As homage to the “Arab Spring” of democracy, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s trip to Cairo this week was inauspicious. Ban was in Egypt to show solidarity with the Arab League and to honor its unprecedented request for an internationally enforced no-fly zone over Libya. With U.S. and allied bombs already raining down on Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces, Ban stressed that now was the time for the international community to speak with one voice in opposition to the tyrant.
Instead, Arab League chief Amr Moussa criticized the very no-fly operation that his organization recently requested, before reversing himself again the next day. Afterward, Ban visited Tahrir Square, the new Arab symbol of democratic liberation, where he was surrounded and jostled by a crowd of ardent Qaddafi supporters shouting anti-American slogans. Ban’s bodyguards rushed him back inside the Arab League building.
With the United States and its allies fighting once again in a region of byzantine and constantly shifting allegiances, the Western coalition may soon find itself stymied by the same forces that conspired against Ban: rapidly dwindling Arab support for even modest Western military action, and stubborn backing for Qaddafi among loyalists and favored tribes that have prospered under his rule. Even if rebels overthrow Qaddafi, that’s a recipe for a dangerous and potentially lasting insurgency like the one that plagued Iraq after Saddam Hussein fell.
Libya is as ripe for insurgency as any place on Earth, says Steven Metz, a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. The ingredients include two passionately committed forces with irreconcilable goals; a country awash in arms and young men willing to use them; wide areas of ungoverned space that could host insurgent bases; an east-west geographic divide in terms of political/religious culture and tribal affiliation; and a history of persistent revolts in the region. “If you go down the list of insurgencies throughout history and catalog the factors that precipitated them, virtually every one is in play in Libya today,” Metz said. “So it’s difficult for me to imagine a scenario where this conflict doesn’t drag on and produce a persistent insurgency on one side or the other.
“Now that the rebels have the military backing of the international community, they don’t think they can lose, so they have no reason to compromise,” he continued. “Qaddafi is psychologically incapable of compromising, and the cult of personality he has nurtured for decades has produced significant numbers of true believers. Even if Qaddafi is overthrown or departs, he thus leaves behind loyalists and favored tribes with major grievances. So Libya may well prove a cautionary tale of what can happen in these uprisings and democratic rebellions when there is no willingness to compromise on either side.”
In trying to avoid a lasting and bloody insurgency in Libya, the Western coalition will be hamstrung by the minimalist nature of Operation Odyssey Dawn—and its reliance on shaky Arab support. Any coalition action to arm and train the Libyan rebels and act as their offensive airpower, for instance, goes beyond the U.N. mandate and almost certainly fractures Arab backing for the operation. Yet such a model, based on the 2001 effort to topple Afghanistan’s Taliban during Operation Enduring Freedom, may prove the only way to break a stalemate between Qaddafi and the rebels that over time could harden into civil war. That kind of endless conflict also would create the perfect breeding ground for radical Islamists tied to al-Qaida who are known to operate in Libya.
Even if Qaddafi falls or flees Libya, the coalition’s low-key approach all but ensures that no Western troops or international peacekeepers will be on the ground to stabilize Tripoli. Once the hated Qaddafi is gone, the Arab League is unlikely to back Western interference. Coupled with the absence of strong governing institutions or a respected military to anchor a post-Qaddafi Libya, the vacuum could lead to chaos and a bloody cycle of reprisals that feeds any insurgency.
“Unless Western powers are willing to substantially expand their military operations against Qaddafi or intervene with ground forces, there is a very good chance that he digs in his heels and produces a prolonged stalemate with the rebel insurgency,” said Paul Pillar, a former top Middle East analyst with the CIA and the head of Georgetown University’s security studies program. Without institutional power-sharing structures in place, he said, it’s also unlikely that the tribes aligned with Qaddafi will make peace with the victorious rebels quickly. “A post-Qaddafi Libya will involve multiple contenders with very different visions of Libya’s future vying for power and influence. There is also a high likelihood that competition evolves into an armed struggle and insurgency.”
That calculus largely explains the U.S. military’s reluctance to become involved in a Libyan quagmire. Uniformed leaders haven’t forgotten that they enforced a no-fly zone over Saddam’s Iraq for a decade before leading a coalition to topple the brutal tyrant, only to discover that they had no answer to the deceptively simple question, “What next?” Once the Pandora’s box of sectarian, tribal, and ethnic rivalries and hatreds was flung open, U.S. officers lacked the troops to quickly stop rampant looting, to reestablish local security forces or governing institutions, and to stop dueling insurgencies that cost tens of thousands of lives and nearly plunged the nation into an all-out civil war. The United States also lacked an easy way out of the mess it helped to create.
This article appears in the March 26, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.