When Libya’s rag-tag rebels managed — with the help of a NATO-led air campaign in which France and Britain did much of the combat flying, and by an unprecedented deployment of Qatari special forces troops on the ground — to oust the regime of Colonell Muammar Gaddafi, the Obama Administration hailed the operation as a new model of intervention (a.k.a. “leading from behind”), proving that the U.S. could help a broad coalition of stakeholders remove an odious regime at little cost in blood and treasure.
The problem, of course, is that getting rid of Gaddafi is beginning to look like the easy part; achieving a consensus on how to govern Libya among the fractious regionally-based militias that overthrew him is proving increasingly difficult — and dangerous. Although the international community rushed to confer recognition and legitimacy on the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council, it was never clear how representative the body was in the eyes of Libyans in general, and those doing the fighting on the ground in particular. Now it faces mounting challenges on two fronts: A Cairo-style protest camp (ironies abound in the Middle East) has sprung up outside the NTC’s Benghazi headquarters, with protesters simply demanding to know the names of those who sit on the ostensibly representative body that governs them. So far, they have had no answers. The more worrying challenge, perhaps, comes from the militiamen from the towns of Zintan and Misrata, who played a key role in capturing Tripoli and, later, Gaddafi himself. Those groups are mistrustful of the Benghazi based leadership, and have shown no inclination to leave the capital, where they function as a law unto themselves, often clashing with rival militia of the Islamist-led Tripoli Military Council, as well as the fledgling Libyan National Army. Last week saw two firefights in a battle between the out-of-town militiamen and the national army for control of Tripoli’s airport.
Post-Gaddafi Libya is scheduled to hold its first democratic elections next summer, but it remains to be seen whether the bullet will give way to the ballot. Libya’s neighbors offer contrasting examples, with Tunisia completing a relatively painless transition to civilian rule, while Egypt is still locked in throes of a revolution whose outcome remains unsettled. But the unique circumstances that prevail in Libya, where there is no longer any central state with a monopoly of force and power issues from the barrel of a gun in what looks set to be a fierce inter-regional competition for the spoils (the country’s oil wealth), raises fears of protracted conflict. The priority of the U.S. thus far has been the effort to secure the hundreds of surface-to-air missiles stolen from Gaddafi’s arsenals, which could fall into the hands of regional al-Qaeda affiliates. But if authority in Libya remains perilously divided among armed factions then the danger to regional and international security grows. Indeed, reports this week suggested a number of key al-Qaeda leaders have left Pakistan for Libya, apparently sensing an opportunity there.
While the U.S. has some allies among those contending for power in Libya, some of the European NATO countries, such as France, have claimed a greater stake, as has Turkey. But the most influential outside player may prove to be Qatar, whose support of Islamist factions there has some pro-Western elements in the transitional government worried. Again, 2012 promises to be a decisive year in shaping a post-Gaddafi Libya, in which the U.S. has considerably less leverage than it would like.