By David Pugliese, Postmedia News February 19, 2012
His demise meant the war was all but over. In Ottawa, officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office went to work planning the largest military victory parade the country had seen in decades.
The Conservative government wanted a major event: a flypast of CF-18 fighter jets and other aircraft, a parade, a choir and a feting of hundreds of military personnel in the Senate chambers.
The emphasis was on portraying all those who had taken part in the Libyan mission — from cooks to clerks to pilots and aircrew — as “heroes.”
The PR campaign started with a news release issued Nov. 4 by the office of Defence Minister Peter MacKay, calling on Canadians to welcome their “military heroes” back from the war’s staging base in Italy.
But even before Gadhafi’s death, the government carefully had crafted strategic messages to be used by military officers and politicians in public and with the media when victory came in Libya. The main one was that Canada had taken a leading role in the NATO campaign and had “punched above its weight.”
MacKay was the first to use the phrase, which was soon parroted by generals and defence analysts.
Politicians in other nations also started using the term. Norway and Denmark punched above their weight in the war, U.S. officials said. British Prime Minister David Cameron declared Britain’s military had also “punched above its weight.”
NATO saw its victory as complete: 260 aircraft had flown more than 26,000 missions. Almost 6,000 targets, including tanks and other armoured vehicles, were destroyed. More than 200 cruise missiles were fired and 20,000 bombs dropped. Canadian CF-18s flew 946 sorties and dropped close to 700 bombs.
Libya’s air force was almost entirely destroyed in the opening days of the war. More than 400 government buildings or command centres were attacked.
With all the self-congratulation about victory in Libya, few in the Canadian government or military pointed out the obvious — that the third-rate army of an African state, outfitted with aging equipment, somehow had managed to withstand the full force of some of the largest militaries in the world and to hang on for more than 200 days.
As part of their PR campaign, government ministers also focused on Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard, whom they dubbed the “hero” of the Libyan war. The general would receive the Meritorious Service Cross, an honour military officers say usually takes quite a while to work its way through the bureaucracy before it’s approved. In this case, the award was fast-tracked.
U.S. politicians were also full of praise for Bouchard’s performance.
“He was tough, he was able, he took no prisoners,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in lauding the general’s efforts.
But not everyone was enamoured with a ‘take no prisoners’ approach to warfare.
There were growing questions about the number of civilian deaths caused by NATO airstrikes and the lack of answers from the alliance. Antiwar groups claimed thousands might have been killed and that the alliance had committed war crimes.
A committee of British MPs tried to determine how many civilians NATO killed, but would acknowledge in a report there was no way of knowing. They accepted, however, that coalition forces did their best to avoid such casualties and commended them for that.
Libyan government officials said such casualties were unfortunate, but in the grander scheme of things, they were inevitable. They pointed out Gadhafi’s forces killed thousands of people during the civil war.
Bouchard, who approved each and every airstrike, said NATO’s process was extremely rigorous and geared to substantially reduce civilian deaths.
One investigation by the New York Times found that NATO bombs killed as many as 70 civilians during the conflict, including 29 women and children. Survivors told the Times that one tactic used by NATO was to restrike targets minutes after the first attack, a practice that killed civilians rushing to aid the wounded.
NATO said it didn’t have any figures about such fatalities, but critics countered that the alliance never tried to compile any.
One of the most controversial NATO attacks happened in August in the farming community of Majar. Five women and seven children were killed in the initial attack. Minutes later, NATO aircraft were back dropping bombs, killing four more. When neighbours rushed to help dig people from the rubble, another bomb hit, killing 18 more civilians.
At the time, Gadhafi’s government claimed 85 died, but that was dismissed as propaganda. Libya’s new government now acknowledges approximately 34 civilians were killed.
But NATO insists it had carefully planned out the airstrike and the dead were Libyan military personnel and mercenaries.
Back in Canada, there was disquiet as well, but for other reasons. Among some in uniform, the Conservative government’s decision to honour the Libyan war didn’t sit well.
A large number of Canadian military personnel had lost friends or acquaintances in the decade-long conflict in Afghanistan. Much blood and treasure had been spent, with 158 Canadians dead and almost 2,000 injured. More than 30,000 Canadian military personnel had served at some point in Afghanistan.
But a similar ceremony to honour Canadian troops who fought in that country, complete with a parade on Parliament Hill and a flyover, had been scuttled.
It seemed to some military personnel the Afghan war was an embarrassment to the Conservative government.
Now, all the stops were being pulled out for a war where aircrew flew their missions before returning to a comfortable room and meal at night. No Canadian troops fought in the deserts of Libya. There were no casualties. Pilots at times, faced gunfire, but most of Libya’s air defences were destroyed in the opening days of the conflict. The war was, as some pilots suggested, a turkey shoot.
But Libya was different in other respects. Unlike Afghanistan, it was a military action that had a clear beginning and end and what the government considered a victory.
The celebration that had been set for Nov. 24 on Parliament Hill would be televised nationally; some 300 military personnel were brought in from four bases across the country for the event.
The four-minute flight of CF-18s and other aircraft over Parliament Hill cost taxpayers an estimated $850,000, although the Defence Department has not yet tallied the entire cost of the celebrations.
But the public appeared largely indifferent. The event attracted only a couple of dozen Libyan-Canadians who waved flags as cannons sounded a 21-gun salute.
“History shows us this: that freedom seldom flowers in undisturbed ground,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the assembled military personnel at the time. “Our job in Libya has been done and done well.”
That, however, was open to debate.
While the Canadian government celebrated Gadhafi’s overthrow, the countries in the region were feeling the effects.
The Libyan strongman not only had provided aid for many African nations, but employment for their citizens. His demise set into motion a mass exodus of workers back to their original countries.
That, in turn, created a domino effect as those nations struggled to deal with hundreds of thousands of traumatized and impoverished people, according to a recently released UN report for the Security Council.
Crime and drug and human smuggling have spiked in the region and the return of more than one million people to their homelands has worsened an “already challenging, humanitarian, development and security situation,” the report noted.
But Gadhafi’s overthrow did breathe new life into one organization — al-Qaida.
As Gadhafi’s forces retreated from NATO’s relentless air attacks, theyabandoned bases and ammunition depots holding thousands of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles. In the chaos that engulfed Libya, the sites were quickly pilfered, either by rebels or black marketeers.
African nations were the first to sound the warning. In late March, just weeks into the conflict, Chad’s president, Idriss Deby Itno, told journalists that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM as it is known, had obtained missiles and small arms from abandoned Libyan stockpiles. “This is very serious,” he said. “AQIM is becoming a genuine army, the best equipped in the region.”
Canada was slow to recognize the problem. In April, Canadian Forces spokesman Brig.-Gen. Richard Blanchette said the military didn’t have any information about missing armaments or missiles.
But a month later, Algerian intelligence also was warning that looted Libyan weapons were in the hands of AQIM.
“The region has turned into a powder keg,” Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s foreign minister, later would tell delegates to an anti-terrorism conference. “Things have changed and degraded since the Libya crisis and the region is on a war path. With stolen weapons circulating, al-Qaida’s total impact is growing.”
In November, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of AQIM’s leaders, confirmed to the Mauritanian news agency that the terrorist group had acquired Libyan weapons.
“We have been one of the main beneficiaries of the revolutions of the Arab world,” he boasted.
And in Libya, the war was over, but the fighting went on. The country’s new leaders were dealing with their own problems as rebel groups, representing various factions, started to fight each other for control of the country. In Tripoli, rival groups fought gun battles over control of the city’s sports complex and airport.
“I want to assure the Libyan people that everything is under control,” a Libyan senior official, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, said after one four-day battle on the outskirts of the capital.
But the militias, estimated to number between 100 and 300 groups, aren’t hearing the message.
Tripoli residents have seen a different face of the rebellion than the one presented to the western media. Rebels have stopped people at gunpoint and stolen their vehicles. Other militia groups have taken over homes and buildings, evicting families and businesses. The militia from Zintan stole an elephant from Tripoli’s zoo, taking the animal back to their city as a war trophy.
The militias refuse to disarm and clashes continue. It’s estimated that some 125,000 Libyans have retained their weapons.
A recent report from the International Crisis Group pointed to one of the key problems: Libyans had rejected the National Transitional Council. The group that the Canadian government recognized as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, long before Gadhafi’s regime fell, actually had little real power.
Although the NTC was the face of the uprising for western politicians and the media, those from the western part of the country saw it as dominated by militia groups from the east. For their part, Islamists saw the transitional council as overly secular, too geared to western values and out of touch with ordinary Libyans, according to the report. There was also bad blood between a number of towns and cities and the NTC. Militias in Misrata complained they received little support from rebels in Benghazi and that the NTC had made them pay for weapons at the height of the civil war.
Equally troubling for countries that supported the rebels was the ongoing widespread detention of individuals and the use of torture in the new Libya.
An estimated 8,500 men, women and children are still being held in detention centres run by various militias. Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for human rights, reported that the detainees were being tortured and that both male and female prisoners were being raped.
In January, Medecins sans Frontieres pulled its medical staff from detention facilities in Misrata after they determined more than 100 people had been tortured. The group’s doctors were being asked to keep prisoners alive so they could be tortured again.
Around the same time, Amnesty International reported that up to a dozen people had been tortured to death by Libya’s new National Military Security agency.
In early February, came the news that Libya’s former ambassador to France, Omar Brebesh, had been killed shortly after being arrested by a militia group. According to the autopsy, he died after suffering “multiple bodily injuries and fractured ribs.”
Such cases prompted Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department to deliver a diplomatic note rebuking Libya for allowing such activities to take place.
But Libyan officials dismissed allegations of torture as unfounded. The head of Misrata’s military council, Ibrahim Beitelmal, instead claimed that human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Medecins sans Frontieres were part of “Gadhafi’s fifth column.”
Still, Canada’s Bouchard remains optimistic about Libya’s future. He argues that the country is in a good position to bounce back and to become prosperous again.
“I believe once we get there, mixed with a government that is transparent and representative, we will find our way toward a Libyan democracy,” he recently told a Canadian Senate meeting.
Asked by senators about the torture and the concerns raised by Medecins sans Frontieres and other agencies, Bouchard said the Libyans needed to understand that such things were not right.
“I would offer that this is an emerging democracy by people who may not know all the things that need to be done and who may not understand all the human rights issues,” he added.
Some are not so sure Libya is an emerging democracy. They point to the country’s warm welcome in January of Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and war crimes, was offering Tripoli the use of his military to help create a new Libyan army.
This was the same military Bashir used to ethnically cleanse Darfur. Ironically, the International Criminal Court had sought to try Gadhafi for similar war crimes.
But Bashir felt at home in Tripoli. Asked by journalists if he was worried he might be arrested and handed over to the international court, he answered: “By God, no.”
He said he felt absolutely safe in the new Libya.