For weeks, I’ve argued that the United States and our allies should impose a no-fly zone over Libya and mount airstrikes to stop Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s advance against the embattled rebels. Last week, the United Nations Security Council authorized precisely those actions. Over the weekend, missile strikes began.
I should be elated, right? Instead, I can’t stop worrying about everything that could go wrong.
The good news is that Libya’s forces are few, badly led and ill armed. American and European missile and air attacks have already shown that we can inflict substantial damage on Colonel Qaddafi’s military at scant risk.
The question is whether this will be enough to stop his attacks. Colonel Qaddafi’s forces are operating in urban areas where it is extremely difficult to use airpower without killing civilians. His soldiers pulled out of Benghazi after the initial bombing on Sunday, but a rebel attack on the strategically important town of Ajdabiya was repulsed on Monday.
Will the rebels be able to root out Qaddafi loyalists? If not, are we prepared to use Western ground forces? So far President Obama has ruled out that option, which runs the danger of a protracted stalemate. Colonel Qaddafi could simply cling to power, while international support for the whole operation frays.
Even if Colonel Qaddafi steps down — an outcome that I believe we must now seek but that hasn’t been declared as a formal aim — the problems hardly end.
In some ways Libya presents fewer risks than Afghanistan or Iraq. While Libya is bigger geographically than those countries, its population is much smaller (just 6.4 million people) and much more heavily concentrated in a thin strip along the coast.
While it has a Berber minority along with an Arabic-speaking Muslim majority, it is not divided by a bitter ethno-sectarian line. Nor is Libya surrounded by hostile neighbors (like Pakistan or Iran) that seek to foment insurgencies. We are lucky that Colonel Qaddafi has few if any outside backers, with even the Arab League endorsing intervention.
But there is still much that could go wrong in a post-Qaddafi Libya. For one, the country has had an active Islamist movement that has sent many fighters to Iraq. The collapse of Colonel Qaddafi’s police state would mean greater freedom for all Libyans, including jihadists who could try to instigate an insurgency as they did in Iraq.
The danger is compounded by Libya’s tribalism. Behind the thin facade of a modern state lies a long, seething history of rivalries among 140 tribes and clans, about whom we know little. Colonel Qaddafi has kept them in check with a combination of brutal repression and generous payoffs. Once he’s gone, the tribes could fight one another for the spoils of Libya’s oil industry; as in Iraq, some could form alliances with Al Qaeda.
To avert the worst, we must work with the nascent opposition government, the National Transitional Council, to develop a plan for a post-Qaddafi state. It is also vitally important that Western special forces, Arab soldiers or both begin arming and training the rebel fighters. They must be able to not only help toss out Colonel Qaddafi but also maintain law and order in the new Libya.
Like such other post-conflict states as Kosovo and East Timor, post-Qaddafi Libya will most likely need an international peacekeeping force. This should be organized under the auspices of the United Nations, NATO and the Arab League — a step that will require amending the Security Council resolution, which forbids a “foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”
None of this is meant to imply that I have suddenly changed my mind and decided that we should have stayed out of Libya. This is a worthwhile intervention for both strategic and humanitarian reasons. But the Obama administration must be alive to the numerous dangers that lurk down this path, and must make plans to deal with them.
Max Boot, a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relation.