The West’s Aim in Libya: Interview with Aijaz Ahmad

Prabir Purkayastha: If you really look at what is happening, what we have is a historical split between the east and the west, which could be the outline of what could emerge at least in the near future, unless Gaddafi has the strength to push his troops right up to Benghazi. 

Aijaz Ahmad The real issue — Gaddafi can live without Benghazi — still is the oil. . . . 

Prabir Purkayastha: Ras Lanuf is in that sense critical.

Aijaz Ahmad: Right, right.  The refinery and the oil that is there in eastern Libya. . . .  Anybody who can leave the battlefield has already left or will leave.  Most of the work force has left.  Much of the technical personnel has left.  So there is going to be a great decline in the immediate production levels, whoever holds those things.  So the fight really is over long-term control over the oil.  It’s really about oil; it’s not about cities, as far as Gaddafi and so on are concerned.

Prabir Purkayastha: It’s also clear at the moment that Gaddafi has support of at least the Qadhafa tribe and certainly a section of the army, the core sections of the army, is with him, so he has the firepower required to hold on to a lot of Libya.

Aijaz Ahmad: Look, Gaddafi’s a terrible creature, so one shouldn’t construe my comments as some sort of support for Gaddafi, but I think the media has played a dreadful role, and that includes Al Jazeera.  People only from one side are being interviewed and projected and none from the other side.

Gaddafi’s support is far beyond his own tribe.  There is a whole conglomeration of tribes, there’s a class of people, their institutional strengths, and so on.  I think there is very considerable strength in the regime, at the core of the regime.  It goes far beyond his tribe, the civil support for him goes far beyond them.

Prabir Purkayastha: It’s also clear that the US, the Western powers ,would like to see Gaddafi go and take total control of Libya’s oil. . . .

Aijaz Ahmad: . . . A no-fly zone is not about flying aircrafts.  It’s about laying the groundwork for occupying at least certain parts of the country and for destroying the garrisons and fighting capacity on the ground.  Robert Gates and others in charge of the American defense establishment have said that a no-fly zone really means a ground attack on the country.  So that’s what a no-fly zone really is about.  It’s not about some great air force that Gaddafi has because he doesn’t.  Part of this council that has been set up in Benghazi has called for a no-fly zone.  They’re saying: not intervention but a no-fly zone.  A no-fly zone is an intervention. . . .  The no-fly zone in Iraq never really touched Saddam Hussein’s forces there, his arsenal.  It was essentially over Kurdistan, mainly.  But it didn’t, sort of, hit centers.  The military capacity of the Gaddafi regime is so limited that a couple of weeks of intensive bombing in the name of imposing a no-fly zone can take care of most of their arsenal and essentially enforce a stable division in the country.

Prabir Purkayastha: So, you’re saying: Beyond a no-fly zone, aerial bombardment and using the air force to partition the country — that is basically the short-term strategic interest that the West might have — and therefore controlling the eastern oil and leaving Gaddafi on the oil that is there on the western side.

Aijaz Ahmad: What is not clear to me, in all of this, is what they’ll do with the coastal regions and with the harbors — that is to say, export pipelines, export abilities, and so on.  It’s not very clear what the game is in this no-fly zone there.  Will they actually land troops on the coastal regions to take hold of the harbors?  That is not clear.  The idea that Americans should learn from Iraq, from Afghanistan, is a rational idea that I don’t think flies very far in Washington.

Prabir Purkayastha: In the sense that at least they should have learnt . . .

Aijaz Ahmad: But they haven’t.

Prabir Purkayastha: . . . that removing Gaddafi may not be that difficult in this sense, but then they have to occupy Libya in order to continue to control the oil and see that it goes out, and that is going to be the much more difficult task.  But what you’re saying is that the U.S. and the West haven’t learned too much.

Aijaz Ahmad: They’re heading towards creating an alternate government which they will recognize as the real government of Libya — if they can.  And now it appears that Saudi Arabia and their friends will back that.  So, it may actually happen: that this supposed council that came out of thin air will be appointed the new government of Libya.  So there really are no innocents in this.

Prabir Purkayastha: So what you’re saying is that it is possible in the long run that you get a kind of client state developing in Libya.

Aijaz Ahmad: Long-term, a division is quite possible and for now a stable division, in which the east is stabilized as a Western protectorate.  Pretty much as Kurdistan was in Iraq.  Except that much of the oil is there and that’s what the American and Western interest primarily is.  Now the main Western oil interest in Libya as of now is Italian.  Not American.  So how will that play out?  I don’t know.

Prabir Purkayastha: In fact most of the Italian refineries use Libyan oil and they are not geared to take other oil.  Berluscone was also a great friend of Gaddafi’s and shared certain common interests with him.

Aijaz Ahmad: Yeah, but a pack of thieves don’t have to stand together all the time.

Aijaz Ahmad is a Marxist critic.  This video was released by NewsClick on 11 March 2011, before UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011) — authorizing “Member States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi” — was imposed on 17 March 2011.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the interview.

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