Small Wars Journal

Half-accomplished Libyan ‘Civil War of Liberation’

Wed, 01/04/2012 - 3:57am

The ‘Turn-around’ event

The Libyan tyrant Muammar Qaddafi was finally trounced and extirpated by Libyan rebel fighters outside the town of Shirte, his last bastion of resistance, on October 20, after 8 months of gory fighting between his personal military and National Transitional Council of Libya,[i] which was assisted by NATO.[ii] Immediately preceding the final ground assault of rebel fighters, NATO had made precision bombings over fleeing convoy that carried Qaddafi.[iii]

The historic event undeniably marked a new beginning for Libya, and will be forever scribed in the state’s history as the most prized event in its ‘Civil War of Liberation’. I give full credit to the rebel fighters and countrymen for the uncountable pitiable sacrifices they made in course of the exceedingly arduous period of bloodshed and violence. I also give a pat on the back of NATO member states for getting on-board with the righteous former during the most challenging hours. Notwithstanding the fact that NATO states extended their solidarity and legitimacy for the democratic aspirations of the majority Libyans only when they sensed that the partial ground advances made by NTC forces can be turned-into a complete victory without acute internal public opposition.

Arab Spring: a new avatar

I place the Libyan Civil War of Liberation within the ambit of 2011 Arab Spring; broadly as a refurbished sprig of Arab people’s movement against their respective autocratic state regimes. Like all other Arab Spring movements, here too large numbers of young, educated and unemployed protestors tactfully participated alongwith native hardliner groups, like lately disbanded Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, etc. However, the regime-overthrow revolution in Libya has been unique in itself from the other resistance movements that prevailed or still prevailing in certain Arab countries. The opposition forces in Libya comprised of comparatively larger number of professional war-fighters who were militarily better trained than their counterparts in other Arab countries. This can be attributed to the fact that scores of former Qaddafi’s military-men defected to NTC. This interim governing body was erected by few influence-wielding Libyan military and civilian personalities who were either existing Qaddafi regime dissidents or those who had consequentially became dissidents upon witnessing the excesses committed by Qaddafi forces on the protestors with the outbreak of the civil war. It ‘self-notes’ to act as the "only legitimate body representing the people of Libya and the Libyan state"[iv] that will guide the country to free elections and the establishment of a constitution for Libya.[v]

A new Epoch unfurls

Hereby I agree to the fact that the period of excessive overt form of prevalent violence in Libya discontinued with the killing of Qaddafi by rebel forces. However I contend that the Libya’s Civil War of Liberation has not yet wholly alleviated in reality. This contradicts the official declaration made by NTC on 23rd October that Libya has been “liberated" following the death of Colonel Gaddafi.[vi] I believe the particular event has marked the civil war’s entry into a new state of ‘dormant violence’. The present state of transition in Libya is going to witness NTC’s entrenchment in the political superstructure of the state. The Qaddafi cronies, patrons as well beneficiaries will be purged out of the superstructure with unveiling of the process of state-democratization, which will have the imprints of popular socio-cultural and Islamic traits. What features are to be included and what discarded will be primarily decided by the dominant political fraction i.e. NTC. It will endeavour to maximise its existing occupied space in the political superstructure and not give any leeway (at least till the next general elections are held in Libya, if at all) to other socio-political groups under the pretext of restoring order in the state; whereas the covert objective will be to get effective dominion over the economic substructure of the state.

Am sure if the process of state-rebuilding is not carried out with utmost caution the multi-ethnic and the present extensively armed state of Libya will soon turn into another Afghanistan.  

Hybrid form of Intra-state War

I categorize the Libyan episode of violence as a hybrid form of partially-internationalized civil war whereby the foreign forces enthusiastically played a side kick role to a belligerent resistance coalition party, which when initially formed was a non-state actor but with progression of war became the de-facto state, against an initial de-jure state that gradually lost its international legal personality. Am saying the Libyan civil war as partially-internationalized considering the fact that NATO forces had flown a total of 7,943 sorties, 398 strikes that dropped ordnance and 1,851 strike sorties that targeted against Qaddafi’s forces and installations as on 31th October,[vii] the day when UNSC officially called-off the aerial bombing campaign under Operation Unified Protector,[viii] from 23rd March, the day when the operation commenced on ground.[ix] This I believe was a substantive force-multiplication in the overall composition of assault laid-out by NTC.

Following I attempt to theoretically cross-check whether or not the Libyan episode of violence is a civil war in accordance with criterion stated in "Correlates of War Project", initiated by Melvin Small and J. David Singer, under its second section Constructing the Indicators and Generating the Data, with specific consideration of the parameters in the article Resort to Arms:  International and Civil Wars.[x] First, the number of deaths far exceeds the threshold mark of 1000 per annum since its concurrent outbreak with other Arab revolutions this year. Mohammed al-Ghazwi, who leads Committee on the Dead, suavely told New York Times, "Every day we find another grave, so I can’t give you a specific number. But it’s about twenty-five to thirty thousand, like the minister of health (Naji Barakat) said."[xi] Hereby I consider his words as an official assertion of the new Libyan authority. Since there is no authentic report on the number of combatant deaths and the theatre of war witnessed intense direct and indirect exchange of live-firing between the two belligerent sides. Hence it is obvious that the total number of casualties included a very high number of civilians and combatants. Second, the central government was continually a party to the war. Libyan officials deputed to International organizations represented Qaddafi’s government almost till the halfway into the civil war. However numerous Qaddafi delegates started to dissociate or defect from the autocratic regime, as well individual countries and international organizations started to de-recognize international/ diplomatic missions having allegiance to Qaddafi’s regime with starting of second-half of the civil war. Third, both the government and the adversary party put up genuine resistance on their part in the course of war. Needless to repeat, the intransigent resistance offered by NTC in the early stage, Qaddafi loyalists in the late stage and a stalemate between the two belligerent parties in the middle stage of the war. Fourth, throughout the course of war, fighting was localized within the metropole i.e. state of Libya.

Further confirming in line with all major civil wars of liberation in course of human history, the contemporary Libyan civil war too has witnessed the rise of national popular leaders in the likes of Mustafa Abdel Jalil, Abdel Hakim Belhaj and a handful others. Again if we draw inferences from history it is to be assumed that the prancing rebel fighters, who had actively fought in the civil war, will soon emerge as a very privileged class within the Libyan societies. Though overt clash had ceased, however today the people are much engrossed in their battle to scrape the dictatorial and repressive ideas Qaddafi had upheld, terror-apparatus he had opted for maintaining societal order, personality cult he had created for instilling hegemony, milieu he had erected for enjoying self-privileges and channels he had designed for distributing benefits to his loyal clansmen and henchmen. This civil war was initiated and violently fought on the universally-upheld principles of individual and collective freedom, self-determination, dignity and general prosperity. Now it remains to be seen if the same principles will act as the salient guiding principles for building the post-Qaddafi Libya or be lost in transition?   


Goals: Achieved or not ?

The first objective of the overt clash in Libya, which bound the different regime-opposing belligerent parties together as a collective, was to topple the physical autocrat ‘Muammar Qaddafi’. This has been achieved. A second objective was to bring down and remould the nepotism based form of politicafl, judicial and public administrative structure, which he had imposed by Qaddafi on the state during his reign. This is presently underway. An underlying tertiary objective, which has continually been present from the time even before Qaddafi arbitrarily captured state power till date, is to create a people’s democratic state. This will persist inaudibly perhaps till the Westphalian state system is replaced by a different world system. The 42 years of Qaddafi’s rouge regime, throughout which he ruled the state with iron-fists crushing every form internal dissent remotely challenging his authority, had dragged Libya into an archaic society with no civil or political activism. With Qaddafi gone, today the world awaits cautiously to see how NTC will manoeuvre in the coming time to achieve the objectives of the gory Libyan Civil War of Liberation.

I caution every Libyan and the international community not to let the gains attained with the precious blood, sweat and tears of many freedom-loving Libyans to get washed-out for vested personal, fractional or geo-strategic interests of few internal or external parties.

[i] Breaking News: Libya Liberated, Transitional Government Says (2011, 23 October). Fox News. Retrieved from

[ii] (The NTC could not have achieved its military successes without the help of NATO) Aujali, A. S. (2011, September 13) Building a free Libya. The Washington Post.  Compiled National Transitional Council- Office of the Libyan Representative to the US. Retrieved from

[iii] NATO Releases Statement on Airstrike on Qaddafi Convoy (2011, October 21). Fox News. Retrieved from

[iv]  National Transition Council

[v] A vision of a democratic Libya, (2011).  National Transitional Council. Retrieved from

[vi] Libya: Abdurrahim al-Keib named new interim PM , (2011, November 1). BBC. Retrieved from

[vii] NATO ends Libya mission, (November 3, 2011). CNN, Retrieved from

[viii] Ibid at ii

[ix] NATO Arms Embargo against Libya Operation Unified Protector. (2011). NATO-Public Diplomacy Division-Press and Media Operations Section

[x] Singer,  D. J. & Small, M. (1982) Resort to Arms:  International and Civil Wars, 1816-1980. Beverly Hills:  Sage Publications.

[xi] Nordland, R (September 16, 2011) Libya Counts More Martyrs Than Bodies. the New York Times. Retrieved from



About the Author(s)

Hriday Ch. Sarma is a Research Scholar at MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia University (India). There he is also the present Vice President of Academy Subject Association. He is a Special Correspondent (South to South Development) for Global South Development Magazine Siliconcreation-Finland.



Sun, 01/08/2012 - 10:11am

In reply to by Lamson719

interesting question Robert..since you have addressed your question to Bob, i will not put-forth my take on it. rather would say your have question have prompted me to acquaint myself better with the US military-doctrinal play.


Wed, 01/04/2012 - 8:59pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Great article, and timely as well.

To Bob:
I occasionally write for SWJ and recently interviewed Sean Kane who is at the United States Institute of Peace. He was in Iraq over the course of several years and is now in Libya, which he said, was "going well."

On the other hand, an aid worker I met who was out there said he was sure it would be a case of civil war continuing.

So, here's a question for you: I've recently been reading about the NATO "comprehensive approach" and also the bit on civilians/NGO's in FM 3-24.

I couldn't help but wonder, if COIN is now going to be frozen in ice/ thrown in the trash for US/NATO forces since few people seem sure if it works, or even what it is, and everyone seems certain another COIN campaign by the West would be insane/ too expensive, where does that leave Western civilians in Libya like Sean Kane who are talking to the NTC? If we were to send military advisers, where would that leave them?

My thinking is that counterinsurgency theory is as relevant as ever, even as it seems to be dying in Afghanistan. In Libya you have

-A weak state possibly bent on revenge.
-Gaddaffi loyalists fearful for their livelyhoods with some tribal support.
- A freely available supply of weapons.
-Potential warlordism.

To me that is more like a counter-revolutionary scenario. So my question is, should Westerners advising the NTC look to counterinsurgency theory to pre-empt further violence eg. well defined rules of engagement for NTC forces, local outreach, targeted development in potentially anti government areas, tribal gatherings etc. Or is that just another can of worms?

Hope you have time for such a rambling question. I'm not from a military background as well, I just like to write on these matters...

Robert Tollast.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 01/04/2012 - 2:05pm

Libyans will find like those who have gove before them that winning the military contest against the prior regime is in many ways the easy part. The hard work is before them.

A few years after the last British troop boarded his transport in New York the new country of America was on the verge of collapse. The economy was a disaster; the articles of Confederation, while adequate for waging revolution, where wholly inadequate for sustaining peace; a growing portion of the populace was ready to end the entire experiment and return to the effective certainty of British governance; and small revolutions, such as that led by Daniel Shay, were brewing across the land. But with hard work, a new constitution, one major internal war, and 100 years or so of shaking out the bugs, we turned out all right.

Let us not assume that Libya will somehow magically skip this messy reality of what happens after the shooting stops...