With the fall of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in sight, the United States and its allies face the familiar challenges of post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction. As in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have prevailed militarily and Western governments must now assume some role in helping establish a new order. Given the mixed results of the ventures in those regions, it is worth examining how Libya compares to them in terms of size, wealth, homogeneity, geography, and political maturity.
Nation building is resource-intensive, and the size of the country is a major determinant of the scale of the effort needed. Libya is between two and three times more populous than Bosnia and Kosovo, but less than one third the size of Iraq and Afghanistan, suggesting that the reconstruction effort in Libya would fall somewhere between the operations in the Balkans in the 1990s and the more demanding efforts after 9/11 in terms of cost, time, and difficulty.
Libya is, however, richer than Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, with a prewar per capita income of over $14,000 per year. War and sanctions did not devastate its economy as much as they did the other four. Libya, therefore, should return to prewar levels of economic activity more quickly than the others.
Libya is also more homogenous in terms of ethnicity, language, and religion than any of the other four societies. It does have a minority of Berber (Amazigh) speakers, who make up about ten percent of the population and are largely concentrated in the west and south. Although this group has agitated for greater cultural and linguistic autonomy, it has never called for secession. The rebel leadership, which is based in the east, also appears to be attuned to tensions between the long-marginalized province of Cyrenaica and the historically pro-Qaddafi areas of Tripolitania. By coordinating and cooperating with fighters in Libya's western mountains, it has sought to ensure that the liberation of Tripoli is perceived as broad-based, not simply as an invasion from the east. Libya's tribes will be key players in the new order, but their political power was in many respects artificially inflated by Qaddafi's divide-and-rule policies. At any rate, if competition arises in the post-Qaddafi era between Libya's regions, tribes, and ethnic groups, it will be over the distribution of power and resources, as in Afghanistan, not over the more intractable issue of national identity, as in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq.
There are important geographical differences as well. Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan are all landlocked countries with hostile neighbors who attempted to undermine the reconstruction of the state. Iraq was nearly landlocked, and had equally unhelpful neighbors. Libya, by contrast, is highly accessible to outside countries, and its neighbors have neither the motive nor the capability to foil the country's rehabilitation.
All these factors suggest that post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction will be easier in Libya than in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Three other, less favorable conditions, however, might diminish Libya's prospects.
First, although Libya is more economically advanced -- or at least more prosperous -- than the other countries, it is also more politically backward than all but Afghanistan. Having moved from Fascist Italian colonialism to one-man rule, with a brief period of constitutional monarchy in between, Libya has little experience with participatory politics.
Second, there are no Western forces on the ground to help establish reasonable security so that economic and political reconstruction can go forward. The presence of such forces was essential to consolidating peace in Bosnia and Kosovo. The early inadequacy of ground support in Afghanistan and Iraq allowed seemingly clear-cut victories to mutate into renewed conflict as resistance movements organized, recruited, and took up arms.
Third, there is no international actor to coordinate a collective reconstruction program. U.S. President Barack Obama has wisely limited the American role, in part because of the United States' other commitments and its low standing with most Arab publics. But there is no other power of comparable weight and influence to take charge.
In Libya, as in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, the West has ensured a sweeping victory, itself employing air power alone, suffering virtually no casualties in the process. History suggests that this is the easy part. If Libya is to have a chance of replacing Qaddafi with something better, the United States, its allies, and the rest of the international community will need to pivot very quickly from the rather straightforward requirements of war fighting to taking seriously the complex and demanding tasks of peace building.
Security should be the first priority. The United States' experience in Iraq shows that a critical window exists for the rebel leadership to establish its legitimacy, win the trust of the Libyan people, and prevent the onset of looting, vendettas, and warlordism. Societies emerging from conflict invariably have too many soldiers and too few police. The international community must help Libya quickly demobilize the combatants on both sides of the conflict and build a competent police force. Much will also hinge on the swift but magnanimous application of justice, which should emphasize reconciliation rather than retribution.