Next steps for Libya - avoiding the mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraq

Following protracted interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the international community will be breathing a collective sigh of relief that this UN backed; expedition-light intervention turns a critical corner. As Op Herrick and Op Telic illustrated, defeating the enemy, difficult though this can be, can prove less of a challenge than keeping the post-conflict peace. Libya will be no exception.

During the last six months the majority of the 140 tribes that make up Libya, have unified to pursue a single agenda: the overthrow of a dictator. Now that objective has been achieved, there is of course, the celebration but quickly follows the difficult questions about designing a post Gaddafi Libya.

The next four months are critical; they provide a window of opportunity to leverage the country-wide euphoria  and pause in fighting (once the last of Gaddafi's forces are flushed out) to restore law and order, sow the seeds of basic governance and rebuild the economy. No easy task as events in Egypt suggest. 42 years of tyranny have left Libya without any form of party political structure. As Basra proved, if these basics are not soon in place, survival instincts kick in and may lead to sectarian violence and the formation of tribal militias who then blame their liberators for the lack of progress. Security takes a turn for the worse, compounding any efforts to rebuild the country.

Ironically, it is the very strategy that prolonged the war-fighting campaign that might shorten the nation-building phase and prevent the mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan from being repeated. Had NATO deployed ground troops as well as an air campaign, Gaddafi would easily have been removed back in March, but then the West would truly have owned the problem. A prolonged ground war has not only given the Interim National Council crucial time to establish new governance structures in East Libya, but also to undertake detailed planning in preparation for the eventual fall of Gaddafi. These last few months have also allowed a more constructive relationship with the West to blossom; around half of the foreign Al Qaeda fighters who poured into  Iraq following the 2003 invasion came from East Libya.

Nevertheless, with Gaddafi gone, old agendas, alliances and indeed axes to grind will re-surface. The manner in which Tripoli has fallen suggests reprisals and revenge attacks by the rebels, which would have compounded a lasting peace, have not taken place. The UN resolution 1973 still stands, and any large scale retaliation against the residents of Tripoli by the rebels or indeed inter-tribal conflict, might oblige NATO to respond from the air.

Indeed it is Libya's tribal politics (not fully appreciated by the West) rather than off the shelf democracy that will ultimately determine the country's fate. The country is not just formed of three parts (Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica) united by the occupying Italians in 1903 but by a complex and powerful tribal network meaning that the majority of Libyans depend on their tribal connection for security, recognition and often employment. Around 30 tribes have real power, the two largest being the Beni Salim tribe based in East Libya (Cyrenaica), and the Beni Hilal tribe located in western Libya (Tripoli). Other influential groups include: the Magariha tribe (who held many senior positions in Gaddafi's regime), the Zawiya tribe upon whose land many of the key oil installations are situated and the Misurata tribe, which is particularly influential in the cities of Benghazi and Darneh.

Put another way, a redistribution of power is about to take place, as previously oppressed tribal groups seek increased representation over other minority clans, who until recently enjoyed all the trappings of office. Avoiding further civil unrest and designing an acceptable system of governance will be some challenge for Abdul Jalil, and his colleagues on the Interim Council - the role of the International Community could therefore be pivotal.  Quick wins include ensuring the oil wells are turned back on and Libya's overseas $bns assets are unfrozen.

Long-term strategy however, needs careful consideration. The West does not 'own' post conflict responsibility as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Prime Minister took a courageous decision in leading the call for military action in Libya, avoiding the nation- building mission creep (that now defines our involvement in Afghanistan) by ensuring the free Libyans harboured this responsibility with support from the region.

The West's involvement, which has primarily been co-ordinated through one single organisation (NATO), will now pass a multitude of international agencies (such as the UN, EU, IMF, OIC, the Arab League, the African Union, the World Bank, USAid and Dfid). As other post conflict experiences suggest, securing common ground here could be as challenging as gaining agreement from the complex network of Libyan tribes they seek to help.

David Cameron has succeeded where other Prime Ministers have failed, in seeing off the tyrant without the need for UK boots on the ground. The success of Op Ellamy will not however be judged by the removal of Gaddafi but by what replaces him. We are not out of the woods yet. This may also be a dress rehearsal for a more complicated intervention further East.