You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Libya’s Coming Insurgency

Today the world's attention is riveted by the U.N. strikes on Libya and the battle for Benghazi, as that nation's future hangs precariously in the balance. But whatever happens in the coming weeks or months, one thing is clear: The chances of a drawn-out insurgency in Libya are very high.

History offers a number of sign posts that an insurgency will occur. Unfortunately Libya has almost all of them. At this point the political objectives of the government and anti-government forces are irreconcilable. Each side wants total victory—either Qaddafi will retain total power or he will be gone. Both sides are intensely devoted to their cause; passions are high. Both have thousands of men with military training, all imbued with a traditional warrior ethos which Qaddafi himself has stoked. The country is awash with arms. Libya has extensive hinterlands with little or no government control that could serve as insurgent bases. Neighboring states are likely to provide insurgent sanctuary whether deliberately—as an act of policy—or inadvertently because a government is unable to control its territory. North Africa has a long history of insurgency, from the anti-colonial wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to more recent conflicts in Chad, Algeria, and Western Sahara. Where insurgency occurred in the past, it is more likely to occur in the future. All this means that there is no place on earth more likely to experience an insurgency in the next few years than Libya.

What is not clear is whether the coming insurgency will involve Qaddafi loyalists fighting against a new regime or anti-Qaddafi forces fighting to remove the old dictator and his patrons. In either case, a Libyan insurgency would be destructive. Because they take place within the population, insurgencies always fuel refugee problems and humanitarian crises. They provide an opportunity for extremists to hijack one or both sides. And insurgency in Libya would destabilize a region undergoing challenging political transitions.

Unfortunately, there is little the United States can do to prevent an insurgency short of a full-scale military intervention to force Qaddafi's removal. And that isn't going to happen. What Washington can do, though, is begin thinking about how it would respond to insurgency.

Should Qaddafi hang on to power and the coming insurgency pit anti-government rebels against his regime, the United States would first have to decide whether it sought to pressure both sides toward a negotiated solution (something unlikely to happen until they have fought long enough to conclude that outright victory was unlikely) or whether it wanted a rebel victory. If a negotiated settlement was the goal, the United States and its allies would need to provide assistance, advice, and training to the rebels, both to prevent their defeat and to encourage them to avoid attacking civilians and to reject extremists. If a rebel victory was the goal, this sort of help would need to be even more extensive.

If the insurgency involved a new government fighting against Qaddafi loyalists, the United States and its allies would need to provide extensive counterinsurgency training and advice to the security forces. After all, even veterans of Qaddafi's military have little background in this, particularly in a type of counterinsurgency that seeks to protect rather than target the civilian population. Without support from and dependency on outsiders, the new government's security forces would probably undertake a brutal, "mailed fist" counterinsurgency campaign. This might attain Washington's goal of a consolidation of power by anti-Qaddafi forces but not the second objective of limiting the impact on the Libyan people. The more involved outside supporters and advisers, the greater the chances that the brutality of the counterinsurgency can be controlled to some degree.

No matter which form the insurgency took, the United States would also become involved in efforts to prevent arms and funds from reaching either the Qaddafi regime or an insurgency composed of Qaddafi loyalists. This would be a collaborative effort involving the United Nations, the regional states, and other concerned nations. It would entail monitoring borders, intercepting arms shipments, and undertaking police work to trace funding and supplies. Given the geography of North Africa, the permeability of national borders, and the existence of extensive smuggling networks moving people from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, it will not be easy.

Any insurgency in Libya will require humanitarian assistance. International and nongovernmental organizations will lead in this but the United States might need provide some support, such as transportation. Eventually Washington and its partners might have to consider providing protection to humanitarian safe zones.

There is absolutely no chance that the United States would send a large military component and become directly involved in either supporting an insurgency by anti-government forces or counterinsurgency operations by a new government. Libya will not be a new Iraq or Afghanistan. At most, Washington might send a few hundred military and political advisers and trainers. Hopefully even that would not be necessary and other Arab states would lead any advisory and training missions, leaving the United States to provide intelligence and, perhaps, modest funding.

In any case, America's strategic objectives should be clear: help create a stable, well governed, democratic Libya while avoiding or at least minimizing violence against civilians. Getting there via an insurgency will be difficult. But it is likely the only way.

Steven Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.