Applying the lessons learned from 'failures of Iraq'


Andrew Mitchell says the UK is now better prepared to deal with Libya, writes MARK HENNESSY

FRESH DESPITE an overnight flight from New York and early morning meetings in Downing Street, Andrew Mitchell sits in his office looking onto Buckingham Palace with his shoes off, eating a takeaway bowl of soup.

An MP since 1987, with an enforced break at the voters’ whim between 1997 and 2001, Mitchell has become a familiar face in Britain in recent months, following the eruption of the Arab Spring and, most particularly, the convulsions in Libya.

So far, the UK’s secretary of state for international development is having a good crisis, displaying calm, if sometimes a little stiffly, as prime minister David Cameron moved from pushing for a no-fly zone when no one else did to ever-closer involvement on the ground.

Mitchell is no stranger to international development, even winning the plaudits of Channel 4’s Jon Snow, who described him as “the best prepared secretary of state” from his days shadowing the brief in opposition.

The years of preparation mean he knows many influential figures. He mentions that Valerie Amos, the British United Nations under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, “has this brilliant Irish official working with her, John Ging. Do you know him?”

An “absolutely top man”, according to Mitchell. “I met him in Jerusalem when I was in opposition when he was running the UN’s [relief agency]. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.”

Amos and Ging are pushing for a corridor through western Libya for “unfettered access” for humanitarian agencies, something currently denied.

“Even in Iraq under Saddam Hussein access for humanitarian agencies was not stopped, but it is being stopped by Gadafy.

“It is absolutely outrageous and that is why we demand that it be restored. We always judge Gadafy by what he does, not by what he says, because he said he would abide by the ceasefire. But at the very point where he was saying that his forces were moving forward.”

Already, Mitchell is planning for a post-Gadafy Libya, though he nevertheless emphasises at every turn the need for “ownership” of the transition by Libyans and the primary role of the United Nations.

“It is very hard to see a role for Gadafy and his family in a post-conflict Libya. The sands of time are running out for him,” he says, pointing to another series of Nato-led attacks on Monday on the Libyan leader’s militias.

“We stick absolutely by the UN resolution, as the prime minister has said. It poses restrictions on what we can do, but we stick by that.

“There are very few people who now believe that Libya in the future will have Gadafy with them,” he says.

In Iraq, nothing was done beforehand to prepare for Saddam Hussein’s downfall. Today, everything has changed, says Mitchell: “Since the prime minister set up the national security council we look at these things in a much more joined-up way.

“It is one of the advantages of this new machinery of government that you bring together the work of development, defence and diplomacy in the foreign office under one hat. And it makes for a much more effective response,” he says.

Infrastructure must be repaired, while security must be created in communities immediately once the conflict is over, he says. “We have learned the lessons of the failures of Iraq about what you need to think about well in advance.

“On the plus side, they have oil, so they have money. They are not a poor country in that sense. On the minus side, they don’t have any proper security structure at all. They have these Gadafy militias that have roamed around Libya and they haven’t had an election for 40 years.

“But the early recovery work needs to assess what the requirement is in a plan ultimately owned by the Libyan people but run by the international community – the United Nations – because the UN is the only international institution that can confer political legitimacy.

“We need to know what is required to be done, and then work out who is going to do it,” says Mitchell, who stresses the role that will have to be played by other Arab countries in any post-Gadafy Libyan recovery.

The danger, however, for Mitchell and, more importantly, for Britain is that it will become far more deeply involved in Libya’s internal affairs before the crisis ends, if it does – an outcome that would deeply trouble a public left scarred by Iraq.

Indeed, though he does not reveal it, the morning meeting of the National Security Council that he has just left has decided to ratchet up Britain’s involvement on the ground with a decision to send a colonel and up to 20 other officers to Benghazi to liaise with the rebels.