Peace may be war in postwar Libya


The scars Qaddafi has left Libya, coupled with the West’s role, will complicate a ‘post-war’ period
Tarak Barkawi

Libyans wave Kingdom of Libya flags in Misrata as they celebrate the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, but ‘post-war’ Libya is going to have challenges, says author [REUTERS]

Apparently, Colonel Gaddafi was no guerrilla leader. Nor was he a very cunning fugitive for long when stripped of the prerogatives of state.
He retreated to his hometown and allowed himself to get caught up in a siege that could only be lost.
In the weeks before Gaddafi’s death, there were justified fears that Libya was becoming a kind of post-invasion Iraq, “Mission Accomplished: The Sequel”. A rapier-like Western campaign has helped topple an autocrat, but in the absence of an effective plan or means to replace him.
The NTC has been unable to secure the country. Armed militias have clashed. Many have suffered from the capricious rule of undisciplined men with guns. Gaddafi was threatening insurgency.
Now the pendulum is swinging the other way. The hated dictator is dead. Victory and peace is declared. Celebration will be the order of the day. The ‘political process’ can begin.
The combatants in the air and on the ground will feel justly proud they got their man.
But they will be wrong to think it’s over.
The fact that Saddam Hussein evaded capture for so long was not of great significance to the many sided conflict that developed in post-invasion Iraq. The hunt for the ‘Ace of Spades’ (as Hussein was in the decks of cards issued to US soldiers) was a sideshow.

That the King of Kings (one of Gaddafi’s favoured titles) is dead does not change the fact that the NTC has been unable to secure a country awash with armed men. Libya is also a country shot through with rivalries, jealousies, and blood debts, among individuals and groups. Some of these divisions are of historic vintage, many arise from Gaddafi’s rule, and the war will have added a new crop.

Like Iraq, Libya was assembled through histories of empire and its aftermath. It has been torn apart by war. Now it has lost the one thing that united much of the country: hatred of Colonel Gaddafi and his regime. Libyans are left to face the legacy of his mastery of the art of divide and rule.

The manner in which the war was fought will be decisive in shaping what happens.

The involvement of Western air forces meant that the rebels never had to form a unified force. Only to a limited extent did they learn the habits of cooperation under fire.

That is why they now lack an army with which to bring the country under control.

The ‘political process’ will be left dependent upon the willing cooperation of communities. Victorious rebel bands will make experienced cadres for their home militias. There are many scores to settle; competing visions of the future; and the possibility of resort to arms if the ‘process’ does not pan out for local interests.

Against these forces of disorder will be little but the desire of ordinary Libyans to build a just, democratic and flourishing country. Western assistance, as ever, will be fickle and come with many strings attached.

The premature celebrations of victory in Libya and the West reflect a widely shared habit of thought, that of making a sharp distinction between war and peace. Chiefly we do this by putting dates after wars.

Diplomats and the UN make tidy distinctions between ‘conflict’ and ‘post-conflict’, upon which their policies are based.

Yet fighting, out in the open or in the shadows, has often preceded and post-dated the official period of hostilities. More fundamentally, there is a continuum between peace and war.

Libya’s clans and interest groups will continue to pursue their ends, with all available means. Negotiations are just another medium for strategic contest. Battles over electoral arrangements for the constitutional council will be crucial engagements.

Such negotiations and the gaming of the elections that follow litter the landscape of contemporary conflicts in the global South, as do violent and bitter losers.

In such contexts, the spark of local clashes—sure to continue—can all too easily set off larger wildfires. Other groups and interests are drawn into the fighting, which becomes many sided.

These are the kinds of conflicts that have so often devastated postcolonial states, and they can last for many years.

Western policy will continue to be drawn into the vortex of Libyan politics for some time to come. Nimble intervention from the air – symbolized by the well-placed missile file that might have halted Gaddafi’s convoy – may not appear so rapier-like in retrospect.

Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer in the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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