Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO's War on Libya and Africa

Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO's War on Libya and Africa

by Maximilian Forte


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Shortlisted for:
Mavis Gallant Nonfiction Prize Awarded by the Quebec Writers' Federation

A comprehensive analysis, this book examines all the justifications and myths about the war on Libya and methodically dismantles them. It delineates the documentary history of events, processes, and decisions that led up to the war while underscoring its resulting consequences. Arguing that NATO’s war is part of a larger process of militarizing U.S. relations with Africa—which sees the development of the Pentagon’s AFRICOM as being in competition with Pan-African initiative—this account shows that Western relations with a “rehabilitated” Libya were shaky at best, mired in distrust, and exhibiting a preference for regime change.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781926824529
Publisher: Baraka Books
Publication date: 11/28/2012
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 902,211
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Maximilian Forte is an associate professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of Indigenous Cosmopolitans, Indigenous Resurgence in the Contemporary, and Ruins of Absence, Presence of Caribs: (Post) Colonial Representations of Aboriginality in Trinidad and Tobago. He lives in Montreal.

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Slouching Towards Sirte

NATO's War on Libya and Africa

By Maximilian C. Forte

Baraka Books

Copyright © 2015 Maximilian C. Forte
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-926824-75-8


Sirte: Keystone of Independence

"I welcome you in the city of Sirte," Colonel Muammar Gaddafi told those gathered for the Fifth Ordinary Summit of the African Union in 2005. He told his guests that Sirte is the place "which the Libyans call the frontline city because it confronted the colonial onslaughts and resisted several colonial campaigns aimed at the heart of Africa since the Roman, Byzantine, Turkish and Italian colonial eras, alongside other incursions by the Vandals who were seeking to penetrate deep into the African continent." Gaddafi then instructed the audience: "Sirte was always the first line of defence against those campaigns" (Gaddafi, 2005, p. 31).

Welcome to Sirte Today

"It used to be a beautiful city, one of the most beautiful in Libya," said Zarouk Abdullah, 42, a university professor, standing outside his badly damaged family home: "Today it looks like (postwar) Leningrad, Gaza or Beirut" (AP, 2011/10/28). "It looks today like Ypres in 1915, or Grozny in 1995 after the Russian Army had finished with it," a journalist with The Independent reported with similar comparisons (Randall, 2011/10/23).

Other visitors, writing for The Sunday Telegraph, wrote much the same: "The shattered remains of housing blocks and the wreckage ... are more reminiscent of the grimmest scenes from Grozny, towards the end of Russia's bloody Chechen war, than of anything seen in Libya so far" (Farmer & Sherlock, 2011/10/15). Sirte was found "almost without an intact building," with "nearly everyhouse ... pulverized by a rocket or mortar, burned out or riddled with bullets" — "the infrastructure of a city upon which the Libyan leader lavished many millions has simply ceased to exist" (Randall, 2011/10/23). Sirte has been "reduced to rubble, a ghost town filled with the stench of death and where bodies litter the streets" (Bastian, 2011/10/23). "So far, we visited 7,000 houses and 6,000 are damaged," said Ahmed Qurbaj who was charged with assessing the scale of destruction in this city (Gumuchian, 2012/2/29). "Much of the Mediterranean city of palm tree-lined boulevards has been destroyed. Whole neighborhoods are uninhabitable" (AP, 2011/10/28). "The air rankles with the smell of rotting bodies" (Bastian, 2011/10/23). "There's no electricity or water. Debris-filled streets are flooded from broken pipes" (AP, 2011/10/28). Well before the assault on Sirte ended, the BBC's Wyre Davies reported: "the city is more badly damaged than any other Libyan city affected by the 'war' — flattened in places." "Utterly ravaged" is what The Telegraph's Ben Farmer (2011/10/22) said when he saw Sirte, "a skeleton of a city — a place without food, water or light; a city without citizens. Its streets were turned into rivers by burst pipes, as fighters battled through waist-high swathes of mud brown water, street by bloody street." Another journalist made the following report from the scene of the devastation that our victors morbidly hailed as "liberation."

"Gaddafi's home town appeared Saturday to have been largely destroyed, with most of its population fled and holes the size of manhole covers blown in apartment buildings and the ousted leader's showcase convention center. A drive through some of Sirte's 'liberated' neighborhoods revealed the pounding the city has taken. In one area, block after block of small mustard-yellow apartments were peppered with small-arms fire. Artillery fire had blasted holes in the walls, and front doors were ripped off their hinges. The burned-out carcasses of a truck and car littered one empty street. Gabriele Rossi, the emergency coordinator in Sirte for the aid group Doctors Without Borders, said the city appeared to have sustained some of the greatest damage of the war. 'The part we have seen is almost completely destroyed,' he said." (Sheridan, 2011/10/15)

"What happened in our town is a disaster," one girl in Sirte told the BBC, "they attacked us in our houses and looted them, they destroyed everything" (Head, 2012/2/9).

Sirte suffered a catastrophe according to these and many more eyewitness descriptions of endless rows of buildings on fire, corpses of the executed lying on hospital lawns, mass graves, homes looted and burned by insurgents, apartment blocks flattened by NATO bombs. This is what "protecting civilians" actually looks like, and it looks like crimes against humanity. Far from the romantic image of all of Libya having risen up against "the evil tyrant," this was one side of Libya destroying the other with the aid (to say the least) of foreign forces. "Sirte is over. There is nothing left for me here," said Ahmad Ali as he drove away from the city (Bastian, 2011/10/23).

Sirte, once promoted by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi as a possible capital of a future United States of Africa, and one of the strongests bases of support for the revolution he led, was found to be in near total ruin by visiting journalists who came after the end of the bombing campaign by members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

"Four months after Libya's leader met his end in his hometown Sirte, the fishing village he turned into a model city lies in ruins. ... In a city that once served as a showcase to foreign dignitaries, nearly every building bears the scars of war. ... In the once favoured seafront neighbourhood known as District Two, scene of some of the heaviest fighting and where Gaddafi is believed to have hidden in his last days, some houses have entire walls missing. Windows are shattered or blown off, fallen balcony railings hang to one side. Street lamp-posts are riddled with bullet holes." (Gumuchian, 2012/2/29)

Testifying to the indiscriminate nature of the assault on residential areas, aimed at overthrowing the government, a BBC reporter said "it is hard to find a building undamaged by bullets or shells," adding, "occasionally you see grotesquely twisted concrete structures, barely recognisable now, that were blown apart by NATO bombs" (Head, 2012/2/9). Sometimes "indiscriminate" can suggest accidental, merely a result of poor targeting, careless but unintentional. Yet the same BBC reporter tells us: "I have met many people in Misrata who believe Sirte should be wiped off the map" (Head, 2012/2/9). This would suggest that at least some of the attackers forming part of militias from Misrata, were driven to pursue total war against the population. Another report indicated that this is how the residents of Sirte perceived the NATO-supported assault on their city: "Residents now believe the Misrata fighters intentionally destroyed Sirte, beyond the collateral damage of fighting" (AP, 2011/10/28). At an earlier stage in the rebels' drive to take over Libya, as they unsuccessfully tried to take Ajdabiya from government supporters in March 2011, one of the rebels told The Telegraph that NATO should bomb the town even if it meant civilian casualties, that entirely razing the town was the best way to "free" the country: "Even if they blow up Ajdabiya we don't care" (Crilly, 2011/3/21).

That such desires, which the Western media would have otherwise labeled "genocidal" if expressed by Gaddafi or his supporters, received so little notice and even less comment from the Western humanitarians who were anxious to intervene to "save lives" in Libya, is a testament to the manufacture of a moral dualism that could justify as much atrocity as it claimed to abhor. In this scheme, the rebels could only be divine, and their victims could only be sacrificed; hence the vast destruction of Sirte which occurred with the commanding support of our Western intervention. In Sirte, we did far worse than "standing idly by" (the favourite phrase used by "humanitarian interventionists" when imploring action): we actively participated in the slaughter, and without a hint of remorse. The United Nations Security Council passed no resolutions to initiate action to stop the rebels. There were no calls from "the international community" to protect the people of Sirte from slaughter. Those who militated for action to uphold the new norm called the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) were mostly able to avert their eyes. Few were willing to admit that force was not being used to enforce a doctrine, but rather that the doctrine served as a legitimizing pretext for force. The entire NATO campaign, culminating and coming to a stop in Sirte, was instead roundly hailed as a "success story," even a "model," not just by the Secretary-General of NATO, but by most NATO leaders, by leading R2P advocates, and by the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN). Weaponizing morality as an instrument of warfare is not new, but it deserves a prominent place in any account of the ideological structures of what some call "the new imperialism" and how it plastered Libya with bombs.

An account of our intervention in Libya must, as a central feature, contextualize it properly by bringing a symbolically central case such as Sirte's back into history. Otherwise, we are left with simplistic formulas, of the kind proferred by the talk-show punditry, which are as lacking in analytical depth as they are deficient of credibility: that this war was about "human rights," that Gaddafi was a "brutal dictator," that we needed to "protect civilians" or that "the world" looked to "us" to "do something." The nature of the "Gaddafi regime" neither explains nor justifies Western intervention: "This is not about who Gaddafi is. It's about who we are and how our good name is hijacked by leaders who order violence without any restraint" (Collins, 2011).

The story of Sirte is important because of the symbolic and strategic centrality of this location, which does not mean that what happened there happened nowhere else in Libya. However, almost all commentators agree that what Sirte suffered was the worst. Sirte is symbolic of the ends of this war: it rests at the intersection between being the place of birth of Gaddafi and the place of his torture and execution; born to loving parents in the region adjoining Sirte, it was in this city that Gaddafi was killed at the hands of a hate-filled mob; the city that shone under Gaddafi, was reduced to rubble by NATO bombardments and by the blanketing firepower by rebels; a city developed by the revolution Gaddafi led and then looted by fighters who proclaimed a new revolution. He was a target of regime change, with an end brought about by NATO bombing his convoy as he tried to escape, struck by NATO on the pretext that even his fleeing convoy could "threaten civilians." In broader terms, Sirte was the proposed capital for a new, united Africa, to which the doors have been closed by a combination of racism, xenophobia, a rival Arabism, and an alliance with North American and European powers. And Sirte was the city that could be destroyed because for some reason we were told that the more important imperative was to "save Benghazi." Believing that some lives are better and more important than others logically takes us out of the realm of "universal human rights" and moves us into the arena of conquest and domination.

From a Tent outside Sirte: Defining a New Libya

"His [Gaddafi's] birthplace was the low tent of his father, a semi-nomad, pitched somewhere south of Sirte in the open desert that formed the family's traditional range-lands. The Sirtica, although administratively part of Tripolitania in the west and part of Cyrenaica in the east, has always been an extended frontier district, a historically ungovernable no man's land between the main centres of population round Tripoli, Benghazi and the southern oases. In being born there, [Muammar Gaddafi] acquired the politically invaluable credential of being neither a true Tripolitanian, nor a Cyrenaican, nor even a Fezzanese, but a bedu of the open desert that is common to all Libya, and from which many Libyans like to think they themselves once came." (Wright, 1981, p. 124)

"How can a soldier remain passive and salute a king who has filled the country with foreign forces? How can you accept being stopped on the street by an American? That happened to me personally. When I wanted to enter Wheelus base, I was turned away. ... When I told them of my position as an officer in the Libyan army, I was told, 'true, but you will not enter!' I replied, 'it is Libyan territory.' Response, 'it is futile to argue, you will not enter, period!'." (Gaddafi quoted in Vandewalle, 1998, p. 61)

Muammar Gaddafi was born in Sirte circa 1942, to a poor family. His relatives fought for many years against Italian colonial rule, just as members of his tribe, the Gaddadfa, had fought against the Turkish occupation (Simons, 1996). Gaddafi's family was Bedouin, a people who were "particularly known for their ferocity in defending their freedom;" indeed, even Gaddafi's father served time in prison for his resistance against the Italians (Sullivan, 1999, p. 22). Though not a central plank in the Italian domination of Libya, Sirte itself was a destination of the only Italian air service in Africa, run by SANA (Burchall, 1933, p. 69).

After the defeat of the Italians in the Second World War, another colonial power, this time Britain, sought to lay claim over Sirte. The British aimed to include the region encompassing Sirte, under a trusteeship established by the UN (Strausz-Hupé & Possony, 1950, p. 306). Thus the UN too, from the time before Libya even gained formal political independence, had already inserted itself as a central actor in managing and defining Libya. On November 21, 1949, the UN decided that Libya should become independent by January 1, 1952, and the transfer of power to King Idris I was overseen by a Dutch UN Commissioner, Adriaan Pelt. The following year, King Idris held Libya's first elections, and when opposition parties contested the results, all political parties and programs were suppressed (Lea, 2001, p. 252). In July 1953, Libya signed a 20-year treaty with Great Britain granting permission for it to maintain military bases in Libya in return for a nominal sum to aid development (Lea, 2001, p. 252). Libya agreed to a similar pact with the U.S. in September 1954, which saw the establishment of U.S. air bases in Libya in return for$40 million U.S. over 20 years (Lea, 2001, p. 252). For Gaddafi and his fellow officers who led the overthrow of King Idris, the monarch had sold out Libya to foreign, imperial powers.

"My parents are still living in a tent near Sirte," Gaddafi said years after overthrowing the King in a bloodless revolt in 1969 (Anderson, 1983, p. 139; see also McDermott, 1973, p. 400, and Anderson, 1982, p. 519). "We are not rich people," Gaddafi said about his fellow officers and himself, "the parents of the majority of us are living in huts" (Anderson, 1983, p. 139). Indeed, according to his own mother, Gaddafi told his parents that they would continue living in their tent until every Libyan had been allotted proper housing (BBC, 1976).

At the age of ten, and at great sacrifice to his family, Gaddafi was sent to a Quranic school in Sirte (Anderson, 1983, p. 139), where his schoolmates "looked down on him as a poor desert bedu; at night he slept in the mosque and at holidays he trudged back to the family encampment" (Wright, 1981, p. 124). Simons similarly related that Gaddafi, "as a rural Bedouin," was "viewed by his classmates as something of a country bumpkin" (1996, p. 170).

This grounding, in the desert tent, in the Quranic school, later in his training at the British Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, Surrey, and then in the struggle against broad global forces such as Western imperialism, is a critical part of understanding both Sirte and its son, Gaddafi.

Sirte, like many other formerly colonized places, was an area that may have seemed utterly peripheral, but which instead spanned forces of world-historic importance. The elusive dream, then and especially now, is that which lies in between these forces: the idea of a nation, united and self-reliant. Beyond the Bedouin Fezzan, we are suddenly shifted to colonial rule, Islam, oil, Pan-Arabism and then Pan-Africanism — what seems mirage-like is, however, the idea of a "Libya." While Gaddafi was a dedicated nationalist, his own vision of the nation constantly shifted boundaries, moving beyond Libya to include, at different times, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and so on. Born of a people who were pastoral nomads, dwellers of the open desert (always retained as a motif by Gaddafi, who greeted visitors in his tent, see FIGURE 1.5), it is perhaps not surprising that Gaddafi's horizons were always open and shifting. This sense of ceaseless movement, indicative of Libya as a whole, was perhaps best summed up by Anderson (1982, pp. 533-534).


Excerpted from Slouching Towards Sirte by Maximilian C. Forte. Copyright © 2015 Maximilian C. Forte. Excerpted by permission of Baraka Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface 9

Acknowledgments 14

Abbreviations 15

Introduction: Liberal Imperialism and the New Scramble for Africa 17

Chapter 1 Sirte: Keystone of Independence 31

Chapter 2 Sirte: Touchstone of Imperialism 69

Chapter 3 Libyan Pan-Africanism and Its Discontents 137

Chapter 4 A War against Africa: AFRICOM, NATO, and Racism 187

Chapter 5 Humanitarianism and the Invention of Emergency 237

Conclusion: The Aftermath: A New War on Africa 267

References 309

Index 339

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Slouching Towards Sirte is a penetrating critique, not only of the NATO intervention in Libya, but of the concept of humanitarian intervention and imperialism in our time. It is the definitive treatment of NATO's war on Libya. It is difficult to imagine it will be surpassed." —

"Forte's allegations that NATO's war was manufactured by liberal interventionists and 'iPad imperialists' whose agenda to disrupt African independence and execute regime change under the 'fig leaf' of saving lives are chilling—and persuasive. . . . Even though Forte couches descriptions of Gaddafi in amorphous, guarded language, he isn't an apologist. In this provocative and unabashedly direct book, Forte speaks truth to power." —

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