Libya Is a Failed State (and It's America's Fault)
The new U.S. intervention came at the invitation of the so-called unity government, a splicing of two previously feuding regimes, which had received official UN backing. The reality is that despite its name, the “unity government,” also known as the Government of National Accord, or GNA, is just one of several factions jockeying to govern Libya. Indeed, at the time the United States commenced its new air campaign, there were (and remain) three rival governments seeking control. A parliament-backed faction, the Tripoli-based General National Congress, also known as Libya Dawn, is closely allied to Islamist fighters, especially the powerful Misrata militia. A key rival to both claimants is the House of Representatives (HoR)—sometimes called the Council of Deputies—which is based in Tobruk. Gen. Khalifa Hiftar, who had led one of the rebel factions that unseated Qaddafi, is the de facto leader of the HoR.
But even that tripartite feud does not capture the full extent of the chaos. An October 2017 incident illustrates just how convoluted the political and military rivalries have become. An air strike killed at least fifteen civilians in the eastern city of Derna, located about 165 miles west of the Egyptian border. At the time of the attack, Derna was controlled by a coalition of Islamist militants and rebel veterans known as the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC), one of the numerous political/religious factions in the country. The source of the airstrike was unclear. The coastal city had long been under siege by the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) (General Hiftar’s armed wing), which previously conducted air strikes against it, as had Egypt, which backs the LNA.
However, both the LNA and the Egyptian government denied carrying out the most recent raid. Indeed, Egypt’s foreign ministry issued a statement condemning the strikes for killing innocent civilians. One Egyptian TV station with close ties to the Cairo government insisted that Libyan planes had conducted the attack. The LNA, though, denied that assertion and said there had been a “terrorist attack” in the area. The Tripoli-based, UN-backed government, which opposes the LNA and maintains very loose ties with the DMSC, denounced the air strikes and announced three days of mourning.
Even that was not the extent of the murky, multisided struggle, however. The DMSC had controlled Derna since 2015. It achieved that status by expelling ISIS, which had established a foothold there the previous year. In other words, one militant Islamic group drove out a rival militant Islamic group. Such is the nature of political and military affairs in fractured, post–Qaddafi Libya.
The chaos has strengthened Islamic extremism inside Libya and led to massive refugee flows across the Mediterranean—a humanitarian nightmare rivaling the one taking place in Syria. Proponents of U.S.-led regime-change wars have yet another catastrophic failure on their record.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of ten books, the contributing editor of ten books, and the author of more than seven hundred articles and policy studies on international affairs.