Thanks to the bombing campaign now being led by NATO, the Libyan opposition has taken back the territory it had lost to forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in recent weeks.
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British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks Tuesday at the opening of the Libyan Conference, a meeting of international allies to discuss the next steps for the country, in London.
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While the rebels are still a long way from capturing Tripoli, the Libyan capital — or taking control of the entire country — many Western observers believe that Gadhafi's eventual defeat is the most likely outcome.
That still leaves open the question of how the rebels, who are an inchoate group, might govern if they succeed in taking power. It's also not clear what role the international community might play in the aftermath.
"The U.S. has made up a number of contingency plans, but none really looking ahead at how we can keep the country from falling apart," says Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya expert at Dartmouth College.
A Country Split In Two?
It's possible that the situation in Libya will become frozen, with rebels controlling the east and Gadhafi remaining in power in the west. Such a scenario is "definitely conceivable," because the U.S., European and other outside military forces don't intend to remain engaged in the area forever, says Richard Downie, deputy director and fellow in the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"That's something really serious to think about," says Micah Zenko, a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been critical of the military intervention. "If it's like the end of most civil wars, it won't be Gadhafi falling. Most civil wars end with negotiations, with some zone under rebel control."
Libya could be divided into two viable states. There's enough oil in both halves of the country, and small enough populations, to support separate economies.
But a divided Libya would be predicated on Gadhafi's negotiating an end to the fighting. That strikes many outside observers as unlikely. Although there have been rumors of negotiations involving the Gadhafi regime, Gadhafi and his sons have shown no outward interest in surrendering power, or even a portion of the country. And the rebels are unlikely to be satisfied with Gadhafi remaining entrenched.
Rebels also are unlikely to trust Gadhafi, says William Zartman, the former head of African studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
"I just don't see any effective negotiation with Gadhafi," Zartman says. "He is just so imbued with the sense of himself as the incarnation of the nation."
Things actually may get more complicated if Gadhafi loses. He has ruled through a combination of patronage and fear, leaving no institution standing with sufficient authority to challenge him. That means Libya would be left with no obvious successor to his regime.
The opposition's Interim Transitional National Council, based in Benghazi, has received official recognition from France — and more recently from the Gulf state of Qatar — as the country's legitimate government. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton again met with its representatives in London on Tuesday.
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Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi arrives at the Rixos hotel in the capital Tripoli on March 8.
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But as Dartmouth's Vandewalle points out, we don't know yet what sort of representation the residents of Tripoli that have kept quiet out of fear of Gadhafi might demand once he falls.
"They're going to be unhappy if they don't have any input into any council that's truly national," he says.
There could be a violent post-revolutionary struggle for power. There is likely to be the kind of battling for position that is common in such situations among the professional class, holdovers from the Gadhafi regime, military leaders and Islamists, experts say.
Libya's society is still dominated by various tribes, many of which are now armed to the teeth. Both Zenko and Downie say an Iraqi-style insurgency, complete with improvised explosive devices, is a possibility.
"We still don't have a very good handle on who these guys are," says Downie, the CSIS fellow. "They're only united in their opposition to Gadhafi, with real religious and regional differences. The task of building a country in a post-Gadhafi scenario is going to be an awfully tricky one."
An International Presence
Downie suggests that if Libya remains violent after Gadhafi's ouster, the international community will have a "moral obligation" to try to stabilize the country. After all, if not for U.S. and European bombing, Gadhafi likely would have quashed the rebellion.
"We have more skin in this game than we did in the other revolutions and upheavals in North Africa," Downie says, referring to recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Still, all the rhetoric from international leaders has suggested that they do not want to play either a role in deciding Libya's ultimate form of government or to offer open-ended assistance.
Zenko, the CFR analyst, says that under any scenario involving violence, a third-party intervention will be necessary to foster peace. But, he says, it's unclear who would play that role.
The African Union would normally be considered a natural source of peacekeeping troops, but the organization is already stretched thin — and has relied on Gadhafi to supply 15 percent of its budget. What's more, the African Union opposed the outside intervention in Libya.
U.N. peacekeeping forces also lack the resources to be ready for the job. The U.S. puts up more than 25 percent of the U.N. peacekeeping budget but supplies only about 150 troops, Zenko says. Several of the countries that do contribute soldiers, he adds, including India, Egypt and Jordan, are not going to want to get involved in Libya.
"It's hard to believe the U.N. Security Council will endorse a significant peacekeeping mission right now," Zenko says. "They don't have the capability."
Vandewalle, the Dartmouth professor, says that the U.N. already is discussing possible outcomes in Libya. He cautions, however, that winning support for an ongoing humanitarian mission will be even more difficult than passing the resolution to protect Libyan civilians from Gadhafi's regime.
"At the U.N., they are at least thinking about this, about how sub-Saharan Africa should play a role. But there's nothing really concrete," Vandewalle says. "It's unlikely anything will become concrete until the fighting is over — and by that time it may, unfortunately, be too late."