An expert's point of view on a current event.

Stopping the Fifth Column

How to end a post-Qaddafi insurgency in Libya before it starts.


The imminent fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya opens a world of possibilities for Libyans that would have seemed almost impossible a year ago. But scenes of rebels and their civilian supporters celebrating in Tripoli’s Green Square and in Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound should not obscure the still volatile situation in Libya. Even before Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi’s cameo appearance at the Rixos hotel on Aug. 21 made it clear that the war was not yet won, triumphant declarations were premature. Toppling a dictator is difficult; stabilizing a country and building a functional government is much harder. Not only is the rebel coalition internally divided, but now battlefield compatriots must make the transition to become political allies — and, just as importantly, political opponents — without devolving into violence. Libyans must avoid the fate of Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade: two countries where ruling cliques were removed from power with similarly remarkable speed, but subsequently stumbled into civil war and long-running insurgencies.

The triumph of Libya’s rebels over Qaddafi loyalists in Tripoli and elsewhere represents a genuine victory by the Libyan people over a corrupt ruling elite. But the narrowness of Qaddafi’s power base should not obscure the fact that there are losers in this revolution — enough of them to plunge Libya into a protracted insurgency if the postwar period isn’t handled properly. Like Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi favored some tribes over others during his rule: Libya specialists point to the relatively small Qaddafa tribe and elements of the much larger Magariha tribe (reportedly Libya’s second largest) as clear beneficiaries of the eccentric autocrat. Just a small cadre of Qaddafi loyalists or disillusioned tribesmen could be a major impediment to Libya’s future. Even relatively isolated attacks on oil infrastructure or factions within the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC) could have destabilizing political and economic effects. In an unstable environment, a little violence can go a long way. Supporters of the old regime may be in no position to seize power, but they might be able to play spoiler.

For better or worse, the NTC and their supporters in European and North American capitals do have a number of relevant case studies to learn from: Algeria in the 1990s, Egypt and Tunisia in recent months — and, of course, the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which both offer a litany of lessons for what not to do when replacing a tyrannical government:

Do not put Western boots on the ground. Although reports of British and French special forces supporting Libya’s rebels have circulated for months, these specialized troops have done a remarkably good job of staying out of the limelight. Their assistance to the NTC fighters has no doubt been a force multiplier both militarily and politically, but it is their ability to remain in the background that will prove critical in the phase ahead when the wide array of rebels and Qaddafi loyalists must chart a path forward that is deemed credible and authentic by both the winners and losers of Libya’s revolution.

Although Western troops have played critical roles stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, their presence on the ground also serves as a rallying cry for nationalists intent on resisting change violently. The Western coalition has facilitated the fall of Qaddafi with much subtler tools than it used to overthrow either the Taliban or Saddam. It should keep things that way. If foreign troops are needed for training, advisors from Qatar or other Arab states should take the lead, but even those roles should be limited and apolitical.

Put people to work, especially soldiers and technical experts. In the annals of recent U.S. foreign-policy history, it is difficult to think of a more disastrous decision than Coalition Provisional Authority Order No. 2. That edict, issued on May 23, 2003, put 250,000 Iraqi soldiers and police out of work. This not only undermined one of the few national institutions in which Iraqis took great pride, but also immediately created a large cadre of disillusioned and reasonably well-trained young men primed for criminality and insurgency. Qaddafi’s security forces and state apparatus are not nearly so large or capable as Saddam’s were in Iraq, but the basic point still holds. Rank-and-file Libyans who fought in organized units for Qaddafi should be incorporated into the post-Qaddafi state structure — as should fighters from the full range of rebel factions. Loyalist leaders should be vetted and, if necessary, tried and punished, but units as a whole should be shown respect and offered a place in Libya’s future. Moreover, individuals with specific technical skills — budget experts, petroleum engineers, port managers, and the like — need to be identified and offered a paycheck.

Treat the defeated leadership with respect. No matter how just their cause may have been, there is little doubt that many of Libya’s rebels fought Qaddafi’s forces to avenge past grievances. Such is the nature of revolution against repressive autocrats. Revenge can motivate in war, but it is less valuable when building peace. It is crucially important to allow low-level Qaddafi government officials a chance to develop a private life in the new Libya. After the fall of the Taliban, Afghan government officials and tribesmen who had suffered under the previous regime harassed their erstwhile tormenters, which in turn spurred the Taliban insurgency that rages today. Officials guilty of crimes should be charged, tried, and punished transparently (and in some cases, severely), but other bureaucrats must be allowed to normalize their life. This is not solely a matter of human rights, but of future security as well.

Don’t forget about the police. Demobilizing the ad hoc rebel forces who have been waging a fierce guerrilla campaign since February will be difficult, and the natural impulse will be to put the ex-guerrillas into a new Libyan army. This is part of the answer to Libya’s inevitable security challenges, but only a part. Stability in the new Libya should be based in civilian security structures, above all reliable police forces. The international community in particular should invest resources into effective policing immediately rather than focusing on traditional military forces.

Again, a look at recent history suggests just how bad the alternatives can be. The Iraqi Interior Ministry became home to terrifying Shiite death squads that meted out awful punishments to Sunnis and were a key ingredient in the sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq in the years immediately following the coalition invasion. In Afghanistan, police units are still weak, and the failure of the judicial sector writ large continues to be a source of instability. Neither the NTC nor their foreign backers should wait five years to make effective policing a priority, as the world did in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Buy back the guns. The fragmented Libyan rebels are rightfully considered freedom fighters, but the risk that a portion of that coalition has links with al Qaeda is real. And there is no doubt that militants of various stripes will converge on Libya to buy weapons for various purposes. The most dangerous of these are the reported stocks of Libyan man-portable surface-to-air missiles, but smaller arms have done damage enough across Africa and beyond.

Staunching the flow of these weapons out of Libya is a Sisyphean task, but one the international community should embrace nonetheless. At a minimum, a program to purchase these weapons from Libyan factions will raise their market price. No doubt some will question the cost of such a program, but in the long run such an effort is a relatively low-cost, high-return investment. If Libyan weapons are used in a terrorist attack in Egypt or to target a Western airliner, we will regret not being more aggressive now.

All of this, of course, is easier said than done — after all, experts offered similar warnings in the early days after the fall of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. The key is to identify social and political groups with real power and allow them to negotiate Libya’s future in a structured manner rather than impose a vision from abroad or allow narrow domestic factions to monopolize government authority. Minimizing the chance of an insurgency by the disempowered in Libya will be as much art as science. And that, perhaps, is the best lesson for both NTC leaders and their supporters in the international community to take away from Iraq and Afghanistan: Treat the challenges in Libya with humility and respect. Broad principles from other conflicts are useful reminders of potential missteps, but they are not a blueprint for peaceful transition. Qaddafi looks as if he will go the way of Saddam Hussein; the important thing now is to ensure that Libya in 2012 does not go the way of Iraq in 2004.

Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.