Guest post – The Future of Libya

No, not part of TD’s “Future Of” series. I’m not sure the Boss is ready to branch out into a North African division just yet. Rather, just a quick look at how the future of Libya might progress – at least from a security perspective – now that Colonel Gaddafi (or al-Qaddafi if you must insist) has been toppled from power. Not beaten I might add. Just toppled from power.

The reason that this subject is of much interest to the western defence and intelligence community – other than the role that Libya plays from a political and economic perspective – is because of its potential as a laboratory of sorts. Hard lessons about how to rebuild a state after an enforced change of government, learned by coalition forces from their experience in Afghanistan, and in particular Iraq, will now be put to the ultimate test.

Libya could potentially provide a blueprint for future western coalitions as to how to avoid another messy insurgency after an expeditionary war. On the other hand it might send planners back to the drawing board, but at least a little better informed. There are many key differences between this campaign and the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which we’ll look at now.

Government Bodies

Specifically the military, intelligence and police services. One of the biggest lessons taken from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has been the need to keep these vital arms of government intact to a certain degree. The alternative is to tell thousands of well trained men that their services are no longer required and then release them into the general populace. These are precisely the kind of people upon which a successful future insurgency might depend, for their knowledge in both weapons and tactics. Thus, they are precisely the kind of people that the Libyan Transitional Council would rather like to retain on the government payroll.

There are reports that western intelligence and diplomatic operatives are working inside Tripoli right now to aid the new interim government in securing the loyalty and services of many of these men, along with officials from other key government institutions such as finance. This demonstrates that lessons have been learned and that there is at least an attempt to maintain some continuity between the old administration and the new.

Political Make Up

One of the bigger challenges that will face the new government is the number of different interested parties who would like a say in how the country is run. Libya itself has long been strongly divided by distinct tribal allegiances. Add to that various religious factions, and then further various factions with claims based on their role in the uprising (typically representing cities such as Misrata or Benghazi) and you have the perfect mix for political paralysis.

The important juggling act that the Transitional Council needs to perform is to ensure everyone is represented fairly in government and that no major group (with lots of supporters) believes itself to be politically isolated, while at the same time making sure that important decisions about the economy, foreign relations etc, are not significantly delayed due to infighting.


This is quite key, perhaps up there alongside the fact that western troops are not pouring over Libyan soil and the future of the Libyan economy. From a Western perspective, both Iraq and Afghanistan could hardly of been in worse positions. Quite apart from the Military difficulties involved with sustaining operations in those countries, geo-politically they were sat in the middle of many conflicting interests.

Iraq is bordered by, clockwise; Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. This proved to be a nightmare from a security perspective, with many of those countries possessing aspirations as regional powers. Especially problematic were Iran and Syria, two countries not known for their political friendship with the west, and in particular the United States. It was in their interest to support an insurgency and prevent the US from cementing any kind of strong, lasting relationship with the future Iraqi leadership.

Looking at Afghanistan the situation is even worse. Clockwise from the north, Afghanistan is bordered by; Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Iran. The final two are of the most importance, with Iran again being no friend of the west and the northern regions of Pakistan being notorious as hideouts and safe havens for insurgents. Even Osama Bin Laden was found in Pakistan, furthering accusations of complicity with the insurgents by the Pakistani intelligence services.

Libya is in a slightly more stable position. Starting in the north west and working anti-clockwise, Libya is bordered by; Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Northern Sudan and Egypt. None of these countries has any particular aspirations to be some kind of dominant regional power. Religiously, there isn’t so much of the radical elements that can be found in countries such as Pakistan.

That doesn’t mean that Libya is immune, or somehow beyond the reach of extremist groups. Groups with ties to Hamas need only transit through Egypt to reach Libya, and just over the other side of Chad is Ethiopia and Eritrea; beyond them is Somalia. But at least the ease of transit for such groups is reduced compared to the border hopping exploits of the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan.

The most likely source of any insurgency will be from the southern regions of Libya, where Gaddafi loyalists are likely to have retreated when he left Tripoli.

Muammar Gaddafi

Gaddafi still poses the most immediate threat to peace in Libya. There is some speculation that he might be located in the now besieged city of Sirte, but most indicators point that he fled south. Capturing Gaddafi may be more of a symbolic gesture than anything – it’s highly doubtful that he wields much control over any significant military force – but everyday that he goes uncaptured gives his supporters encouragement to fight on. It also gives him the chance to organise resistance for a future fight. And finally it is a thorn in the side of the Transitional government, as they will increasingly appear impotent in the cause of bringing him to justice.

If it can capture Gaddafi, the new Libyan administration wins a major coup among its people, demonstrating its ability to enforce the new regimes order over the country. Also working in its favour is the fact that US and British soldiers are largely absent from Libyan soil. There is no highly visible presence of “evil foreigners” for opponents to unite against, for doubters to worry about, or for radicals to convince people they’re being mainpulated by.

Economic Recovery

This – more than anything – will define the new administration. Part of whole point in a revolution is to provide superior governance compared to the previous incumbents. Even democratic elections are effectively just consensual revolutions. And one of the best ways to judge one administration over another is economic performance, including job creation.

One of the critical issues that has plagued operations in Afghanistan has been the inability of the new government to make a fundamental change in peoples lives. Corruption is still rampant at all levels and unemployment is high. The ability of Libya’s new political class to create wealth, to get the economy back on track after a civil war, and its ability to fund programs that will make a difference for ordinary Libyans is vital. Expect a degree of western money to be injected into Libya to help these efforts. After all, the last thing that Europe needs is for the country to slip back into civil war and have an anti-western government take over, that then becomes a breeding ground for terrorism right in its backyard.


Libya is now at a profound turning point. Released from the grasp of a dictator, Libya could develop into a somewhat more prosperous country, encouraging tourism, and maybe one day become a convenient manufacturing base for many European countries? The future could be bright. But there is a long way to go and the Libyan Transitional Council must guard against future unrest. They must develop a plan to take the country forward and execute it. Much depends on the quality of their leadership in the next two or three years.

And all the while, western analysts will be taking notes. Like scientists watching mice in a laboratory, various military, political and intelligence agencies will be closely following the progress of the new Libyan government and the dynamics of the people it serves, wondering whether they may have come one step close to cracking the counter-insurgency code.




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September 9, 2011 8:37 pm

Nice piece; two objections to what was said:

1. “Libya is bordered by; Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Northern Sudan and Egypt. None of these countries has any particular aspirations to be some kind of dominant regional power.”
– Egypt certainly has, and has always had (just that they happen to have their hands full with the internal developments right now)

2.”whether they may have come one step close to cracking the counter-insurgency code”
– cracking a code. yes, but not of c-insurgency
– taking it literally, the recipe is to join/back the insurgency… worked well (initially) in Afghanistan, “we” won hands down. Worked in Libya, too, “we” won with a miniscule body bag count

Well, we are into Nation Building again, but this time with different tools (mind you, it is not looking too bad in Iraq, after a lot of mistakes)

September 9, 2011 8:53 pm

Nice overview. Nation building counter insurgency manual should read

Lesson no. 1 no western invasion army for populus to blame and rally against for all other lessons refer to lesson no. 1.

September 10, 2011 7:32 am

Good post Chris, it’s interesting to look at a case study alongside the more technical / high level strategic threads.

I’m still wary to call Libyia a success as this is really when the difficult bit of nation building begins. Albeit with the outside world in a supporting role rather than governing one. Upto now the opposition have been united in their desire to get rid of Gaddafi, whether they can agree on a common vision for the future is the key. Hopefully the west will support this process, but not try to impose western values and accept the country for what it is and wants – the fact that the US is taking a back seat will probably help.

Also, I hope that we do not go down another one size fits all route to interventions (e.g. bombing lite).

The key questions for me that comes from the Libyian campaign are:

* How could we have improved the approach for the evacuation of nationals (remember the SAS team captured…)? Did we have the right logistics, equipment and international cooperation in place early enough?
* When the US took a step back, what did the European nations lack in terms of equipment, command / control, surveillance and logistical capabilities?
* How big a role did special forces on the ground play? Especially in the areas of training, coordination and close fire / air attack support.
* Could we have done this if Libyia had been further away in the world?

September 10, 2011 10:10 am

Hi Chris,

The Egypt we have observed since 1973 falls into your definition ” Egypt is not as interested in its regional reach as a country like Iran. More specifically, it cares a great deal about what is regularly taking place to the East of the Suez, not so much about the West, except where that would threaten its own security. Egypt doesn’t appear to have the kind of secretive, insidious influence over its neighbours that you would expect from an Iran or a Pakistan.”
– I believe it is likely follow the current path, but it did try to set up a radical counter to conservative S. Arabia through a union of Egypt, Syria and Yemen. It was a warring party when there were two Yemens (that’s quite far way, the Arab world soon runs out when you go further – even though Somalia is part of the official definition)

John Hartley
John Hartley
September 10, 2011 12:22 pm

Israel is starting to worry it may be dragged into a new Mid East war.
The mob storming their Cairo Embassy points the way.
What if the mob forces its way into Gaza? What if the Libya civil war weapons end up in Gaza?
If the regime in Syria falls & an armed mob heads for the Golan Heights?
What if the Turkish Navy escorts “aid” ships into Gaza as threatened?
What if this all happens at once?

September 10, 2011 12:39 pm

Hi JH,

You generously included at least one easy one
“If the regime in Syria falls & an armed mob heads for the Golan Heights?” _ Easy to guess what will happen (haven’t they tried it already, or was that just a practice run, without weapons?)

John Hartley
John Hartley
September 10, 2011 12:46 pm

This time could be messy. The Israelis face a massive mob, some armed , some not, with no cohereant plan or leadership. Some heavy weapons, some rogue army units. What level of force can the Israelis use?
The Golan march was unarmed, but what happens next time?

September 10, 2011 1:47 pm

Agree “Gaza Strip = Egypt’s interim government (really the military which has held the true power for years) needs to show the world that it can be good and keep everyone in check. It would likely stop any attempt to invade Gaza by the people.”
but because that is so obvious, the elements that in the long run hope to take over in Egypt,too, are now stirring trouble by disrupting the fairly high degree of economic integration (totally outside of Gaza) achieved between Israel and Egypt (energy & tourism).
– sort of the iron & coal sharing plan for Europe, worked fine keeping the parties from warring with each other

September 10, 2011 6:32 pm

Dont let a post about Libya get hijacked about Israel!
Huge amounts of TD’s server space could be used in dedicated posts regarding that quagmire, and probably deserves a dedicated post.

But with Egypt, the current state it is in at the moment, a few months after the main ‘conclusion’ of its revolution; could we see something similar happen to Libya? Not sure; Egypt is very different to Libya, remember that. In many ways.

As a few lads have already said; its far to early to draw to any conculsion apart from broad ones, it can still go t!ts up, as we all know from other adventures.

September 10, 2011 6:54 pm


I enjoyed reading this. A clear, concise and well organised piece that neatly summarises the issues ahead in an incisive manner. If I have one criticism it’s that perhaps you might have stuck your neck out and suggested how some of the issues might be tackled. But that’s just my taste. A credit to the site I think. I hope you write some more.

Think Defence
September 10, 2011 8:03 pm
Reply to  Phil

Phil, we have a number of guest authors Chris, Jed, Richard, Monty and many many more. Have a wade through the back issues!

John Hartley
John Hartley
September 10, 2011 10:52 pm

The point I was trying to make, is that the region is in flux. Given that Libya, Tunisia & Egypt have had some regime change, how solid are the borders? Could the weapons used in Libya, end up facing Israel in Gaza?
Large numbers of Libyan missiles have gone missing.

John Hartley
John Hartley
September 11, 2011 9:44 am

I am not saying an attack on Israel will start within days, but they are worried that the “Arab Spring” will turn on them over the Winter.
It is not just Israel that needs to plan. What if boatloads of Arabs(unarmed old men, women, children, plus young armed men carrying AKs, FALs, RPGs & machineguns/shoulder launched SAMs) turn up demanding Gibraltar or Cyprus back?

Brian Black
Brian Black
September 12, 2011 7:30 am

The Egyptians will maintain ties with Israel or they’d lose billions of USD in military aid.

The Libyan political system might help Libya deal with their transitional period. Gaddafi was quite keen to have local administrations deal with the day-to-day running of the country. The central government seems to play a smaller role than in Saddam’s Iraq, concerning itself mainly with dogma and internal security. Easier to cut off the head without the body falling to pieces.

Callum Lane
Callum Lane
September 12, 2011 9:48 am

Back to Libya.

There are several indicators that the future of Libya is going to messy.

The Gadaffi regime lost because it lost the ability to keep the major tribal groupings on side through a combination of financial inducements (the oil money stopped flowing)and military coercion (the regime’s ability to move and use combat power in sizeable quantities was severely degraded by NATO airpower). The result was that the tribes eventually trickled across to the opposition forces (the NTC). This is very much like Afghanistan where the history of the Taleban rout was as much (if not more) the case that the Taleban were not defeated in detail, but that warlords (tribes in Libya’s case) swapped sides. Like Afghanistan in Libya principal loyalty is to the tribe and not to the state.

As in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Egypt the problem that the NTC will face is that initial mass euphoria at the overthrow of the regime will then be followed by a growing realisation that things have not fundamentally changed and the same people are in charge, and the same systems (relying extensively on patronage and corruption) are in place. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Libya does not possess a cohesive armed forces who can act as a power broker.

In Libya (as in Afghanistan) because the tribes have not been militarily defeated the central government will remain weak. Transformation will be slow (beacause the tribes will not embrace change that neuters them in a hurry) while at the same time this slowness will exacerbate tensions coming from a predominantly young and frustrated population with high expectations. The fact that everyone in Libya now had access to significantly higher levels of weaponry now then prior to the civil war is of significant concern, as is the lack of a credible military force that owes its primary loyalty to the NTC and not to tribes/warlords.

The future? This could be a weak national government government with the inability to make the fundamental changes required. This government would be weaker then Gadaffi’s regime because it will have access to the carrot (but not the stick) and a high liklihood that Liya will dissolve into factional fighting for some time to come.

Gadaffi worked with the tribes, through a combination of carrot and stick, using his tribe extensively as ‘the stick’ (they filled all the key roles in his security apparatus). What hope the NTC with no stick and no strong tribal affiliation to develop one?

September 12, 2011 10:17 am

Hi CL,

This “Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Libya does not possess a cohesive armed forces who can act as a power broker” was why that “rebel” commander was murdered by other faction(s).
– he was the ex-head of Libyan special forces, a sizeable contingent of them (those in E. Libya) first were neutral for a long time and then threw their lot in with the rebels.

Now, with nothing to hold that contingent together, and build around, your point is 100% correct.

Callum Lane
Callum Lane
September 12, 2011 3:59 pm

Hi Chris,

Libya will need supervision for much longer then 2-4 years. Libya’s biggest problem is that it is not what many would regard as a nation state with a forged common identity and a primary loyalty to the nation. It is a collection of tribes who work together either when it is in their interests to do so, or when beaten with a big stick.
In order for the central state to grow in power and prestige the tribes are going to have to give up power and prestige. This normally happens gradually (the UK’s history being a case in point) and normally involves a fair degree of violence.
The NTC’s problem is that it did not win the conflict against the Gadaffi regime per se, rather it co-opted large elements of Gadaffi’s regime (the tribes which supported him). That means starting anew will be difficult because a great many of the old guard are still in place.