USIP’s Paul Hughes examines the significance of the U.S.’s move to recognize Libyan rebel leaders as the legitimate authority, the potential risks involved and when is the right time to plan for post-conflict operations.

July 18, 2011

USIP’s Paul Hughes examines the significance of the U.S.’s move to recognize Libyan rebel leaders as the legitimate authority, the potential risks involved and when is the right time to plan for post-conflict operations.

Why did the U.S. move to recognize Libyan rebel leaders now?

First of all, it is the pragmatic and right thing to do. The U.S. government had to study the National Transitional Council (NTC), learn about its members and motivations, and develop a comfortable relationship with it. At another level, the U.S.’s action was essential to ensure NATO unity after a long period of time during which certain members did not realize their war aims and began making noise about halting NATO support of the NTC. The U.S. action clearly signals long-term American support and thus helps shore up NATO’s position on this war.

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What is the practical – and political – significance of that move for both the U.S. and Libyans?

The declaration of recognition of the NTC as Libya’s legitimate governing authority allows nations in the Contact Group to take those steps necessary to further their bilateral relations with the NTC in ways that are mutually beneficial to both. This declaration sets the conditions for the U.S. to begin discussions with the NTC about transferring the seized assets of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s family to the NTC, with the expectation it will use the funds for the benefit of the Libyan people.

This international recognition also helps establish the NTC as Libya’s legitimate representative in the eyes of all Libyans. The NTC must now begin the very difficult work on establishing good governance, an effective and transparent rule of law system, a sustainable economy and an improved social well-being environment for the Libyan people.

I am concerned that there was no mention of the need to reform Libya’s security sector.

There must be a concerted effort to reform all of Libya’s security apparatuses, including the military, police and intelligence services. Some of these organizations, especially the police and military, will continue to be needed but others, like redundant intelligence services, will likely have no place in the new Libya. This effort will take time to accomplish and will require dedicated international support, especially in the form of advisers. A failure to reform the security sector will have adverse impacts on both Libya and the broader Mediterranean region.

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What are the risks of recognizing the NTC?

There are always risks involved with preventing the escalation of or resolving conflict. There are also gains that could be made as well. One has to balance the possible risks against the potential gains. Libya is crucial to the overall stability of North Africa and the Mediterranean, especially since both of its neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt, have undergone their own revolutions and are now establishing their own forms of democracy – and with some difficulty.

Though small in terms of population, Libya occupies a central position between the two and if left to fester, Libya could prove to be a destabilizing element as its neighbors struggle with their own problems.

The greatest risk facing the international community, and members of the Contact Group specifically, remains the political cohesiveness of the NATO coalition that is actively supporting combat operations. There have been indications that it had been weakening so perhaps the Contact Group’s announcement will give it greater resolve.

At even greater risk may be the international community’s willingness and readiness to invoke the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine that was used to justify the intervention in Libya. Initiating combat operations for any reason carries profound uncertainties and risks because war assumes a nature of its own with unique unknowns and troubles that defy the tidy expectations assumed by some who initiated the war.

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What are the military implications?

By recognizing the NTC as Libya’s legitimate authority, the Contact Group has opened the door for the consideration of arms sales to the rebel forces and perhaps a “train and equip” program. As I’ve noted before, air operations alone cannot win the war for the rebels; they must win this war for themselves. But they need the arms, equipment, training, and advice necessary to field a competent force. With this recognition, those options can now be studied and developed.

As for NATO’s ongoing operations, those will continue for the duration of this war. NATO has little choice because a NTC failure in Libya will also be seen as a NATO failure, one that would have profound consequences for the alliance.

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Is it too soon to start thinking about post-conflict preparations? Is this the post-Qaddafi government?

As the U.S. learned with great pain in Iraq, it is never too early to plan for post-conflict stabilization. In some respects, post-conflict stabilization is the tougher task confronting the NTC. The issues of establishing democratic governance, rule of law, improved social well-being, and a sustainable economy, as well as the reform of the security sector, will be formidable challenges. The NTC will need a great deal of help.

As to whether the NTC might constitute the post-Qaddafi government, I believe it is too soon to tell because the question assumes the NTC will succeed in this revolution. But if the NTC does succeed, I hope they would seek to build a broad and inclusive political base that involves Libyans of all stripes, not just the eastern tribes and clans.

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