For the NATO coalition that had been bombing Libyan targets nonstop since March, the war to bring down Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime could not have ended soon enough.
Executing tens of thousands of strike sortie missions on a multitude of Libyan government targets across a country three times the size of Texas would have taken a toll on any military force. Even NATO, the most equipped and technologically superior military alliance the world has ever known, had trouble successfully hitting the right targets during the opening stages of the war. So when Gaddafi was found by Libyan revolutionary fighters and dragged out of a sewage drain, dirty, bloody and humiliated, only to be killed minutes later, in the city of Sirte, NATO commanders responsible for the Libya operation were all too happy to officially declare their work complete a week later.
The only problem with declaring “mission accomplished,” of course, is that Libya is still stuck in the mid of a security vacuum, albeit with a dictator now dead and buried.
The National Transitional Council is making the best of a bad situation, urging their fighters to turn in their weapons, announcing the start of elections in June to select a constitution committee and electing a new interim prime minister. Libyan oil production, a mainstay of the economy, is also expected to return to prewar levels as the months proceed while international oil companies are attempting to court the new power brokers for a share in the action.
However, security across the Libyan heartland — from Tripoli down to the southern desert — is far from conducive to rebuilding a society from the ground up. Despite NTC plans to reintegrate rebel militias into a unified Libyan army and police force, hundreds of fringe groups loaded to the teeth with automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades continue to patrol city blocks as if they are defending their own personal fiefdoms.
The Libyan capital, Tripoli, is divided among at least three different militias from different parts of the country — militias that turned their weapons on one another when one of the tribal groups tried to enter a city neighborhood not under its jurisdiction.
This week, fighters from Zawiyah clashed with fighters from Warshefana along a major coastal highway leading into Tripoli from the west, killing at least six people before the rounds went silent. The issue that helped light the spark in that round of fighting was disagreement over which militia could claim ownership of a former loyalist military base along the highway.
It would be a mistake to say that Libya is going down the tubes, or that NATO cut off its mission too early. As strictly an air operation, it is difficult to see what else the NATO coalition could have done after ripping Gaddafi’s loyalists to shreds. Their mandate did not include the reconstruction of the country after the tyrant and his men melted away. Nor were individual countries, like France, Great Britain and the United States likely to take the initiative on their own. Mindful of the Afghanistan and Iraq postwar experiences, the last thing Washington and its allies needed or wanted was another nation building effort abroad.
Regardless, with Libya awash in weapons and the NTC dragging its feet on nominating a cabinet under new leadership, all of the gains that were made by eliminating Colonel Gaddafi and his regime could degenerate into the black hole of insecurity if regional and international efforts are not made to seriously draw all of the stakeholders into one room. Preparing for elections and supporting the vestiges of democracy should be encouraged yet these alone will not help Libya travel down the avenue of a peaceful, orderly and productive society. For this to happen, the NTC must show its commitment to reconciliation and a determination to carry it out.
Libya’s record with democracy is nonexistent but this needn’t prevent it from succeeding at it. Rather, Libyans, with help from international organizations, when requested, should look at a post-Gaddafi Libya as a blank slate for their country, full of possibilities and opportunities. No one tribe, sect or region can grab all the authority — a situation that would be disastrous and a prelude to frequent militia infighting as the year goes on.
Sharing power at the national level, even before Libyans line up to the polls for the first time, is a big step in increasing trust among Libya’s array of ethnicities and tribes. It cannot begin to build a modern state if all factions do not contribute to the effort.