stopped being a baroque but bloody tyrant – he will remain so unless we maintain the momentum.
The writer is a philosopher whose support for the insurgents helped to prompt the intervention.