The Worst Is Yet to Come in Libya

Ousting Qaddafi was the easy part. A look at the long, hard road ahead.

AS THE dust begins to settle in Libya two things are clear. Though NATO is celebrating its triumph, its campaign actually raises serious question about its future; and while Libyans rejoice at their freedom, they, unlike Egyptians and Tunisians, face the daunting challenge that Afghans and Iraqis did: rebuilding a state from the debris of despotism.

Of course, the fate of Muammar Qaddafi’s forty-year-old dictatorship was sealed once the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1970, referring his regime to the International Criminal Court and imposing sanctions, and particularly after the council followed up with Resolution 1973, which authorized the no-fly zone that would render his air and armor effectively unusable. The Libyan insurgents began to receive weapons and training from the outside, special forces from France, Britain, Jordan, and Qatar were deployed to help them, the Qaddafi regime’s financial assets were frozen, a naval quarantine was imposed, and stream of states began to recognize the National Transitional Council (NTC)—the insurgents’ Benghazi-based proto-government. The question soon became when, not whether, Qaddafi would fall.

Though NATO is celebrating its triumph, the world’s most powerful military alliance revealed itself to be divided over the Libyan campaign: apart from the United States, only seven of its twenty-eight members participated in air strikes. Britain and France carried most of that burden once the United States stepped back, and two important allies, Germany and Poland, opposed the military intervention. The states in the alliance that launched air and missile attacks were dependent on the United States for everything from the replenishment of bomb and missile stocks and target acquisition to refueling and electronic warfare. NATO has expanded, but it has gained in neither strength nor cohesion. Indeed, the Libyan venture casts doubt on whether NATO can achieve its goal of making out-of-area operations central to its post-Cold War raison d’etre, not least because Europe’s economic crisis rules out substantial increases in military spending by European states. The alliance took over six months to defeat a third-rate military that was plagued by defections and run by a reviled regime facing an increasingly effective armed opposition. It prevailed by resorting to a tortured interpretation of Resolution 1973, which was designed to stop atrocities against civilians, not to determine who would win a civil war, and China and Russia are unlikely to lend the Security Council’s imprimatur to such enterprises again. Seen thus, the Libyan campaign may be a swan song for NATO’s extra-European ambitions, not a harbinger.

For Libyans, and the states and international organizations that have pledged to support them in the post-conflict phase, the wartime obstacles will prove to be the easy part. The situation in Libya is much more challenging than in Egypt and Tunisia, where the military broke with the strongman and showed him the door, averting full-scale war, and enabling the preservation of the state machinery. The post-revolutionary governments in Tunis and Cairo were therefore better positioned to provide the essential goods and services that Libya is now responsible for supplying. In this sense, Libya’s circumstances more resemble those of postwar Afghanistan and Iraq: the state has collapsed, and while relatively ethnically homogenous, overwhelmingly Sunni Libya will not face the ethno-religious strife that Iraq has, it will encounter other difficult problems that have emerged in post-conflict settings where the basic institutions of governance had to be built.

THE FIRST order of business for any new government is establishing control over its domain. In Libya, pockets of resistance remain in Sirte (Qaddafi’s hometown) and Bani Walid, and even with NATO’s air support and the insurgents’ superiority in weaponry and numbers, wresting control of these places has proved arduous because of the loyalists’ tenacity. Once these last bastions of the ancien regime are overrun, the NTC will have to reckon with the disparate, decentralized anti-Qaddafi opposition over which it nominally presides. The insurgents and their supporters were united by the common commitment to topple Qaddafi; what remains unknown is how much common ground they will share when it comes to designing a post-Qaddafi polity and society, and whether the differences will be reconciled through bargaining and compromise, particularly given the absence of firmly established institutions.

The insurgency was never directed by a centralized leadership or political party and consists of a multitude of militias that sprouted haphazardly amidst the chaos of insurrection. These militias have strong local identities and are led by commanders to whom the rank-and-file fighters owe fealty. Disarming these groups, who have now fortified their arsenals by looting Qaddafi’s arms depots, and drawing them into a national army that becomes cohesive and professional and is answerable to civilian authority, will not be easy. Not only do these units relish their autonomy, they are bound to worry that without their arms they will lose their leverage to shape the new Libya. But unless disarmament and integration (or disbandment) is accomplished, the urgent tasks of reviving the economy and creating democratic political order will be even more complicated than they inherently are; both tasks require a minimum degree of stability. The formation of a Supreme Security Committee (SSC) appears to be the first step in what will be a complex process.