A state commission has concluded that Norwegian politicians knew too little about the situation in Libya before the Parliament and former Labour Party-led government agreed to take part in NATO’s bombing of the country in the spring of 2011. Norway’s prime minister at the time was NATO’s current boss, Jens Stoltenberg.
The conclusion came after the commission, led by a former foreign minister for the Conservative Party, Jan Petersen, studied the national processes that led to the Stoltenberg government’s decision to join the NATO operation. The decision was backed by a majority in Parliament, and Norwegian fighter jet pilots played an active role in the bombings that ultimately led to the downfall of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
“We haven’t been an investigatory commission,” Petersen said after turning over the commission’s report to Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen and Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide on Thursday. “The goal has been to learn from what happened, and contribute to the public debate.”
That debate has been coming up repeatedly, also right after the repeated bombing raids that left much of Libya’s population centers in ruins. Jan Egeland, the former Norwegian diplomat who has headed several humanitarian organizations since, demanded an investigation into Norway’s and NATO’s bombing of Libya as early as February 2012. He feared the bombing killed far too many of the civilians the UN-backed NATO raids were supposed to protect.
Seven years after the bombing that was supposed to protect civilians from their former dictator and spark rebuilding of the country as a democracy, Libya appears utterly out of control. Armed conflicts continue among rival militia groups, which include the terror organizations IS and al-Qaeda. Migrants, meanwhile, continue to pass through Libya, which is rife with human smugglers and lawlessness.
“The story of Libya is the story of a mistaken intervention, and Norwegian officials have to accept that, even though it’s hard,” Morten Bøas, a senior researcher at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, told newspaper Dagsavisen. He notes that the Stoltenberg Government and Members of Parliament accepted the US’ claim that Gadhafi was planning genocide (after Arab Spring demonstrations had begun to threaten his regime). The US claim was later rejected after a British investigation.
“The bombings were based on the idea that if only they’d get rid of Gadhafi, everything would be fine,” Bøas said. “But no one had a plan for what should happen with Libya after Gadhafi fell.”
Norway, led by Stoltenberg and his foreign minister at the time, current Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre, was among countries “promising” support for Libya’s transition to to a “united and democratic” country, but only on the condition that international and humanitarian law would be respected. That never happened, and there was not international follow-up. Stoltenberg has defended the Libya intervention, but admitted to a lack of follow-up himself in his autobiography Min Historie (My Story): “The mandate the UN had given the military operation was fulfilled. Gadhafi’s assault on the civilian population was stopped. We feared genocide in Benghazi,” Stoltenberg wrote. “What fell apart was the political follow-up after the military operation was over.”
The Petersen Commission revealed that Norwegian authorities had little understanding about what was happening in Libya before deciding to go along with the US’ and NATO’s request for assistance. Norway should have insisted on more information and more influence, the commission found: “With such a large military contribution (given the Norwegian fighter jets taking part in nightly raids) Norway should have demanded a place at the table when political decisions were made.”
The operation that Norway and Stoltenberg seemed anxious to support also cost more than expected, according to the commission’s report. The costs were underestimated. Norwegian officials were aware, however, that a possible consequence of the bombing raids was a regime change in Libya, and that was not seen as problematic.
Petersen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Thursday that the commission believes its report will illuminate the “complexity” of one of the most serious decisions a government can take: to send soldiers into battle. “We hope the report will boost knowledge about operations abroad, and be useful in the public debate over Norway’s international contributions,” Petersen said.
Stoltenberg conceded in his book that “the international community” bears responsibility for the lack of follow-up after Gadhafi’s fall. It was a responsibility, he wrote, that fell on “the UN, the EU, countries in the region and NATO, and it’s a reminder that if you first use military force, you have to have a strategy for what to do afterwards. It’s not enough to win the war, you also have to win the peace.”
The situation is not unlike that in Afghanistan, and concerns were rising this week that the Norwegian public has not been well-informed either about Norway’s special forces who have crossed the border from Jordan to Syria, or who they were fighting with or for. That may wind up as another subject for a commission in the future.