We’re just over a year past the beginning of the uprisings in Libya that ultimately produced (along with, of course, NATO’s intervention) Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster. And there are now increasing calls for some form of military intervention in Syria. As such, this seems like an important time to evaluate the aftermath of NATO’s intervention in Libya, and how it intersects with American interests.
Essentially, there is a dearth of information publicly available about the state of affairs in Libya, but we nonetheless know a number of facts unambiguously:
- The TNC has yet to establish its authority within Tripoli. However well-meaning its endeavors may be, they are not being executed or enforced outside a very small geographic area.
- The overwhelming majority of the country is ruled by local militias under commanders with no accountability or common code of conduct.
- Several towns (including Zintan, Misrata, and Benghazi) are dominated by local warlords who have power equal to, or greater than, the capital. Indeed, the emergence of a western council in the Nafusa Mountains that directly opposes the TNC is a testament to its weakness.
- Qaddafi loyalists (more tribal than ideological in nature) have successfully retaken Bani Walid, and have not been displaced.
- The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group is well established in parts of Tripoli and Derna. Its rise is directly correlated to attacks against Sufi shrines, and the movement of foreign volunteers going to fight in Syria.
- There has been a rash of ongoing retaliatory ethnic and tribal fighting against communities perceived to be pro-Qaddafi, most notably Tuaregs, Berbers, and black Africans.
- The influx of weaponry and returning Tuareg mercenaries after Qaddafi’s fall has helped to destabilize a not-inconsiderable part of Mali. Violent incidents occurring in Algeria, Niger, and Tunisia have also been traced back to Libya.
- Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Sahara emir, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, claims to have absconded with a considerable amount of Qaddafi’s arsenal. The U.N. has claimed that this has been used to outfit Boko Haram.
Qaddafi’s last enclaves fell in September, so it has been less than five months since the (first phase of?) major fighting ended. If you’re drawing a parallel to Iraq in 2003, there was more violence in Iraq in terms of high-profile attacks by what would later become Al Qaeda in Iraq against the U.N., U.S. forces, and Shia religious leadership. There is also no parallel to countries like Iran or Syria that are actively trying to export instability and violence into Libya at present. A better parallel is perhaps Afghanistan, which in 2002 was more or less carved up between various warlords, then severely neglected by the U.S. and its allies as America’s focus shifted to Iraq. The Taliban wasn’t able to resurge until 2005, and it took quite a while before Afghanistan’s cracks began to show. In Libya, conflict may well become more severe once the TNC tries to seriously enforce its authority, or one of the various factions gets organized enough to try to either declare autonomy or take over the country.
While there was a good deal of waxing Churchillian about stopping the violence and toppling the Colonel’s government, nobody seems interested in cleaning up a growing mess in Libya. The result is that a lot of rapid changes have come to the country, particularly in terms of reducing it to a balkanized state, and infusing the Maghreb (and other parts of Africa) with a significant amount of weaponry that is readily available to the highest bidder. The argument that an intervention in Libya was in the U.S.’s strategic interest was tenuous from the outset, and it remains unclear that a single American interest was advanced by this military commitment. At this point, the intervention doesn’t appear to have bought us any tangible goodwill in the Arab street, and may have helped to severely destabilize the northern region of a country that, as of 2006, produced 1.8 million barrels of oil per day.
Of course, we still don’t know precisely how things will turn out in Libya. As Ann Marlowe rightly points out, “Americans should not be too quick to judge how the country will evolve in the coming years.” But, particularly in an age of limited resources, we do need to evaluate our strategic interests, particularly where lessons from the Libyan intervention are applicable to other actions that some observers believe the U.S. should undertake abroad. And the early picture of Libya in February 2012 is not particularly positive.