UK Politics

Stabilisation Unit: UK civilians working amid conflict

Women in Libya celebrate the rebellion against Col Gaddafi
Image caption It might be game over for Gaddafi, but it's still level one for Libya

In his first interview, the UK's stabilisation adviser in Libya has told BBC News the world must show "courageous restraint" and allow the country to choose its own future.

Publicly at least there are no British boots on the ground in Libya, but "suits" - civilians experts - have been there for months.

The UK also has civilians - lawyers, doctors, police officers - in a host of countries, including Bosnia, Georgia, Haiti and Afghanistan - all of them part of the government's Stabilisation Unit.

They may soon even be heading to Somalia, the unit's chief has told the BBC, widely viewed as one of the most dangerous places in the world.

As the unit's man in Libya, Mark - for security reasons, not his real name - has recently moved to Tripoli after spending four months in the eastern rebel stronghold of Bengazi.

Much of the job, he says, has been about "keeping the lights on" - not dodging danger as one might expect.

"We've developed strong relations with people at all levels within the infrastructure and utilities sectors," he says.

"We then feed back information to the international bodies to help them understand the situation on the ground and understand what the Libyans really need to keep the water supply running, for example.

"We're moving round all the time in armoured vehicles and with armed bodyguards. I can't say it makes for the most liberating experience - or that the threat level is very high - but it's very difficult to assess, so better to be overcautious than caught with your pants down."

Mark describes himself as an Arabist. His roots lie in the human rights and NGO world, but he later joined the military, serving in Iraq, and thinks comparisons between there and Libya are misplaced.

"They're such different beasts," he says. "Iraq was an occupation by foreign powers. Libya doesn't know what it is yet - an uprising or a revolution, that's what they're trying to work out.

"If this is just an uprising then getting the old institutions and structures back up and running again is the priority. The idea is you get rid of Gaddafi but keep the old ship sailing - albeit in a direction slightly more in line with the aspirations of the Libyan people.

"But more people want a revolution, they want rid of Gaddafi and the whole corrupt carcass, the whole corrupt edifice that kept him in power.

Image caption Naina - pictured here - at one of the judicial training meetings she organised in Afghanistan

"If it's a revolution trying to restore the old institutions is not the way forward. And remember those institutions - which were already broken under Gaddafi - are now doubly broken having had their asses kicked by the rebels.

"Whichever it is though, it's not for us to decide. It may end up being a mishmash of both.

"Regardless, it's going to take a lot of courageous restraint. We need to take things slowly, facilitate the right dialogue, and let them work it out."

He adds: "I'm going to quote one of my FCO buddies and say there's an uneasy optimism.

"Just as there are potential pitfalls, there's also a wonderful world of opportunity for these guys."

Lessons learned

While comparisons with Iraq are not, in Mark's eyes, helpful, that war was the reason the stabilisation unit was founded.

It's chief, Sheelagh Stewart, told the BBC: "A couple of things became really clear in Iraq. The first was that there was more damage caused by looting after the conflict than there was by the conflict itself.

"The second was that we didn't have a fast enough or co-ordinated enough response on the civilian side, dealing with the need for services, infrastructure, and so on."

The unit can offer help on a range of fronts.

It sends former police officers to help countries build up their own police forces. Journalists help with opening up free media, engineers with building bridges and roads, economists with policy making.

Lawyers are also involved - and 30-year-old barrister Naina Patel is one who swapped her London law firm for a military base in Afghanistan on a year-long posting.

'Quasi-military life'

"I wanted to use the technical skills I'd developed to do some hands-on work, so it was too good to be true really," she said.

Image caption One of the new court houses in Afghanistan that /Naina was involved in building

"My job was to head up the work around justice reform - courts, prisons, trials, public access, evidential standards.

"We organised a lot of training, like getting the older judges more familiar with forensics and other modern technologies.

"I also spent time creating more dignified spaces for trials. There are some people who say you don't need a special building to do justice, but a public building of some status and security gives people confidence and it means they can go and watch. The courthouse becomes part of the local society.

"It's about creating a sense of a legal community."

Naina says she found the quasi-military life novel, interesting and above all very communal - flying out on a Tri-Star aircraft "where instead of air hostesses, RAF soldiers serve you your rations" and eating in the mess with the soldiers.

"They were long days but you didn't mind because you're really keen to get as much done as possible. Also there's not much else to do and everyone is doing it, so there's a real sense of collective purpose.

"In the evenings, we'd occasionally try to do something social. We had a girls' night, someone brought face packs back from London. One of the US Marines was a trained yoga instructor, so he ran some sunset classes.

"You just have to make your own fun."

Building relationships

She says civilians get "pretty royal treatment": "Security has to be tight. If I was going to a meeting downtown that would involve what they call a road move. We'd go in armoured vehicles with civilian bodyguards.

Image caption Naina's day job is as a barrister in London

"But I didn't have any really hairy situations. You're very, very well looked after."

Did being a woman in what remains a deeply unequal society make Naina's job more difficult?

"Perhaps initially it can create some reticence on the part of the people that you're working with but ultimately the Afghans are like anyone else and once you've created some trust - and then you deliver - you build a relationship.

"Perhaps it takes a little bit longer as a woman, but I never had any huge problems of people not wishing to deal with me.

"By the time I left, 90% of the Afghans I worked with were male and we had some very teary goodbye ceremonies and we wouldn't have had those, regardless of gender, if we hadn't built strong relationships."

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