What’s so important about Bani Walid?
When pro-Qaddafi forces were uprooted from Tripoli, regime loyalists from across the country began massing in the sleepy town of Bani Walid, which has stayed loyal to the Libyan leader throughout the conflict despite its proximity to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Now, the international press has swarmed the town as rebel forces attack. Why ...
When pro-Qaddafi forces were uprooted from Tripoli, regime loyalists from across the country began massing in the sleepy town of Bani Walid, which has stayed loyal to the Libyan leader throughout the conflict despite its proximity to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Now, the international press has swarmed the town as rebel forces attack. Why is Bani Walid, which kept a relatively low profile during the previous few months, now so critical?
Bani Walid has long maintained strong ties to the Brother Leader. He spent years re-enforcing connections to the Warfalla tribe, which makes up the majority of the town, by emphasizing historic alliances between them and his own tribe, the Gaddadfa. Writing in the New Republic, Barak Barfi describes a visit the Libyan leader made to the town shortly after a 1975 uprising against him:
"… when Qaddafi visited Bani Walid, Warfalla elders slaughtered sheep in his honor and presented him with a gold sword. Qaddafi celebrated the occasion by demonstrating his equestrian skills. His pact with the tribe sealed by the ceremony, he recruited its members to staff the most sensitive positions in his security establishment."
Those links may have been enough to keep Bani Walid from recognizing the rebels, but the Warfalla’s allegiance may not be permanent. Mahmoud Jibril, the Libyan transitional council’s interim prime minister, is from the tribe, and members of the clan lead an unsuccessful uprising against Qaddafi back in 1993. The rebels cited this lapse in loyalty when urging residents of Bani Walid to support their cause.
Some rebels believe that if the town agrees to join the rebel cause, other loyalist bastions will fall as well. "If Bani Walid had fallen to us on Feb. 17th," Jamal Gorgy, an anti-Qaddafi Bani Walid native, told the New York Times, "by Feb. 18th Qaddafi would have fallen too."
Additionally, and probably more importantly, the town is a critical strategic priority. After months of fighting "every conceivable military target in and near the town has been destroyed in NATO airstrikes," according to the New York Times, but the city remains a critical target due to its location. As the Wall Street Journal reports, "its strategic location at a crossroads between the capital and areas to the east, west and south" make it vital to controlling the country.
With Qaddafi nowhere to be seen and pro-regime resistance quickly dwindling, the town will most likely be under the control of the National Transitional Council soon, raising the question of how its population will be reincorporated into society. On Friday, Abdullah Kenshil, chief negotiator of the rebel forces, told the AP, "The population is afraid so we have to go and protect civilians." Whether the civilians wish to be protected by the TNC forces remains to be seen.
Cara Parks is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Prior to that she was the World editor at the Huffington Post. She is a graduate of Bard College and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and has written for The New Republic, Interview, Radar, and Publishers Weekly, among others. Twitter: @caraparks
More from Foreign Policy
No, the World Is Not Multipolar
The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
America Can’t Stop China’s Rise
And it should stop trying.
The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky
The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.