Commentary

The International Role in Post-Qadhafi Libya? Withdraw.

Wolfram Lacher

Planning is ongoing in Western capitals for a prominent international role in the state-building process that is to follow the demise of Qadhafi’s regime. But neither an international police force nor a UN-led state-building mission would help Libya master the daunting challenges to come. The most important task for external players now is to disengage from Libya, to ensure that the difficult process ahead is untainted by foreign interference.



As Libya enters the post-Qadhafi era, there is an acute sense of the challenges facing the National Transitional Council (NTC): ending the conflict, avoiding a vacuum of power, establishing security and stabilizing the dire humanitarian situation. Parallel to addressing these immediate challenges, the NTC needs to initiate a transition that aims at nothing less than building a new state from scratch. For this transition to succeed, the NTC will have to accommodate a wide range of political players into the transitional process, contain the inevitable power struggles this entails, and bring under central control the multiple armed groups that led the revolution. Each stage of the process involves significant risks, such as a possible spiral of revenge killings; internecine conflict among the revolutionary forces, or the emergence of an insurgency backed by the former regime’s constituencies.

To help the NTC weather these challenges, external players have come up with a range of proposals. Backed by the United States, the UN has been planning for an international police force, whose deployment Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon plans to urgently recommend to the UN Security Council this week. The EU aims to support security-sector reform. China and Russia are calling for a leading UN role in helping stabilize Libya. South Africa continues to insist on internationally mediated talks for the purpose of forming an inclusive new government.

Although the approaches vary, all key players agree on a major international role in stabilization and state building in Libya.  But the international community would be better advised to avoid exerting direct influence over the process ahead. Overt external involvement would risk undermining the domestic legitimacy that is crucial to the state-building process. Libyans are deeply suspicious of external interests in the country, and such suspicion is likely to persist despite the fact that the NATO intervention was central to the success of the revolution.

Accordingly, the idea of an international police force has already been rejected by the NTC’s head, Mustafa Abdeljelil, and other NTC representatives. This rejection should end the planning for any presence of international police forces. It may take time for the NTC to establish order across the country. But even if it fails in this task and the situation deteriorates, deploying international forces would be the wrong approach. Such a step would be rejected by many players inside Libya and could thereby divide the coalition leading the transition. Its negative consequences would far outweigh its benefits. 

Much of the same goes for a prominent international role in other aspects of post-Qadhafi state-building. Security-sector reform is urgently needed, but the issues at stake are highly political: which forces are integrated into the security apparatus and which ones are demobilized; who answers to whom. External involvement in such a process could discredit it, or risk tilting the domestic balance of power. The coalition of forces that carried the revolution is fragmented and lacks a clear leadership. Demands for external assistance by one group could be rejected by others, and international involvement could easily become a dividing factor among the revolutionaries.

The NTC and any transitional government emerging from it will need to be far more broadly representative than the council was during its Benghazi days, and forming a coalition that can manage the transition will present a major test for the NTC. But external players should avoid trying to influence the post-conflict political settlement. For external actors, insisting on the accommodation of former regime constituencies is as misguided as backing a prominent role for those figures who led the NTC until the fall of Tripoli and are perceived as allies in Western capitals. The next phase is likely to see many changes in the composition of the political leadership, but negotiating these changes is a domestic matter.

This doesn’t mean that external players shouldn’t urge the NTC to keep to its plan for a transitional process that includes elections and the drafting of a new constitution, to run this process in as transparent and inclusive a way as possible, and to rein in any transgressions by armed groups supporting the revolution. But the international community should realize that its influence in post-Qadhafi Libya will be limited. Once the immediate humanitarian challenges have been overcome, Libya will not be in need of foreign assistance. As soon as the NTC can access frozen Libyan funds abroad and ramp up oil production, the future government will be financially and politically independent. The government will be in a position to accept the external advice it wants and buy itself the assistance it needs. It should be granted this independence as quickly as possible, meaning that sanctions should be lifted and frozen assets returned. External players can offer advice and technical assistance, but they should refrain from seeking to directly influence the political process to come.

Disengaging from Libya will be a challenge for the external players who have been so directly involved until now. The states that led the intervention have developed a sense of responsibility for the future course of events in Libya, as well as an expectation that they should get a return on their investment in the revolution. Others will seek to regain a foot in the door by playing a prominent role in the international effort to stabilize Libya and support the establishment of a new state. But they should now focus on ending the overt external involvement in Libya as quickly as possible, and handing over full responsibility for the process ahead to the Libyans.