Commentary Magazine


A Libyan Stabilization Force Must Be Ready to Go

News that Britain and France are planning to commit attack helicopters to Libya is welcome. Able to fly lower and loiter longer than fighter aircraft, they can be used to take out more precisely assets of the Qaddafi regime that have not been touched until now. Even more welcome would be news that the U.S. is committing its A-10s and AC-130s to pulverize ground forces—and tactical air controllers to guide them to their targets. That would certainly speed up the process of toppling the Libyan dictator, a goal that President Obama now seems committed to.

Even if more is not done, however, Qaddafi’s days are still numbered. He is feeling an inexorable squeeze as NATO aircraft pick apart his military, oil revenues decline, and the rebels make gains on the ground. Sooner or later, he will fall. What then? We have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan the consequences of being ill-prepared for a post-conflict situation. Chaos can quickly develop and with it the possibility of an opening for extremists. In this regard it is worth noting that Libya has been a major recruiting center for Al Qaeda and that it is a society with weak governmental institutions and a virtually nonexistent civil society (Qaddafi didn’t want any checks on his authority) but with powerful tribes. And those tribes have much to fight over—namely Libya’s oil revenues.

To head off the dangers that may come with “catastrophic success,” it is important for the coalition to plan now for stabilizing a post-Qaddafi Libya. If policymakers haven’t already done so, they ought to consult The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building put out by Jim Dobbins, Seth Jones, and their colleagues at RAND. In particular look at page 39, which lists “peak military levels for peace enforcement” in a variety of conflicts from 1945 Germany to 2003 Iraq. Iraq was on the low end of force levels—only 7 soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants. Germany was on the high end—101 soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants. This helps to explain why post-war Germany was so much more peaceful. Bosnia and Kosovo, also relatively successful exercises in nation-building, were in between—with 19 and 20 soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants, respectively.

What does that mean for Libya—a country that, according to the CIA Factbook, has a population of 6.6 million? If the aim is to replicate the Bosnia/Kosovo experience then 330,000 peacekeepers would be called for. If Iraq is the model, 94,000 peacekeepers would be needed.

Of course, as with all such metrics, these are very rough rules of thumb that need to be adjusted based on circumstances. In Libya there are a number of factors that suggest lesser levels of risk, including the fact that the eastern portion of the country around Benghazi has been relatively peaceful and stable under rebel control. So perhaps even 94,000 peacekeepers won’t be needed. But it is likely that a need substantial if smaller force will still be required, and it is imperative for NATO policymakers to begin planning for such a deployment. As part of that planning process, they need to shine greater public attention on this issue and make clear why a peacekeeping force would need to be sent. Otherwise they risk shock and opposition among publics that have not been prepared for yet another deployment.

The time to begin the process is now—not when Qaddafi is finally toppled. A stabilization force must be ready to go any time, so as to avoid losing valuable time when the day does come.