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Defense / ANALYSIS

After Qaddafi?

Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi during a visit to Rome last year.(Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images)

photo of James Kitfield
March 24, 2011

The Byzantine rivalries and long memories of the Middle East assure that any shot fired in anger will reverberate through the decades.The current crisis in Libya is itself an echo of past intrigues, of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s attempts to assassinate Saudi royalty, export violent revolution, and spill the blood of hundreds of Westerners in old terrorist plots.

With the Obama administration calling for Qaddafi’s departure and pulling the trigger once again in the Middle East through Operation Odyssey Dawn, however, it’s worth recalling that the United States’ own military actions in the region have often ricocheted disastrously. There’s a reason U.S. ground forces are still mired in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade after 9/11. Too often in the past, policymakers and military planners have failed to adequately answer a deceptively simple question before engineering a tyrant’s fall: “What happens next?”

As it continues to tighten the noose on the Libyan strongman and consider the future of a post-Qaddafi Libya, the Obama administration will find its ability to shape events hamstrung by the same drawbacks already evident in Odyssey Dawn: a barely passing acquaintance with Libyan rebels; rapidly deteriorating Arab support for continued military action; and the minimalist approach adopted by an essentially leaderless Western coalition.


Even if Qaddafi departs the scene, the cumulative impact of those shortcomings could foreshadow a prolonged period of instability and violent insurgency that ultimately threatens to split Libya.

“If you go down the list of insurgencies throughout history and catalogue the factors that precipitated them, virtually every one is in play in Libya today,” Steven Metz, a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, told National Journal. “So it’s difficult for me to imagine a scenario where this conflict doesn’t drag on and produce a persistent insurgency.”

The ingredients in that witche's brew include two passionately committed forces with irreconcilable goals; a country awash in arms and young men willing to use them; wide swaths of ungoverned space that could host insurgent bases; a geographic divide in political and religious culture between east and west and between competing tribes; and a history of persistent insurgencies and their enablers in North Africa and the Western Sahara.

“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,” Metz said. “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.”


Administration officials stress that in their recent discussions with leaders of the Libyan National Council, the umbrella group for the Libyan rebellion, its representatives have said all the right things. The council has tried to rally disparate tribal groups from different parts of Libya, for instance, behind the goal of a “democratic civil state based on the rule of law.”

“Council leaders have told us they are committed to a secular future for Libya, and are mindful of human rights and the dangers of Islamist radicals trying to take advantage of the current violence,” a senior administration official said. “While we continue to be in contact with the council, however, we don’t pretend to have a perfect picture of the Libyan opposition. Qaddafi deliberately constructed a very opaque society over more than four decades. So we will continue to expand our range of contacts with the opposition and monitor that the council remains committed to reasonable goals.”

The Libyan National Council may well aspire to the same pluralistic ideals as other democratic movements roiling the Middle East. Yet there is also ample reason for caution. U.S. officials also found common cause in arming the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviets in the 1980s, only to discover much later they were the antecedent to al-Qaida. 

Paul Pillar is the former top Middle East analyst with the CIA. “We don’t know a lot about the Libyan opposition, but what we do know is cause enough for concern. We know that there are a significant number of radical Islamists in Libya, for instance, and that they constituted the main opposition to Qaddafi in recent years. We know that Libyans are disproportionately represented in transnational terrorist organizations to include al-Qaida,” said Pillar, currently the head of Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. “And we know that there has been historic friction in Libya along the divide between Cyrenaica in the east, which is the home base of the opposition, and Qaddafi’s stronghold in Tripolitania in the west, and that those tensions have a significant tribal dimension.”


As homage to the Arab League’s historic and unprecedented request for outside powers to intervene against an Arab head of state, 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 in its request for the internationally enforced no-fly zone over Libya. With U.S. and allied missiles and bombs already raining down on 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, suggesting that military force was not necessary, before reversing himself again the next day. Since that awkward moment, Moussa’s waffling on the operation has proved contagious. After voting to request the no-fly zone, Saudi Arabia, a staunch opponent of Qaddafi's, has been largely silent on the Western-led military intervention. Qatar lent the mission a token four aircraft, but the United Arab Emirates, a close U.S. ally, withdrew its promised military support.

Administration officials expect more Arab support in the coming days, but it appears increasingly likely that Arab participation that was deemed “critical” at the outset will amount to an immodest and rapidly disappearing fig leaf for Odyssey Dawn.

“Moussa’s theatrical show of hesitation about the mission reflects understandable unease about a Western military intervention in an Arab country among Arab autocrats, who despite their vote at the Arab League really don’t relish the precedent of the international community coming to the aid of oppressed Arab populations,” said Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. A majority of Arabs still support the Libyan rebels, he said, “but the time frame for tacit Arab support for this operation is almost certainly very short. If in a week or two Western countries are still dropping bombs on Libya, I think Arab public opinion will turn against the operation.”


Only a week into the operation, for instance, the Pentagon is trying to hand over military command, even as Turkey has reportedly put additional limits on the mission before aceding to NATO assuming operational control in the coming days. 

Meanwhile, any coalition action to break the current stalemate on the ground by arming and training the Libyan rebels, and acting more assertively with their offensive airpower, probably goes beyond the U.N. mandate and almost certainly fractures NATO consensus and shaky Arab backing for the operation.

Even if Qaddafi falls or flees Libya, the coalition’s current minimalist approach all but ensures there will be no Western troops or international peacekeepers on the ground to stabilize Tripoli. Coupled with the absence of strong governing institutions or a respected military to anchor a post-Qaddafi Libya, the lack of stabilizing influences could lead to chaos and a bloody cycle of reprisals that also stoke the embers of insurgency.

“I’m astounded that everyone is focused on getting rid of Qaddafi, but no one is talking about how to create a stable Libya once he’s gone by dispatching an international peacekeeping force,” said Max Boot, a senior fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Libya is essentially a one-man state, so when Qaddafi disappears there will likely be no Libyan military to oversee its democratic transition, and you could see a competition among the tribes and possibly jihadists for control of its oil resources. So there’s a grave danger this starts to look like Iraq redux.”

Indeed, the painful memories of Iraq in 2003 largely explain the reluctance of the U.S. military to become involved in a Libyan civil war. Uniformed leaders haven’t forgotten that they enforced a no-fly zone over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for a decade before leading a coalition to topple the tyrant, only to discover that they hadn’t planned for what came 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; reestablish local security forces or governing institutions to stabilize the country; or stop dueling insurgencies that cost tens of thousands of lives and nearly plunged the nation into all-out civil war. Most of all, the United States lacked an easy way out of the mess it helped to create.


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