This Commentary was first published as an op-ed in the Washington Post on August 22, 2011

A relatively successful transition from the Gaddafi regime to a united, stable, more open and democratic Libya would be seen in the region, and more widely, as a credit to the NATO-led intervention. It would enable Libya to resume its oil and gas exports, demonstrate international community capacity to manage such transitions and encourage positive outcomes to other Arab Spring protests.

As the Gaddafi regime ends, the United States and Western allies should keep a few things in mind:

● The opposition led by the National Transitional Council (NTC), based in Benghazi, is a hodge-podge of former regime loyalists (civilian and military), liberal democrats, Islamists, expatriates, Berbers (Imazighen), various tribes and jihadis. They are united mainly in wanting Gaddafi gone. Fragmentation has not been a big issue, but the large concentration of regime supporters in Tripoli will present a bigger challenge to inclusivity. Little is known outside Libya about political, tribal, ethnic and regional fault lines, and Gaddafi-era institutions are so confused that it is difficult to see how they can provide a framework to limit the competition to nonviolent politics. The July murder of former interior minister Gen. Abdul Fattah Younis after he had joined the NTC is a potential harbinger.

● Many Libyans have suffered under the Gaddafi regime, losing family members, property and freedom. Revenge killings have been reported in Benghazi. Gaddafi loyalists may be assumed to have information or articles of value that need to be extracted quickly. This could lead to detention, imprisonment and torture, with the police and intelligence services likely targets, particularly if the Gaddafi loyalists continue to resist even though he has disappeared from the scene.

● Once stability is established, many of the half-million or so Libyan refugees and internally displaced people will return and seek to recover their property. Recovery of real estate can be particularly contentious and undermine public order, especially if the public lacks confidence in the courts.

● Failure to provide at least the current level of electricity and water promptly would undermine public order and make progress on governance, rule of law and the economy far more difficult.

● Mines planted by the Gaddafi regime have been a problem in Benghazi and Misrata, where significant numbers of civilians have required medical assistance. Tripoli and other Gaddafi-controlled areas may also have been mined or booby-trapped. Unexploded ordnance resulting from NATO-led operations will also be a problem.

In post-Gaddafi Libya, the more that can be done by the Libyans themselves, the better. Libyan capacity to organize themselves should not be underestimated, but Tripoli may require international peacekeepers to keep order, at least in the initial phase.

The most likely candidates for leadership roles in any international effort are the United Nations and the European Union, both of which have appropriate experience and good reasons to want a successful transition in Libya. The African Union should be expected to encourage Gaddafi loyalists to adapt to the new regime. The Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council should be expected to help mobilize needed international resources.

The United States could play a supportive role, ensuring that the effort is based on a solid strategic framework, filling in where donors fall short and bringing attention to top priorities. The existing “contact group” could be a vehicle for the United States to contribute without burdening it unduly.

Whichever option is chosen, the NTC is expected to combine with other legitimate interlocutors to form an interim authority to take over governance. International assistance should be conditional on inclusivity, which is vital. Many Gaddafi-held towns have formed councils that can be drawn upon to provide appropriate representation. These indigenous Libyan initiatives must not be inadvertently bypassed or destroyed once the Gaddafi regime is gone, as has happened in other post-conflict situations. The local councils could be particularly effective in mounting “neighborhood watch” operations to prevent public disorder, an approach taken during the protests in Egypt.

Preparation of a constitution (Libya currently has none) and elections at various levels will take several years. Mine-clearing and retraining the police, army and judicial systems will take the better part of a decade. Accountability for past crimes and justice for those who abused power under the Gaddafi regime may take longer. Once restored to pre-crisis production, Libya’s oil and gas can pay for reconstruction, but immediate financial requirements will be large.

The coherence of international efforts will depend on setting out from the start a clear set of agreed principles toward which the Libyans and international community will work. This can best be done in a new Security Council resolution; if that proves politically impossible, it could also be done in a statement by the contact group or under U.N.-E.U. leadership. The goals should include a united and sovereign Libya within its well-established borders and under the rule of law that can sustain, govern and defend itself through inclusive democratic institutions, using Libya’s resources transparently and accountably for the benefit of all its people.

If a U.N.-E.U. effort fails to ensure stability in Libya, the United States should be prepared to mobilize and support a NATO-led effort, including, if necessary, the deployment for a limited duration of U.S. ground forces. Only NATO has the military capacity required. Unilateral U.S. intervention would entail risks without commensurate gains to vital national security interests.

Daniel Serwer is a lecturer and senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He blogs at This column was adapted from a Center for Preventive Action contingency memorandum he wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations this month.

Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.