The world hoped that Libya would repeat the experience of Tunisia and Egypt: a popular uprising that toppled the dictatorship fairly quickly and at modest cost, followed by an effort to begin consolidating popular governance. That now seems unlikely. Muammar Qaddafi is made of sterner and more brutal stuff than Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak, and he has been more effective at weakening and dividing potential opponents. All signs now point to the Libyan conflict being tragically protracted, with the potential for regional instability, humanitarian disaster, and the empowerment of extremists. Of course, no one can precisely predict the future direction of the country with certainty, but four scenarios, echoes of previous conflicts around the world, seem plausible.
Southern Iraq. The first scenario would be something like southern Iraq in the early 1990s, when Saddam Hussein crushed a Shiite uprising after the Gulf War, driving its leaders into exile. In Libya, this would mean Qaddafi reasserting control over the country, but the opposition would persist with a component inside Libya and bases in other countries. The conflict would likely continue until Qaddafi passed from the scene, whether by death or overthrow.
Several factors would shape this scenario: How much external support would the anti-government forces obtain? Would neighboring states provide sanctuary, as Iran did for Iraq’s Shiites? Would the wider international community fund and train them? Would the anti-government forces elect to launch an insurgency inside Libya or instead concentrate on preparing for the future, as Iraq’s Shiites did? How extensive would Qaddafi’s isolation be? Would Russia or other nations help him re-arm, as they did with Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, particularly if he retains some or most of the control over oil exports? Would the United Nations attempt to limit Libyan oil exports as it did—with very mixed results—in Iraq?
Northern Iraq. The second scenario would resemble northern Iraq in the 1990s, as anti-government forces would sustain their “liberated zone” inside the country with international protection, while hoping for eventual re-unification. This would require some sort of sustained military involvement by other nations, whether implementing a non-fly zone or actually supporting anti-government forces on the ground. The keys would be for there to be enough support to the rebel forces and enough isolation of the regime to prevent Qaddafi from destroying the liberated zone. It would also be important for the authorities in the liberated zone to exercise good governance, thus demonstrating that they deserve international and domestic support.
For the United States and the international community, this is the most preferable scenario. “Free Libya” could continue to produce oil and, with assistance and tutelage, begin building democratic political institutions that would be ready to function after reunification. This scenario would be the least likely to lead to an extremist-dominated Libyan state or to a sustained humanitarian disaster. But it would require a potentially expensive commitment by outside nations, including the United States. And it is unlikely to happen on its own: It would necessitate the outside world, namely the Arab League, exploring ties with rebel forces and developing options for support—and soon.
Afghanistan. The third scenario would mirror Afghanistan in the 1990s, when the Taliban rose to prominence, in that some sort of extremist group would gain control of the anti-government forces, eventually defeat Qaddafi, and replace him. This is a dangerous prospect. An extremist movement would probably be affiliated with Al Qaeda and led by Libyans and other North Africans, possibly with experience in the Iraq insurgency. As in Iraq, it might be able to forge ties with some local tribes. Should such an extremist group succeed in taking some power in Libya, both that nation and the North Africa region would suffer.
Somalia. The fourth scenario would by a Somalia-like fragmentation into warlord and tribal entities, with Qaddafi retaining control of Tripoli and perhaps a few other cities. Like Somalia, this could drag on for years or decades even after Qaddafi died. It would also provide opportunities for extremists to wield power. As in Somalia, Al Qaeda and other extremist groups would undoubtedly attempt to exploit the instability by cultivating allies among the warring factions, many of whom would be willing to accept assistance from any source. The chances of humanitarian crisis would be high, as civilians became targets, infrastructure eroded, and national services broke down. In the absence of some sort of external involvement soon to assist the anti-government forces, the chances of this scenario are good. And the cascading regional and even international effects would be even greater than they were with Somalia, given Libya’s wealth and location.
Steven Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.