NATO’s daylight bombing of Tripoli on Tuesday appears to be part of an effort to bring the Libya conflict to a crescendo that topples Muammar Gaddafi: French and British ground attack helicopters have also been deployed in the effort to force the collapse of the regime, and new mediation efforts are afoot — with even the previously reticent African Union and Russia now insisting that Muammar Gaddafi’s departure is a condition for ending the conflict.
And even though they acknowledge that it may be months yet before Gaddafi calls it quits, Western policy makers are increasingly focused on the day after — and the challenge of ensuring that the price of ousting him is not a failed state that will require a foreign military presence for the foreseeable future.
Gaddafi’s ability to survive under fire as long he has done, and the resilience of the forces defending him, suggests that it would be dangerously naive to imagine that the rebel leadership based in Benghazi will simply take over the country on their own terms once the dictator has gone. In fact, the scope of the military campaign is not currently designed to destroy and dismantle the regime — that would require a large foreign ground invasion. Instead, the goal is to force those currently fighting to defend the regime to back down and participate in shaping a post-Gaddafi political order. Even in the best-case scenario, there will be forces wielding considerable power who fought on Gaddafi’s side that will have to be integrated into a new political order if that order is to achieve basic security and stability.
The recognition that resolving the conflict will require some form of power sharing even after Gaddafi goes may be a key reason for the U.S. and Britain declining to follow France’s lead in formally recognizing the Benghazi-based rebel leadership as the government of all of Libya. Despite the desperate pleas of the rebel leadership, U.S. officials told the LA Times that the Benghazi council was not the only rebel group, and that it didn’t control enough territory or have the capacity to meet its international obligations to be recognized as the government of Libya. There’s also concern in NATO that the rebels are divided, and not yet competent to manage the complex political and administrative challenges of governing Libya in the event that the regime’s collapse was precipitous. The State Department has also made clear the U.S. will recognize only a government formed in a post-conflict siutation with Gaddafi gone.
Britain has gone further, embracing the Benghazi leadership as the legitimate voice of the people of Libya, but making clear at the same that once the Colonel is gone, the West expects the rebels to share power with forces that have until now been fighting to defend the regime. The New York Times reported this week that British Foreign Secretary William Hague, on a visit to Benghazi, “had pressed the rebel leaders to make early progress on a more detailed plan for a post-Qaddafi government that would include sharing power with some of Colonel Qaddafi’s loyalists.”
Hague told the rebels to learn from the experience of Iraq, where failure to accommodate the support base of the old regime had resulted in years of bitter insurgency. And on that score, Western leaders are thinking not only of Libya’s fate, but their own commitments in the country. NATO countries are already resigned to sending at least some troops to help manage the situation on the ground once Gaddafi is gone. But they want that mission to be brief, limited, and above all else, casualty-free. The resilience being demonstrated by Gaddafi’s forces in the third month of NATO bombing, and the availability of weapons on a scale some observers say exceeds that of post-Saddam Iraq,
make it highly probable that they’d face a nasty and protracted insurgency if loyalist forces are not given a stake in the post-Gaddafi scenario.
And, at this stage, the Western powers will be hoping that the Libyan rebels are sufficiently beholden to them to heed the call for power sharing. More so than was Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, which politely ignored President George W. Bush’s call for them to refrain from marching into Kabul in 2001 to allow a more inclusive government to be formed – or then the Kurdish peshmerga forces were in Iraq when it came to heeding calls for holding back on taking control of contested towns in northern Iraq.
Getting rid of Gaddafi has proved far more difficult — and require a greater commitment — than expected for the NATO alliance, but managing the delicate politics of the post-Gaddafi situation may prove to be even more so.