Leading article: Many vexed questions still remain for the international coalition

In Afghanistan, US weapons supplied to the mujahedin are now used by the Taliban
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The Independent Online

It was unfortunate that the day of the London conference coincided with a string of reverses for the anti-Gaddafi forces. Further advances would necessarily have concentrated minds on what, in Iraq, was known as the "day-after scenario", and was so disastrously prepared and handled then. That debacle at least provides a lesson in how not to manage the aftermath of military intervention.

So it was useful to hear from the Foreign Secretary yesterday that members of the international coalition enforcing the two UN Security Council resolutions on Libya were already giving thought to what happens when the fighting ends. The difficulty, however, is that there would appear to be quite a distance between now and then, and what transpires in between remains, to put it mildly, hard to predict.

To William Hague's credit, he made no attempt to claim that the situation on the ground was other than fluid; nor did he try to give the impression that key decisions had been agreed – even at the expense of appearing to prevaricate. There is a sense in which all military operations have to cater for unforeseen eventualities; a sense, too, in which diplomacy must keep something up its sleeve. But flexibility is doubly needed when dealing with Libya and its leader, and the urgent need to protect Benghazi made a degree of planning on the hoof inevitable.

As emerged from exchanges in the Commons yesterday, however, three significant issues are starting to crystallise: the credibility of the opposition; whether to arm them, and what options, if any, might be available to Gaddafi and his family.

It might be said that it is a bit late to be having second thoughts about the opposition forces, given that the UN-authorised no-fly zone was always likely to turn the conflict in their favour. Nor do the reports of growing divisions in their ranks inspire enormous confidence. Equally, it is important not to succumb to Gaddafi-inspired scaremongering about infiltration by al-Qa'ida. Decades of repression meant that any opposition to Gaddafi was bound to be rough around the edges. Something similar applies to opposition movements elsewhere in the region, including Egypt. The priority, in Libya too, must be to facilitate conditions in which all the people can decide their country's future.

The other two issues are thornier; whether or not to arm the opposition especially so. Certainly the thinking of Britain, France and the US appears to have shifted, as the pro-Gaddafi forces have counter-attacked. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, now suggests that UN Security Council resolution 1973 might have trumped the arms embargo currently in force, and David Cameron is refusing to rule out supplying weapons.

Such a change, however, would be risky in the extreme. Many believe that if the conflict in Libya continues, quantities of arms will enter the country regardless of anything the UN authorises. An express decision to supply arms to the opposition, however, would have two effects: in the short term, it would end any coalition claim to be neutral; in the longer term, there is the example of Afghanistan, where US weapons supplied to the anti-Soviet mujahedin are now being used against American forces by the Taliban.

If the three leading members of the coalition are unsure about arming the opposition, they are at least united in their uncertainty. On the fate of Gaddafi, they appear to be divided, with Britain determined that he should face the International Criminal Court, and the US seemingly open to the possibility of exile. This divergence may reflect conflicting assessments of the Libyan dictator's's intentions. At the same time, it may not be the best way of convincing him that he should give up power.