“Failing to plan for the day after”: planning for civilian protection in Libya

In early 2011, Libya descended into chaos and violence.

In March the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 authorising “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians. At the end of March, NATO began military operations to implement Resolution 1973 under what became known as Operation Unified Protector (OUP). Within a matter of months, Libyan government forces were defeated, the government itself was overthrown, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed, and French, British and America leaders declared a mission well-accomplished.

But the chaos and violence didn’t stop. Libyan state institutions collapsed, lawlessness and armed violence continued, insecurity spread across the country and rippled outwards to its neighbours, and the toll on human lives continues to this day. In a television interview in late 2016, former US President Barack Obama was asked what his “worst mistake” was while in office. His response? “Probably failing to plan for the day after” the intervention in Libya.

It’s unlikely he was alone in that regret. Also in 2016, the UK parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee released a report following an inquiry into the government’s participation in the NATO-led intervention. At the heart of the report was the allegation that, at the time of the intervention, the UK government had lacked an adequate understanding of Libya—of the local context, of the country’s history and socio-political complexities, of events on the ground, of the character of the violence, of the dynamics of the local population, and of the potential inadvertent consequences of military intervention and Libya’s destabilisation.

Success through understanding

At Trilateral Research, in our conversations with practitioners and others working across defence, security and crisis response, we often talk at length about the acute challenges that planners and decision-makers face in trying to develop a more human-centric situational understanding, including how to better understand what we call the ‘human security environment’ (HSE). And it’s this kind of human-centric understanding—akin to what’s often called understanding the ‘human terrain’ in military lingo—that appears to have been lacking at the time of the intervention in Libya.

Indeed, soon after the end of Operation Unified Protector, US Air Force commander Major General Margaret Woodward told Air Force Magazine that there had been a lack of “intelligence preparation” of Libya and that “operational data and intelligence [was] one of our earliest and most critical limiting factors.” In 2013, a report written by a researcher at the NATO Defense College, and published by the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, found that NATO had “paid rather limited attention to Libya’s cultural terrain,” “had no cultural advisers on the staff of OUP,” and ultimately had “no understanding of Libya – either its regime or its population.” The report remarked that “what must really be asked is whether success could have come earlier with a thorough understanding of local circumstances”.

More recently, a 2018 article on implementing NATO’s Protection of Civilians policy, which was published in NATO’s in-house OPEN Publications series, made the point that Understanding the Human Environment (UHE) “is a crucial capability across all stages of planning for civilian and military stakeholders, from pre-mandate strategy to post-conflict stabilization. Any protection of civilians planning process should begin with a deliberate understanding of the situation on the ground – to include the nature, risk, and likelihood of threats to civilians.”

With this in mind, the article stressed “there was a well-documented lack of UHE capabilities in OUP in Libya” and suggested that “future [protection of civilians] operations need a team of experts working across the mission—a ‘Human Environment team,’ or HET… [which] could be an effective way to inform the planning and assessment aspects of future operations.”

What could have been done differently?

Amongst other things, what these reflections suggest is that delivering the sustainable, long-term protection of civilians requires a holistic and human-centric understanding of a crisis. A human-centric situational understanding includes identifying and understanding the wide range of human security threats to civilian populations. In this sense, three things, in particular, are likely to have been valuable in the case of Libya.

  • First, a comprehensive understanding of the kinds of issues, hazards, and phenomena presenting a human security threat—actual or potential—to civilian populations. In Libya, this would have included (but was not limited to) threats regarding human trafficking and the intensification of trafficking networks and other forms of organised crime, gender-based violence and sexual exploitation, conflict over resources and cascading economic disruption, human rights abuses, violent power struggles in the post-Gaddafi power vacuum, and understanding the kinds of grievances and fears that might continue to fuel violence and instability. This is just a sampling of threats, of course, and a wide understanding would have been fused with the development, in parallel, of a deeper understanding of Libya’s cultural terrain.
  • Second, an understanding of how these issues above might change over time, what was likely to be driving them, and how the human security environment might evolve—both as a result of developments on the ground and also as a result of planned military activities. Understanding the possible second- and third-order unintended consequences of military operations, and the potential cascades and spill-over effects, would have been crucial under this approach.
  • Third, monitoring the evolution of the human security environment once military operations were underway, and ensuring this situational picture was constantly updated and disseminated throughout the duration of the operation and throughout the stabilisation and reconstruction activities that followed.

The importance of incorporating these kinds of considerations and understandings into the military planning process isn’t unique to the case of Libya, and they are unlikely to have been a panacea. But what the case of Libya provides is a cautionary example, still fresh in recent memory, of how a crisis situation might evolve when they aren’t.


For more information on this research area, contact our team:

Toby Fenton, Associate Product Manager at Trilateral Research



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