Moammar Kadafi's 42-year rule may be over, or nearly so, but Libya's problems have hardly ended. Even under the best of circumstances, Libya would have a difficult time making a transition to anything approaching democratic rule. Kadafi has so dominated Libyan life with his cult of personality, centered on his bizarre Green Book, that few if any independent institutions remain. Entire generations know nothing but his despotism.
And of course this isn't the best of circumstances. Libya has been ravaged by six months of civil war that killed tens of thousands; the exact figure is unknown and probably unknowable, but even in April estimated death tolls ranged from 10,000 to 30,000. The figure today is undoubtedly higher, as is the equally unknown toll of the wounded and maimed. Moreover, a million Libyans are estimated to have left the country as refugees. An additional 240,000 or so are internally displaced.
To take just one example of the kinds of problems that a post-Kadafi state will confront, imagine how hard it will be to resolve property disputes between returning refugees and those who occupied their homes after they left.
And Libya's problems multiply from there. The civil war has devastated the country's main industry: oil production. Experts estimate that it will take a couple of months before Libya can produce 500,000 barrels a day, and at least three years to get up to its 2010 output of 1.8 million barrels a day. At today's prices (about $108 for a barrel of crude), that represents $118 billion in lost revenue over the next three years.
The task of reviving Libya's battered economy is certain to be made harder by a dicey security situation. Even after Kadafi's defenses began collapsing and rebels entered Tripoli, there were reports of continuing fighting and of regime die-hards. As in Iraq, some of them may well decide to wage an insurgency.
There is also the probability of fighting among rebel elements united by little more than their hatred of Kadafi. Already, in July, Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis, one of the rebel military commanders, was killed by his compatriots. The Transitional National Council will no doubt struggle to keep a lid on such seething enmities given its minimal experience in governance and its lack of loyal, trained and equipped security forces to command.
Kadafi was enough of a strongman to prevent outright warfare among Libya's 140 tribes. But with his police state gone, the tribes may fight each other for revenues and influence, and some could ally with Islamist extremists who are also part of the rebel coalition.
Does this sketch too dark a picture? I hope so. Certainly Libya is not a complete basket case. In fact, the leaders of the Transitional National Council have shown themselves to be fairly moderate and mature; they have substantial foreign currency reserves to spend; and Libyans can take pride in the fact that they took the lead role in their own liberation.
But there remains a real danger of catastrophe, a la post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, which each succumbed to chaos after the ouster of their dictators. To avert such a dire outcome, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or failing that, the U.N., will have to offer economic assistance, expert advice and, most likely, peacekeeping troops.
At a minimum, an outside stabilization force will be needed to prevent government weapons stockpiles, including reported stores of mustard gas and other potential weapons of mass destruction, from falling into the wrong hands. Already there are reports of some of Kadafi's portable antiaircraft missiles being looted; if they find their way to the global arms market, the likelihood of their use by terrorists against civilian airliners rises. A stabilization force would also give the Transitional National Council time to train and stand up its own security forces.
There is little appetite in the United States for another commitment of ground troops, which is why it will be important for European, African and Arab allies to carry the bulk of the peacekeeping burden.
Some may argue that an international stabilization force — which means sending foreign troops into Libya — risks replaying the key mistake of the Iraq war. But that depends on what you think the mistake was. Was it the very presence of U.S. troops that sparked that insurgency? There probably would have been Sunni Muslim resistance to a Shiite-dominated regime in any case. What allowed the situation to spin out of control was that the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi security forces and did not send enough of its own troops to fill the vacuum.
By contrast, post-conflict scenarios in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor worked out better, because in all three places there was a substantial deployment of international peacekeepers early on. None of those countries is paradise, but all are more peaceful than Iraq or Afghanistan, and they offer a better model for revolutionary Libya — and its allies. If NATO refuses to send a peacekeeping force (as looks likely at the moment), and if the U.N. doesn't step up, there is a real risk of Libya becoming a failed state.
Max Boot is a contributing editor to Opinion and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.