Photographer: Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images

U.K. Failed to Prevent Libya Chaos After Qaddafi, Lawmakers Say

  • Cameron launched attacks based on bad intelligence and choices
  • Civilian threat overstated and Islamist danger not identified

U.K. intervention in Libya that led to the 2011 overthrow of Moammar Al Qaddafi was based on bad intelligence and inaccurate assumptions about the rebellion in the north African country, according to a panel of lawmakers.

David Cameron, the prime minister at the time, was decisive in pushing the move to carry out airstrikes in support of Libyan rebels through the National Security Council without properly assessing the threat to civilians and the role of Islamist extremists in the uprising, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said in a report Wednesday.

“U.K. 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,” the committee chairman, Crispin Blunt, a member of Cameron’s Conservative Party, said in a statement. “Political engagement might have delivered civilian protection, regime change and reform at a lesser cost to the U.K. and Libya. The U.K. would have lost nothing by trying these instead of focusing exclusively on regime change by military means.”

Britain and France led intervention in Libya to protect civilians after Qaddafi threatened to crush a rebellion against his 42-year rule. Only 15 House of Commons lawmakers voted against the attacks after Cameron promised the intervention would be limited to airstrikes.

Repeated Mistakes

Britain “drifted into a policy of regime change” and repeated its mistakes in Iraq by failing to plan properly for Libya’s government after Qaddafi was overthrown, the committee said. Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy traveled to Tripoli and Benghazi in September 2011 to celebrate the rebel victory and promised to help rebuild the country.

“Having led the intervention with France, we had a responsibility to support Libyan economic and political reconstruction,” Blunt said. “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.”

Britain’s intelligence about the uprising was flawed and failed to take into account the opportunities that would be created for extremists, the panel found after interviewing key players in the decision to go to war, including the then defence secretary, Liam Fox, and the foreign secretary, William Hague.

Islamist Threat

“It may be that the U.K. government was unable to analyze the nature of the rebellion in Libya due to incomplete intelligence and insufficient institutional insight and that it was caught up in events as they developed,” the panel said. “It could not verify the actual threat to civilians posed by the Qaddafi regime; it selectively took elements of Moammar Qaddafi’s rhetoric at face value; and it failed to identify the militant Islamist extremist element in the rebellion.”

The U.K. should have used former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s contacts with the Qaddafi regime and paused military action once Benghazi was secured to try to broker a deal, the committee said.

The National Security Council, which was set up by Cameron to prevent a repeat of Blair’s decision-making errors during the Iraq War, should be reviewed to ensure it is not making the same mistakes, the panel said.

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