Libya: Military Effort and Political Process 'A Real Mess,' Analysts Say

08/04/2011 02:18 pm ET | Updated Oct 04, 2011

A growing chorus of conflict and international policy experts say the NATO-led, U.S.-supplied military effort in Libya is going quite badly -- and the political process there may be getting even worse.

"This is a real mess, and people need to wake up," said Hugh Roberts, who until last month was the director of the International Crisis Group's North Africa Project and has closely tracked the conflict.

Five months ago, the U.S. joined European and Arab allies in launching airstrikes against the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, at a moment when his far superior forces seemed poised to massacre a peaceful uprising in the eastern city of Benghazi. Since then, however, the military effort has found itself at what America's top admiral recently called "a stalemate." Gaddafi remains alive, and at large.

Political and diplomatic efforts between the West and the opposition have nevertheless forged ahead. In June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the Benghazi-based rebel leadership, known as the Transitional National Council (TNC), as the sole "legitimate" voice for the Libyan people. In late July, the U.S. joined Europe in formally recognizing the TNC as the proper "governing authority," granting it access to embassies around the world and $30 billion in frozen assets.

"In the last four months, my strong impression is that the TNC are making progress," the U.S. envoy to Libya, Chris Stevens, said in a press conference earlier this week in Washington, where he cited gains on financial, military and diplomatic fronts. "This helps them in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of their own people, in the eyes of the Libyan people who are still under Gaddafi's rule."

Now, however, as signs arise of discord and fragmentation within the TNC and the rebel movement as a whole, a number of North Africa, conflict and democratization experts tell The Huffington Post that the U.S. and its allies may have gotten ahead of themselves, and the Libyan people as well.

The biggest blow came last Thursday, when Abdel Fattah Younes, the general in charge of rebel forces, was assassinated under murky circumstances. Younes, a late defector from Gaddafi's military, was distrusted by many within the rebel leadership, and most indications point to an internal hit job by another faction within the rebels. The TNC has established a commission to investigate the killing.

At a press conference Friday in Benghazi, where the head of the provisional government, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, appealed for calm and blamed the assassination on Gaddafi loyalists in the rebel ranks, gunmen from Younes' tribe opened fire with machine guns on the hotel where the conference was taking place, sending reporters diving for cover.

Aid workers and journalists in Benghazi now report that the security situation there has deteriorated significantly since the killing, and many non-governmental organizations have ordered their staff to remain indoors, with the lights off.

Perhaps even more disconcertingly, TNC officials themselves count more than forty separate militias -- of varying allegiance and ideology -- as loosely affiliated with the rebel movement. The opposition recently attempted to bring the groups under a single command, but by all accounts has had limited success in doing so.

The spectre of dozens of militia leaders claiming credit for an eventual victory over Gaddafi -- be it military or negotiated -- or worse, turning their militias against one another, concerns many of the Westerners who have worked in the country.

A Western aid worker who recently spent time in Libya said that on a visit to the rebel-held city of Misrata, where fierce fighting has continued off and on from the start of the uprising, the rebels reported little affinity for the official leadership in Benghazi.

"These guys really felt very left out," said the aid worker, who asked to remain anonymous because of the nature of his work. "There was a certain degree of frustration about the division of power within the entity. My conclusion on that was that [the rebel government] was really Benghazi focused. That's where decisions were made, and people outside Benghazi felt really left out."

"The TNC worries not so much about fragmentation, but rivalries that crop up, it worries about after the fighting is over," said Leslie Campbell, the Middle East and North Africa director of the National Democratic Institute, which has signed a memorandum of understanding to work with the TNC on the transition.

Campbell is one of a number of democratization experts who still feels strongly that the TNC holds Libya's best hope for a peaceful and democratic future. In July, the TNC released a draft version of its interim constitution, which has been heralded by supporters as an uplifting sign of the group's democratic intentions.

"There's always going to be questions, but I feel as though the Libyans are held to somewhat of a higher standard," Campbell said. "This group was created spontaneously, in the heat of the moment, and they did the best they could at the time. They have a lot of good people who have impressed everyone who have come in contact with them."

Chris Stevens, the U.S. envoy, echoed this sentiment when he spoke to reporters earlier in the week. "I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture because there are also challenges inside the TNC-controlled area, and one of them is security," he said. "There was a security vacuum when the regime fell, and they had to stand up very quickly, this organization called the TNC."

He added that the TNC has "done extensive planning about how to handle the situation in Libya in the immediate aftermath of [Gaddafi's] fall and then beyond that. They’ve done a political roadmap to how they’re going to get there, and then they’ve done very specific sector-by-sector planning. So that process is underway."

One expert in post-conflict reconstruction and transitional reform, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, told The Huffington Post that on a recent trip to Benghazi, he was encouraged to see volunteer militias competently running security and manning traffic intersections. But he added that until the TNC finds a way to fully take over these fundamental responsibilities, the organization will have a hard time maintaining its local credibility.

"By recognizing the TNC, [the West] confers legitimacy, but also a vast range of responsibilities, which the TNC is not yet equipped to fulfill," said the expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "While the international community is focused on the situation in the West, not enough is being done to strengthen the capacity of the TNC to deliver basic services to citizens.

"The reasons are largely political: We do not have a deep understanding of the political dynamics. There is a massive knowledge gap. Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that this understanding is vital before we provide substantive support, because we need to know whom we are supporting, and the effect of our support on the political dynamics."

Hal Ferguson, a democracy development expert at the International Republican Institute, who has extensive experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that in Washington policy circles where the post-conflict Libya is being discussed, the comparison with Iraq -- where warring militias complicated an already confusing political landscape immediately after the end of the war -- comes up a lot.

"You can't help but make the analogy," he said. "It's going to be a post-conflict reconstruction situation. It's clear everyone is trying to learn the lessons of Iraq: above all you need to provide security, electricity, basic services.

"The question is what is the TNC going to do and what capacity they have to act on it. It's not about their desire or intelligence -- it's about their political legitimacy and strength," he added.

Roberts, of the International Crisis Group, said these problems should have been evident from the start.

"Even if the TNC had shown itself to be more coherent than it really is, without British and American troops on the ground it has never been likely to take Tripoli -- and if it did take Tripoli that way, it would have a legitimacy problem," he said.

"This has been very, very obvious from very early on," Roberts added. "And if the [TNC] didn't have a legitimacy problem, which it will have, it will have a problem in any case of establishing a functional government.

"Western governments have been very reckless in engaging themselves to the hilt as they have, politically speaking, with this outfit. And going so far as to recognize it as the only legitimate body, when clearly that is not the view of many Libyans. The idea that this rebellion could just secrete a new functional regime has clearly been wishful thinking."

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