Sounds of celebration echoed from several quarters yesterday after Libya's interim government announced the death of former leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. The European Union, members of which led the NATO campaign that contributed to Qaddafi's ouster, said that his death marked "the end of an era of despotism." U.S. President Barack Obama said that it brought to a close a "long and painful chapter for the people of Libya." And for the revolutionary rebel forces that fought a grueling two-steps-forward, one-step-back battle for much of this year, the capture of Surt, Qaddafi's hometown and final stronghold, opened the way for a formal "declaration of liberation," underscoring the triumph of the revolution.
As someone who has spent more than two decades working in war-torn Afghanistan, I was eager to visit Tripoli after its liberation in August. When I did, Libyans took great pains to explain how little their country had in common with Afghanistan. But before I even began seriously considering the comparison, contacts from Kabul and the Pakistani city of Karachi began telephoning me to report the ties they had spotted from afar.
For those the media propels to international stardom, the past catches up quickly. Early on in the Libyan revolt, satellite television transformed revolutionary commanders such as Abdul Hakeem Belhaj, who is now the military commander of Libya's National Transitional Council, into larger-than-life political freedom fighters. But my contacts in Afghanistan claimed to recognize Belhaj from his days in their country in the 1990s as a member of Muqatilah, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Others recalled the Libyan fighters who lived on the outskirts of Peshawar in the decade between the anti-Soviet jihad and 9/11, when that town served as a destination for Islamists from across the Middle East. Some recognized cellmates from the United States' post-2001 detention centers. Some even claimed to have been asked to send foot soldiers to Libya.
However different Libya and Afghanistan may be -- in geography, in the makeup of their people, in their languages, in a thousand other ways -- might such direct links mean they will share similar fates? Libyans have a real chance of forging a different future from the one that followed the several "liberations" of Kabul. In this, the death of Qaddafi may prove key. His regime was highly personalized, almost cultish, and his rapid demise significantly reduces the chance that the revolutionary authorities will have to face an insurgency from Qaddafi loyalists. Even the threat of sabotage by the ubiquitous fifth column will likely recede, as dead tyrants do not easily inspire people to risk their lives.
Considering that the Qaddafi regime held Tripoli for 42 years, the takeover of the capital was remarkably swift, orderly, and bloodless. There was minimal infrastructure damage, and basic security was quickly established. I reached Tripoli the easy way, on the first direct United Nations flight from Malta, three weeks after Qaddafi's regime had fallen. That evening, Interim President Mustafa Abdul-Jalil received a hero's welcome in a festive Martyr's Square. He exalted moderate Islam. Security was light. Women and children walked freely among the crowd. The amplified music and street peddlers selling revolutionary mugs and T-shirts reminded me more of a pop concert than a victory parade. And that was only my first night. Traveling around Tripoli in the days that followed, I witnessed more signs of resurgent normality. Civilian traffic filled the roads, communication networks came online, and street cafés grew crowded.
I saw other differences between Tripoli today and Kabul after the mujahedeen had taken the city in 1992. On my morning jogs around central Kabul then, I had been forced to pass through multiple checkpoints run by the armed groups who had carved up control of the city. The mujahedeen and old government militias took government buildings like trophies in their jostling for influence. One of my most vivid memories is of inspecting a UN residence that had been looted. A group of thuggish Ittihad Islami mujahedeen, fresh from the mountains, looked around with me, amused by their new status as "government." Everyone assumed that they (or their friends) had looted the place and that they had shot all the dead birds that littered the garden outside.
The Libyan revolutionaries seem to have as many guns as the Afghan ones did nearly two decades ago. But they appear scrupulous in their public dealings and are thus far less menacing. Above all else, both cities were filled with hope in the wake of the dislodging of an unpopular regime. And, as I worked my way around Tripoli throughout September, I soon discovered that, just like the Afghans in 1992, Libyans were struggling to control the narrative of victory. Just about every conversation began with a long argument about the history of the Libyan revolution.
The three main eastern rebel groups who had converged on the capital -- those who had pushed from Benghazi in the east, those who had broken the siege of Misrata in the center, and those who had pushed down from the Nafusa Mountains in the west -- told one story. It was the rural fighters who had succeeded. Dozens of brigades, units consisting of 600-800 men each, had fought and won a bloody six-month battle. Many brigades were named after revolutionary martyrs. Some even have their own Facebook pages. The fighters, many of them volunteers, proudly described the liberation of Tripoli as their campaign to break into Qaddafi's fortress-like compound, Bab al-Azizya.
Meanwhile, residents of the capital, those who risked their lives in the Tripoli underground, offered a different narrative. They told of months of clandestine activity. They established "operations rooms." At precisely 8:00 PM on August 20, they came out of the shadows. Armed citizens took control of neighborhoods across the capital and paralyzed the movements of regime loyalists. In their telling, it was the city's residents who liberated Tripoli.
Regardless of how Qaddafi was ousted, the competing revolutionary narratives are important for the future of Libyan politics. The brigades have rushed to establish security perimeters around strategic locations, creating a very visible presence. Many are vocal in their determination to comprehensively purge Qaddafi loyalists. Tripoli residents take another view. They advocate a quick withdrawal of the troops and say that they will not accept outside dictation of who should be purged from government organizations. They see the city as their own, and see themselves as the only ones who can (and only ones who should) build Tripoli's future.
The influx of fighters from the provinces into Tripoli looks much like that in Kabul long ago. The jostling for control of positions in West Kabul had triggered the first serious factional conflict in June 1992. Many of the commanders from the provinces considered the city residents decadent and tainted by the old regime. The situation deteriorated into three years of all-out civil war. The Taliban claim credit for ending that and for restoring security when they captured Kabul four years later.