Published on SkyNews on 30 August 2011.
Looking at the evolving situation in Libya, I find it difficult to avoid comparing it to a range of similar conflict and post-conflict zones that I have been involved with in the past.
While no conflict, or reconstruction effort in the aftermath, is exactly the same as any other, I think it is important to consider, and plan ahead for, some of the problems that have been encountered elsewhere in places as diverse as the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Aceh in Indonesia, and Northern Ireland.
For me, there are five crucial lessons to bear in mind:
1. Prepare for the resurgence of violent conflict
The Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan all teach us that post-conflict reconstruction is a long-term effort, with many set-backs, and that it requires a lot of international persistence and resources.
Conflicts are not just over when violence (temporarily) ceases. The Balkans did not see any violence after the end of the war in Bosnia in 1995 – until the Kosovo conflict erupted into full-scale civil war in 1998/9, until tensions in Macedonia flared up in 2001, and again until the sporadic violence that has plagued Kosovo over the past few years. The Taliban took a few years to recover from their defeat in Afghanistan in 2001, but then came back with a vengeance. In Iraq, sectarian violence reached its peak in 2007/8, several years after President Bush proudly declared “the cessation of major hostilities” and after Saddam Hussein was captured, tried and executed.
2. Be cautious who you work with
Very often, local allies are chosen out of convenience and lack of alternatives, rather than because we share a broad common agenda with them.
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Taliban were our allies. Hamid Karzai retains international support only because of a lack of a credible alternative, not because he has proven himself a truly effective, democratic leader of his country. In the aftermath of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (Nato’s) Kosovo intervention, many questions have been raised about the Kosovo Liberation Armyâ€™s credentials and those of the political parties that emerged from it. In Aceh, Indonesia, the autonomy regime that was negotiated and implemented with international assistance facilitated the establishment of a local Islamic regime applying Sharia law. South Sudan’s governing party is on the way to create a mirror image of Khartoum’s authoritarian regime in the newly independent South. The West’s one-time poster boy for democratic change in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, turned out to be a major problem for stability across the region, particularly in the aftermath of Kosovo’s declaration of independence.
3. Donâ€™t lower your demands in the hope of a quick exit
The withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq happens against the background of many unresolved problems, foremost among them the so-called disputed territories between Arabs and Kurds. The long-simmering dispute over Kirkuk has real potential to ignite a bloody civil war between these two groups, drawing in Turkey and Iran. In Afghanistan, a solution is being sought by bringing “moderate Taliban” into the political process, leaving unaddressed major issues concerning corruption and organised crime in the hope that a more inclusive government will establish stability. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement for Sudan turned out to be less comprehensive, leaving the Darfur conflict to escalate to near-genocidal proportions in order not to endanger the settlement of the North-South conflict, which in turn paved the way to an independent South Sudan that may yet find itself in a new war with the North over the unresolved status of oil-rich states along their new international border.
4. Maintain international consensus
The international consensus that made possible two United Nations Security Council resolutions on Libya, and thus Nato’s military support of the rebels, was short-lived and divisions quickly emerged, and persist, as a consequence of competing interpretations of what the resolutions actually mandated.Similarly short-lived was the international consensus in the Western Balkans at the end of the war in Bosnia and arguably that in the aftermath of 9/11 and in the early days of the US intervention in Afghanistan; it never existed over Kosovo or Iraq.
Yet, complex international security problems cannot be resolved without a broadly based international response. Even if the United States is the undisputed superpower, its power has limits. Europe alone, divided as it normally is over the use of force, is an insufficient ally, and without at least tacit co-operation from Russia and China and relevant regional powers, stability and security remain a distant dream in Afghanistan and Sudan as much as in relation to Iran and North Korea.
5. Keep managing underlying conflict, even if it cannot be resolved
Too often, we take our eye off the ball of unresolved conflicts as the next crisis hits the headlines or as a modicum of stability seems to take hold. Rather than using such periods of de-escalation to chip away at resolving underling conflicts, resources are diverted elsewhere.
To end on a somewhat positive note, while it took the better part of a decade and a half to get away from the permanent crises that characterised the peace process in Northern Ireland, the kind of political normality that has taken hold today is due precisely to the permanent conflict management of successive British and Irish governments, their painstaking and at times very incremental progress towards a final settlement and its implementation and operation.
Northern Ireland demonstrates that complex conflicts can be resolved peacefully when local leaders have the skill, vision and determination to do so; when diplomacy is resourceful and committed; and when inclusive institutions are established that make democracy possible in the face of deep social divisions.
These five lessons demonstrate the many pitfalls ahead for Libya, including many beyond the direct control of the incoming transitional government and the international community.
While there are many reasons to be at least somewhat optimistic about the success of post-conflict reconstruction in Libya, not least because these and other lessons are ready to be learned, the eventual nature of the new Libyan state that will emerge from local and international post-conflict reconstruction efforts, remains to be determined.