Tunisians—and Top E.U. Generals—Fear Mission Creep Madness in Libya

A newly revealed classified document and a history of grave misjudgments warn against the dangers of the new E.U. plan to stop migrants.

Antonio Parrinello/Reuters

TUNIS — In this small North African country where the Arab Spring started and chaos now threatens from every direction, developments in Europe are followed with growing anxiety. Each time the powerful nations across the Mediterranean make dramatic moves to try to stabilize the region, they seem to make things worse. Libya’s tyrant was ousted in 2011 only to be replaced by warlords, militias, and murderers who’ve driven a million Libyans across the frontier into Tunisia.

Now Europe’s defense chiefs are warning their political superiors that the planned military mission to stop migrant-smuggling boats crossing the Mediterranean can lead to land operations in Libya and possible clashes with the Islamic State’s affiliate in that failing North African state, a turn of events bound to threaten neighboring Tunisia’s fragile equilibrium still further.

The European commanders’ counsel contradicts the public assurances that Europe’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has been offering, which promise the intervention against the traffickers won’t involve “boots on the ground.”

The military chiefs’ somber assessment of the risks involved in a mission to contain a crisis that has seen 2,000 migrants drown in the Mediterranean this year was outlined to European foreign and defense ministers last week when they met and approved the intervention.

The warnings are contained in a 10-page classified document by the military defense chiefs of the 28 European Union member states, obtained and posted by Wikileaks on Tuesday. The military commanders raised serious questions about the intervention and recommended a timetable that would not see the mission swing into full gear until after the summer, long past the height of the smuggling season. In a section headlined “operational risk,” defense chiefs noted there will be a serious threat to European forces mounting the interdiction, “especially during activities such as boarding and when operating on land or in proximity to an unsecured coastline, or during interaction with non-seaworthy vessels.”

They added: “The potential presence of hostile forces, extremists or terrorists such as Da'esh [ISIS] should also be taken into consideration.”

The chiefs worried that “the political end state is not clearly defined” and cautioned about risks to the E.U.’s reputation in the event of “collateral damage… or creating a perception of having chosen sides” in the Libyan conflict between the two rival governments and the warring factions there. The E.U. risks negative publicity “should loss of life be attributed, correctly or incorrectly, to action or inaction by the E.U. force,” the chiefs said.

They argued the mission shouldn’t last longer than a year with the goal being to reduce significantly “the flow of migrants and smugglers’ activities.”

In 2014 more than 170,000 people are estimated to have crossed the Mediterranean from Libya. European officials fear the number this year could be much higher without robust interdiction.

The fear that intervention will lead to escalation and unintended consequences is especially acute here in Tunisia. Its borders are porous and crossed by thousands upon thousands of migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Afirca, making their way to Libya to risk the crossing. What will happen to the migrants if the Europeans are successful in disrupting the Libya-based traffickers? Tunisians worry the people-smuggling trade could start being displaced and their shores will be used by the traffickers, or that the country will end up with even more refugees and migrants unable to make it across to Europe.

Tunisia already is hosting a million Libyans and tensions are mounting with some politicians rabble-rousing against their presence. There are also worries that if European forces start bombing and destroying suspected traffickers’ boats in Libya or disrupt the smuggling, Tunisia may face retaliation. An armed group allied to the Libya Dawn forces controlling Tripoli detained 170 Tunisians in the Libyan capital a week ago after Tunis arrested one of its commanders. The move isn’t unusual: Armed groups in Libya have in the past killed, kidnapped or detained foreign nationals—including diplomats —to punish foreign governments.

Relations between the North African neighbors have become increasingly tense. Land crossings between Libya and Tunisia have been closed several times and last month Tunisia shut its airspace to Libyan aircraft as well, angering the Tripoli authorities. Islamist militants in Libya recently killed two Tunisian journalists kidnapped last year.

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Both rival governments in Libya—one in Tripoli and the other internationally recognized one in Tobruk—have warned that the smuggling crisis can’t be solved militarily and so far they have withheld their approval for the mission, something E.U. officials say will be necessary before it can proceed. Mohamed al-Barghathi, interior minister for the Tripoli-based government, says flatly that E.U. military action is unwelcome, arguing “it won’t solve the problem and stem the flow of migrants.”

The Tobruk-based government’s Libyan ambassador at the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, says at this stage his government wouldn’t support U.N. authorization of the use of force to seize or destroy smugglers’ boats within Libya. “We will not accept any boots on the ground,” Tobruk argues. But simply deploying more European naval vessels off the waters of Libya to save migrants will encourage even more to flock to Libya to take their chances.

E.U. officials acknowledge there are legal and diplomatic hurdles still to be jumped before the mission goes ahead—the military chiefs say U.N. authorization also will be necessary for the mission. But even if that’s forthcoming, they share worries that the trade will start being displaced to Libya’s North African neighbors. In their advice to their political bosses, the chiefs cautioned: “It must be, also, taken into account during the planning phase of the operation that the confrontation of the migratory flows in the Southern Central Mediterranean could lead to the increase of the migratory flows in other areas, especially in the Western and the Eastern Mediterranean.”

That seems highly likely. European officials often talk as though the smuggling business is overseen by a few top traffickers, but the operations are deeply rooted, with highly adaptable networks controlled by tribal alliances and cartels that often have informal agreements with local officials. They can reconfigure routes used for smuggling everything from contraband and weapons to people.

Tribes such as the Twazin and Ouderna in Tunisia and Nwayel in Libya have developed over the years a range of black market, cross-border services. And they have found their way around international embargoes and military crackdowns before. In fact they thrived during the years the United Nations imposed an embargo on Libya to punish the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, whose ouster in 2011 was hailed as a triumph for liberty and democracy.