If NATO has a plan for achieving victory in Libya, it has been well disguised. Regardless, the world’s most powerful military alliance will surely somehow, some day prevail over a besieged dictator with little support. But is NATO prepared for what happens when they win?

Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen took to Twitter last week to proclaim, “Once political settlement is reached, I don’t expect NATO to play leading role” and “Future to be shaped by Libyan people. NATO will support international efforts if requested and needed.”

The United States has joined more than 30 countries in recognizing the rebel Transitional National Council as Libya’s legitimate government. So, unlike in Iraq eight years ago, there is a group in place over which to turn nominal control once the regime is deposed. But simply declaring a new government does not mean that it can run the country.

As Center for a New American Security fellow Andrew Exum observed at the outset of operations, post-Qaddafi Libya will be an exercise in “starting from scratch.” The former Italian colonial rulers destroyed most pre-existing institutions while studiously avoiding creating new ones. “The Italian governors of Libya systematically undermined the old Ottoman administration, which they viewed as a threat. Qaddafi, incredibly, managed to make things worse. Suspicious of the very idea of the Libyan state, he denied such a state was necessary and undermined any attempt to create functioning bureaucracies.”

A February Newsweek feature by Dartmouth-based Libya scholar Dirk Vandewalle declared, “Libya will begin afresh after Gaddafi, in a comprehensive reconstruction of everything civic, political, legal, and moral that makes up a society and its government. But it remains dauntingly unclear where new leadership will come from.” It continued, “Getting Libya back on its feet will be an unwieldy, and probably fractious, process in which many scores are settled against those who once supported the Gaddafi regime. But the problem is, of course, that much like in the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, virtually everyone at one point or another had to deal with the regime to survive. Unless political authority can be restored quickly, the sorting out of claims will undoubtedly be a bloody affair in light of the pent-up frustration that is now being released.”

James Dorsey noted for Al Arabiya recently, “The immediate problems Libyans and the international community will have to address once Mr. Qaddafi departs are huge and so are the potential pitfalls. The problems include restoring and maintaining law and order; securing basic services such as food, water and energy; achieving international recognition of a post-Qaddafi government; resuming oil exports to ensure funding for the new government; and kick starting Libya’s stagnating economy.”

He noted, “Anticipating the need to maintain security, avoid violent revenge and retribution and ensure that a post-Qaddafi government gets off to a good start, some US commanders, including Admiral Samuel Locklear, NATO’s joint operations chief in Naples, and General Carter Ham, who runs the US military’s Africa Command, have suggested that United Nations or African Union peacekeepers would have to be inserted into Libya once Mr. Qaddafi has been removed from power.”

The parallels with Iraq are eerie. In his seminal work on that conflict, Fiasco, Thomas Ricks quotes Major Isaiah Wilson, the official Army historian of the spring 2003 invasion and later strategic planner in Iraq saying that there was “no single plan as of 1 May 2004 that described an executable approach to achieving the stated strategic endstate for war.” Joint Staff officer Gregory Gardner explained why: “Politically, we’d made a decision that we’d turn it over to the Iraqis in June” 2003. Additionally, an Army War College study found, what little planning there was for post-conflict stabilization was predicated on the unfounded assumption that “the international community would pick up the slack.”

Will a post-Qaddafi Libya break out into an extended civil war, as post-Saddam Iraq did? One obviously hopes not. But a recent Columbia University study found a 43 percent probability of a country relapsing into civil war following a successful anti-dictatorship armed campaign — and only a three percent likelihood of democratic transition. So, it would be wise to prepare for substantial security operations lasting some time.

For that matter, Stephen Walt has noted, we’re still in Kosovo a decade after NATO’s win there — well after post-conflict score settling was ended.

While NATO isn’t planning on leading reconstruction in Libya after Qaddafi leaves, some of its leading players apparently are. The UK’s Department for International Development has been thinking about the problem for some time now and reportedly submitted the outlines of a reconstruction plan to Libyan rebel leaders in late June. But William Hague, the foreign secretary, characterized planning as “embryonic.”

Andrew Mitchell, the international development secretary, has insisted that the stabilization process “must be Libyan-owned and United Nations-led.”

Though NATO’s intervention in Libya was authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1973, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been virtually silent on the mission. He’s certainly expressed no interest in post-conflict reconstruction. Abdul Elah al-Khatib, the UN special envoy to Libya, has made numerous trips. But all his public statements indicate that his efforts have so far been devoted strictly to achieving a settlement to end the current fighting. If there’s been any planning for post-conflict reconstruction, it has been quiet.

The European Union, after two days of meetings members of the rebel Transitional National Council,  offered to help organize elections and set up state institutions. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barrosso pledged to assist in setting up a new judiciary, free media, and civil society and is in final negotiations for helping finance security reforms. Already, the EU has given $200 million in humanitarian aid.

Multiple fiscal crises notwithstanding, the European Union is wealthy. But money won’t be enough if post-conflict Libya requires peacekeepers on the ground, as it might. Some significant military presence may well be required for the indefinite future to enforce a cease-fire, prevent sectarian violence, looting, revenge killings, and any of the other myriad problems that tend to emerge after armed conflict.

Yet, for all the UK’s foresight in planning, they have been steadfast in declaring that they will not participate in any peacekeeping force, with Mitchell reiterating that there will be no British boots on the ground. The Obama administration has said the same for America. This rules out, therefore, the two most significant military powers in NATO.

After a decade of war and overseas occupation, this reluctance is understandable. Additionally, while happy to have Western help in the fight against Qaddafi, the Libyans are likely to come to resent any long-term presence of European forces in their country. 

Putting a different face on the post-conflict stabilization efforts would be ideal, then, even if Western nations have to pay for it. The obvious candidates are the United Nations and the African Union, both of which have extensive experience in peacekeeping missions and would come without imperialist baggage. 

Peacekeeping, of course, requires that there be a peace to keep. As the ongoing UN missions in Liberia and Ivory Coast demonstrate, blue helmets are not a panacea. If the mere presence of trained outside security forces is insufficient to prevent the outbreak of sectarian fighting, the peacekeepers then get caught in the crossfire. If they choose sides and shift into kinetic operations — for which they tend to be ill-equipped to begin with — they can often lose their legitimacy. 

In theory, this would all have been worked out before NATO intervened, thus taking ownership of the outcome. And it’s possible that someone, somewhere planned all this out. But, if they did, they’ve been awfully quiet about it.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.  This column originally appeared in The Atlantic as “Scant Planning for Post-Qaddafi Libya.”

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