‘Mission Accomplished’ in Libya? Not So Fast

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Mahmud Turkia / AFP / Getty Images

Libya's former rebel fighters gather on Jan. 25, 2012 at a checkpoint near a mosque, 60 km from the town of Bani Walid.

In his State of the Union Address last week President Barack Obama seemed to link the fate of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad with that of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. “A year ago, Gaddafi was one of the world’s longest-serving dictators — a murderer with American blood on his hands,” said the President. “Today, he is gone. And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed, and that human dignity cannot be denied.” As the international community struggles to respond to Syria’s increasingly bloody power struggle, some see Libya as an example worth following. It was, they emphasize, a foreign military intervention limited to air power and small Special Forces deployments that helped e a patchwork of local militias to dispatch the Gaddafi regime at minimal cost in foreign blood and treasure. But Libya’s power struggle is far from done and dusted.

The increasing fragility of the post-Gaddafi order has been evident, in recent weeks, through a series of high-profile clashes between rival militia forces. There have been reports of widespread torture and abuse at the hands of militiamen barely answerable to the new political authorities of Libyans suspected by of having served Gaddafi, and growing protests against the interim government known as the National Transitional Council.

(PHOTOS: The war in Libya, seen through the Hipstamatic iPhone app.)

Gaddafi’s ouster has left a power vacuum that no single, coherent force has been able to fill, leaving the country’s security situation increasingly fragile as rival militia vie for political leverage and a share of the national political and economic pie. as many as 200,000 young men remain under arms, mostly in the hundreds of local military structures around the country. Last week’s mutiny in the town of Bani Walid may have drawn prematurely alarmist headlines implying a comeback by Gaddafi forces, but it could also become a self fulfilling prophecy. It appears that rebel militias were chased out of town by local tribal forces that rebels accuse of having been loyal to Gaddafi and of sheltering wanted fugitives from the old regime. It also seems that rebel fighters from other towns, spoiling for a fight, have now descended on Bani Walid, determined to recapture it.

Libya has a government, of course. The National Transitional Council (NTC) is recognized by the international community as the interim authority until a representative government is chosen in an election scheduled to be held in June. But the NTC has struggled to establish the same level of domestic legitimacy as it enjoys abroad, with challengers questioning its composition and authority. Anger about regional imbalances and the dominance of Gaddafi-era officials has erupted into violence, including the Jan. 21 attack by armed protestors on the NTC’s Benghazi headquarters.

In the absence of any structures of representative government, the weapons wielded and turf controlled by the rag-tag patchwork of militias have become a form of political currency. No surprise, then, that the militias are reluctant to disarm and subordinate themselves to a relatively weak national army with Gaddafi-era roots. The NTC’s lack of strength on the ground forces them to negotiate terms of coexistence with the various militias.

(READ: Can Libya’s rebels turn into leaders?)

The torture allegations highlight the challenge of national reconciliation in a society where many thousands supported and fought for the Gaddafi regime, often on the basis of tribal and regional loyalties. In instances where whole communities feel abused and put-upon by rebel militias, there may be a growing willingness to fight back and support any insurgency that might emerge. The incident in Bani Walid does not necessarily foretell the beginning of a counter-revolution, but is nonetheless a warning to the interim authorities. The leaders of the most powerful factions may muddle through, recognizing that they have more to lose than gain by a descent into protracted conflict. But right now, absent a monopoly of military force within its territorial boundaries, the Libyan state remains, at best, a work in progress.

Stability in a post-Gaddafi Libya looks to become a growing international concern. The country exports 1.3 million barrels of oil a day to southern European countries already squeezed to replace, by July, some 400,000 barrels a day currently imported from Iran. And the fact that ousting the regime in Libya appears to have created new problems that may demand attention and commitment by foreign powers may give pause to those contemplating intervention in Syria. ‘Intervention lite’ isn’t so easy.