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Cameron savaged by MPs for 'opportunistic' Libya regime change

British PM's decision to intervene was incoherent, sowed chaos that ultimately led to rise of IS, parliamentary report finds
Report says Cameron, British government based decisions on Gaddafi's rhetoric (AFP)

David Cameron prosecuted an “opportunistic policy of regime change” during Western intervention in the Libyan uprising of 2011, which fuelled chaos and ultimately led to the spread of the Islamic State (IS) group in North Africa, according to a damning parliamentary report released on Wednesday.

The foreign affairs select committee report said the former British prime minister was “ultimately responsible for the failure to develop a coherent Libya strategy” in an intervention that was, despite assurances to the contrary, specifically designed to topple Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The report, which took more than a year to prepare, identifies severe failings in pre-intervention intelligence, as well as a failure to translate reconstruction plans into actual successes on the ground.

Both these failings, it finds, contributed to the chaos the country now faces, with tribal groups battling for control, the Islamic State taking root and people-smugglers capitalising on the lucrative and often deadly migrant route to Europe across the Mediterranean.

Libya, at one point, had three competing governments and the unity efforts of the UN-backed Government of National Accord remain in a state of flux - only this week a renegade military force claimed to have seized control of the country's entire oil region.

Britain intervened in Libya in February 2011, backing a French-led call for UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which imposed a no-fly zone over Libya, an arms embargo and authorised bombing in support of anti-Gaddafi forces.

The following month, the UK became a leading member of the NATO-led bombing campaign that contributed to the Libyan leader's downfall and eventual roadside death near Sirte in October 2011.

Gaddafi, moments before he was killed in October 2011 (AFP)

The committee report savages Cameron for telling parliament in March 2011 that the objective of the bombing campaign was not regime change, only for him to sign a joint letter with the French and US presidents a month later setting out their aim to pursue “a future without Gaddafi”.

The MPs also criticise Cameron for failing to “exploit” the contacts of former prime minister Tony Blair – who according to the report "knew the Gaddafi regime better than most Western politicians" - to glean quality intelligence about the country.

Instead, Cameron's government, based its decision to intervene on Gaddafi's infamously inflamed rhetoric and inaccurate media reports, also failing to anticipate the growth of hardline rebel groups that benefited from the overthrow of Gaddafi and went on to flourish amid the post-uprising power vacuum.

Blair was a key participant in the investigation that produced the report. Cameron refused to participate with researchers during the eight months of evidence gathering, citing “pressures on the diary”.

The report urges an independent review into the decision-making processes of the National Security Council, which was itself reformed after serious criticism about how it operated in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The report said the UK based its actions on flawed intelligence (Reuters)

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said the report was an add-on to the debate created by the Chilcot report into the British invasion of Iraq a decade earlier.

"The committee’s finding that there was effectively a change in strategy from civilian protection to regime change will hardly be a shock, and is a view widely shared," Doyle said.

"Yet it is also tough on the lack of a proper assessment of conditions inside Libya and the nature of the opposition.

“This inquiry goes to the heart of Britain's current relationship with the Middle East and North Africa. It looks for lessons on intervention in Libya both then and now.

“It may be fortunate for David Cameron that he is no longer prime minister, and for Philip Hammond [the current chancellor] that he is no longer foreign secretary.”

Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the report represents the current “consensus” in British politics regarding foreign interventions: “Refrain from reckless interventions with little intelligence; don't focus just on [IS] but look at the bigger picture of the stabilisation of the country.”

The committee's report also specifically criticises the UK's current role in Libya, which Middle East Eye has reported includes limited deployment of SAS troops to support the new unity government and battle IS, as well as flights supporting the rival forces led by Haftar around Benghazi, and an increased presence off the coast of combat weapons shipments.

The report warns that the presence of British forces on the ground without the approval of parliament may simply fuel anti-Western sentiment and “provide [IS] with a relatively accessible target”.

Cameron has said he prevented a genocide by removing Gaddafi (AFP)

Crispin Blunt, a Conservative MP and chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, said: "This report determines that UK policy in Libya before and since the intervention of March 2011 was founded on erroneous assumptions and an incomplete understanding of the country and the situation.

"Other political options were available. Political engagement might have delivered civilian protection, regime change and reform at a lesser cost to the UK and Libya. The UK would have lost nothing by trying these instead of focusing exclusively on regime change by military means.

"We had a responsibility to support Libyan economic and political reconstruction. But our lack of understanding of the institutional capacity of the country stymied Libya’s progress in establishing security on the ground and absorbing financial and other resources from the international community.

“The UK’s actions in Libya were part of an ill-conceived intervention, the results of which are still playing out today. The United Nations has brokered an inclusive Government of National Accord. If it fails, the danger is that Libya will sink into a full scale civil war to control territory and oil resources.

"The GNA is the only game in town and the international community has a responsibility to unite behind it.”

Cameron, who on Monday announced he has decided to quit national politics, has defended his actions in Libya, telling the BBC last year that intervening was “the right thing to do... we stopped a genocide".

He was not available on Wednesday to comment on the report's release.

The report was released two days after Cameron announced his intention to step down as a backbench MP, having resigned as prime minister in June after backing the losing side in the UK’s referendum on EU membership.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.