Some backhanded compliments are worth accepting. Despite sweeping across the country against heavy odds and displacing Muammar Gaddafi from Tripoli, many foreign analysts continue to doubt the abilities of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC). First the council’s fledgling military capabilities were mocked; now its political clout continues to shrink as political and military actors compete for their share of power. Some observers expect that NTC to fall during its attempt to restore authority and services.
That Libya’s revolutionaries are now expected to govern demonstrates how far they’ve traveled in eight months - from insurgent to counterinsurgent. The good kind of mission creep, realistically speaking.
Libya’s revolution is nowhere near its end. Only when the entire country has been neutralized of Gaddafi’s loyalists, and a representative government is elected through a fair election, will Libya exit its combat phase, a process that could take another year to complete. Nevertheless, the NTC remains on a stable path after pressing forward after Tripoli’s seizure in late August; time hasn’t been wasted during the operations to capture Sabha, Bani Walid and Sirte, home to Gaddafi’s conventional last stand. Like Bani Walid, Sirte has yet to be captured in full, remaining encircled by NTC fighters as they infiltrate the city. A month-long waiting period reduced some of Sirte’s population as NTC officials negotiated with its residents, but many held out until the final days of fighting.
"There is heavy fighting going on in the streets of Sirte right now," one NTC fighter, Drisi Mayar, told reporters three days ago. "The enemy is besieged from the south, east and west but it's still in possession of highly sophisticated weapons and a large amount of ammunition."
Mayar also told AFP, “We have no oxygen, no medicines. Wounded people die even before reaching the hospital. Many people have broken open the pharmacies in the city to bring medicines to the hospital but even that is exhausted now."
At this point NTC forces had taken control of the city's port, airport and a military base before advancing towards the city center, where they met heavy resistance and retreated. Mustafa al-Rubaie, a field commander, explained how Gaddafi loyalists maintain strategic positions in the city’s core, placing snipers in high-rise buildings to supplement their artillery. al-Rubaie explained that, “the eastern and western forces will meet in the middle of Sirte. When we reach this point, we will celebrate the liberation of Sirte."
News of a “final assault” drove thousands of additional civilians out of town, including scores of unattended wounded. Bouhadi neighborhood, home to many Gaddafi supporters, had been captured days earlier after being abandoned, and a Reuters crew concluded that those who recently fled had left “in a hurry.” Some NTC fighters “set about looting and trashing their empty homes,” many of them decorated with green Libyan flags and portraits of Gaddafi. Reuters added that “there was little evidence” of the wealthy lifestyle that Sirte’s residents were accused of.
Sirte’s ongoing situation is certainly jarring and unforgiving; although the NTC has tried to minimize civilian casualties and open a path to the hospital, the rules of engagement are naturally lax. Both Gaddafi-loyalists and NTC fighters have targeted the hospital, according to local medical officials. NATO has also attracted heavy criticism for its bombing runs. The NTC faces limited options to chose from though, and Sirte’s hardened core of loyalists have no interest in recognizing the new government. They must be removed and removed quickly, in order to keep the NTC’s political process moving forward. Mahmoud Jibril, Libya’s interim prime minister, has promised to step down before an election is held, a promise many suspect that he’ll break.
If so he remains eager to declare an end to combat operations, and on Monday pledged to resign after full control of Sirte was established. He explained that Bani Walid “wouldn’t stop the democratic process, but instead “be dealt with as a renegade region.” A new interim government would lead the country to elections.
Acknowledging the dangers of premature victory, the loss of Sirte and Bani Walid would end the conventional phase of Libya’s revolution. Gaddafi is left with even fewer options after the last centers of resistance fall under NTC control. He can either begin genuine guerrilla warfare and completely eschew conventional tactics, hide indefinitely and bide his time, or flee the country (possibly to Niger). Mobile warfare doesn’t resolve Gaddafi’s widespread loss of popular support; the spy network that he once applied to Libyans has been reflected onto him. He's also unlikely to undermine the NTC’s security to any significant degree. Last minute negotiations are also out of the question, as too many people have lost their lives under Gaddafi’s guns. Exile would prolong Gaddafi’s resistance while simultaneously weakening it through the removal of his charisma.
The NTC’s best-case scenario would have Gaddafi burn himself out fighting, rather than store his remaining reserves for a later date. At least one man believes this outcome may come to pass. Sitting in a Tunisian prison, Gaddafi's former Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi recently exchanged questions with Reuters through his lawyer. al-Mahmoudi suspects that Gaddafi remains inside Libya and “that he is fighting with his weapons and alongside his men.”
"He will not give up and he will not lay down his weapons until the end.”
The NTC’s need for greater political organization and representative adds to the imperative that military operations end as soon as possible. Its political campaign forms the meat of Libya’s revolution and requires full attention from its various components. Sirte and Bani Walid’s operations fall into the same category as Tripoli’s undetermined status, where militias are busy competing for authority and influence. This problem isn’t insolvable with fair arbitration, but it serves as a greater sources of division that Sirte.
Abdelhakim Belhadj, emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), touched off the latest controversy by calling for unsanctioned militias to disarm and withdraw from Tripoli. Suspected of commanding an al-Qaeda sleeper cell, others accuse Belhadj of fronting for the Qatari government, which the money trail validates. Qatar currently poses a greater threat to the NTC’s independence than al-Qaeda, but for now Belhadj doesn’t appear headed for war with Tripoli’s factions. One group, the Tripoli Revolutionist Council (TRC), “pledged to co-operate with Belhadj while accusing his militia of carrying out arbitrary raids.” The deputy of another group, the Zintan Brigade, told CBS News that, “we do not recognize Abdul Hakim Belhadj, he wasn't appointed by anyone."
He also claimed they were prison “friends.”
The competition for Tripoli’s streets mirror the negotiations over the NTC’s future cabinet and allocation of power. Western media has extensively covered what are perceived as deadlocked negotiations, as leaders from Benghazi, Misurata, Zintan and other cities “argue that their suffering or their contributions during the revolt entitle them to a greater voice.” A complex obstacle, to be sure, as it potentially stunts the return of services and normality to Libya, but these are revolutionary growing pains. That each side is competing for power is a very odd criticism - Western democracy quickly becomes an Islamist takeover in the Middle East.
Most Libyans would rather be dealing with these problems instead of how to survive under Gaddafi’s regime. Ultimately one must play the geopolitical game to reach its end game.