Testifying before Congress on Thursday, General Carter Ham, the head of U.S. Africa Command affirmed that the situation in Libya is grinding toward a stalemate.
The Libyan rebels are not an organized fighting force, but Moammar Gadhafi cannot mobilize a major offensive against them because of NATO airstrikes and dwindling support within his own army.
So what lies ahead? Military analysts and Libya experts articulate three main possibilities: (1) a prolonged stalemate, (2) a negotiated settlement, or (3) total victory for one side.
1. Prolonged stalemate: The situation could remain much as it is now with the opposition controlling Benghazi, Ajdabiya and some of the coastline. Moammar Gadhafi would control the rest.
Zachary Hosford and Andrew Exum at the Center for a New American Security recently described what this might look like: “A stalemate in Libya would effectively result in a de facto partition of the country with a severely under-governed and disorganized safe haven in eastern Libya for the rebels that could provide refuge for various militant and criminal groups capable of exporting violence and instability to other countries in North Africa and the Middle East.”
Max Boot, a national security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), describes the worst case scenario in which this stalemate drags go on for years – much as Saddam Hussein clung to power for a decade after the First Gulf War.
Middle East scholar Juan Cole illustrates a more hopeful scenario in which - after weeks, months or perhaps a year - a negotiated settlement is reached. He noted that the 1995 Dayton Accords were signed more than a year after NATO started bombing in Bosnia.
2. Negotiated settlement: Many analysts argue that time is not on Gadhafi’s side. NATO strikes wear down his forces while other nations supply the rebels with weapons and training. The rebels are gaining access to oil money and potentially to Gadhafi’s frozen accounts, while sanctions squeeze Gadhafi and his associates.
Unable to pay his mercenaries and losing control, Gadhafi might ultimately feel forced to negotiate, or former loyalists may oust him and negotiate in his stead.
In either event, the outcome of a negotiation is an open question. They could lead to the establishment of an interim council, paving the way for parliamentary elections, or, if the stalemate lasts for many years, potentially the partition of Libya.
3. Total victory for one side or the other: Gadhafi’s regime could collapse. This is the scenario many are hoping for. This could occur if Gadhafi’s army breaks in the face of continued NATO bombing or if Gadhafi’s deputies defect en masse. Tripoli would then be open to the rebels.
Having the rebels forcibly overthrow Gadhafi would be much more difficult. As Libyan journalist Fadel Al-Ameen explains, “I don’t imagine that the rebels in the East will be capable of driving all the way to Tripoli. Even if they do, just to invade Tripoli would be a humanitarian catastrophe because Gadhafi and his forces would wreak havoc on the civilian population there.”
The opposite possibility is that Gadhafi defeats the rebels and reasserts control over all of Libya. This is the nightmare scenario, but it is also extremely unlikely. The world’s attention would have to shift away from Libya entirely to allow Gadhafi to amass the requisite force.
Most analysts agree that sooner or later - whether weeks, months or years – Gadhafi has to go, leaving open the question of what happens next.
As James Lindsay of CFR notes, “Part of the problem is we’re talking about what happens on day one….The crucial question is what will be happening in the fall and next year. The same is true if the rebels take it all. That is only the first chapter of the book.”
Exum worries because “most post-conflict states go through a stage where external aid exceeds the government's capacity to effectively administer it, creating conditions ripe for corruption. In Libya's case, you will have a similar situation with both (a) a lot of government oil revenues and (b) very little bureaucracy capable of redistributing resources within the society.”
But there is also reason for optimism. As Al-Ameen says, “Libya’s level of education is high. We’re not looking at a country like Afghanistan, which is a tribal society without leadership or government. Nor is Libya like Iraq with so many sectarian differences. Libya also has economic resources that will help it survive and prosper. The future doesn’t look too bad."