Leading article: Even now, mission creep is a danger that must be resisted

The battle for Iraq was lost, it can be argued, as soon as US and British troops hit the ground

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:35

The Foreign Secretary has been out and about, discussing the situation in Libya, which means that he is doing his job. With the Prime Minister back on his second interrupted holiday, it is right that the Government should show that someone is minding the shop – the vacuum in the immediate aftermath of the riots was embarrassing – and right, given the geopolitical significance of what is happening in Libya, that William Hague should be the minister in charge.

It should be some consolation, too, that the shadow of Iraq can be detected behind much of what he has said. The debacle in Iraq was one reason, if not the main reason, why the British public was so sceptical about the value of intervening in Libya, even to save the opposition in Benghazi from annihilation. Mr Cameron and his government need to demonstrate at every stage that they have learnt from what went wrong there: from the hubris that suggested the operation would be easy, through the failure to restore basic services, to the ill-considered dissolution of existing state structures. The battle for Iraq was lost, it can be argued, almost as soon as the first US and British troops hit the ground.

So it was disturbing to hear Mr Hague, in an interview with the BBC, saying: "We're not looking at British troops being a significant part of a stabilisation operation." Thus far, Britain and France have successfully insisted that Libya will remain an aerial operation only, defined by the UN resolution's declaration of its purpose as the protection of civilians. It has been reassuring, too, that it has been conducted strictly within the Nato framework and under Nato command. Even if, as is widely suspected, British (and other) special forces have been with the rebels in Libya for many weeks, the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi has to be seen as a Libyan victory, no more and no less.

And if the war has to be owned by Libyans themselves, so – perhaps even more – does the peace. The very idea that there should be British troops on the ground, even as part of a broader stabilisation operation, should raise concern all over again about the wisdom of involvement in other people's conflicts. As was seen not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, the combatants in civil wars quickly shift their focus to foreign forces, unless they are there as strictly neutral peace-keepers under an international flag. With their chequered colonial history in the region, both Britain and France need to be wary of any involvement on the ground that holds the risk of their troops becoming bogged down.

Commendably, Mr Hague has not rushed to claim victory on behalf of Libya's opposition, accepting that the conflict could still go on for some time. International moves to unfreeze Libya's assets abroad are a useful first step, in terms both of practical support and conveying goodwill. The emphasis on humanitarian assistance, to help overstretched hospitals and offset disruptions in food supplies, also makes sense, as do plans for a Tripoli security committee bringing together different, Libyan, military groups.

As the need for intervention from the air recedes, as we hope it soon will, British involvement should be limited to disinterested aid and arm's length encouragement. Any boots on the ground should be Libyan.

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