The bombs will no doubt still be dropping next year when Libya marks the passing of a century since its colonization by Italy in 1912.
All of Libya’s current problems cannot be blamed on the Italians, but they were clearly responsible for patching together the present hodgepodge of ethnic and tribal entities under Tripoli’s rule, guided both by the strategic objective of divide and rule and by the economic goal of oil riches.
Whatever the outcome of the present effort, American policy should be to promote support for local autonomy for Libya’s diverse tribes and regions even if Muammar Qaddafi continues to assert his rule.
What Italy did in Libya typifies the behavior of other colonial powers who sowed the seeds of intractable problems by yoking together incompatible ethnic groups for the sake of easy access to petroleum or for the pursuit of other strategic goals.
The most striking example is Nigeria, where Britain was doing what was best to assure access to oil when it put the resource-rich Christian Ijaw region of the south under the control of the Muslim Hausa north, building political tensions into the Nigerian polity that have led to multiplying crises now exploited by Islamist forces.
In partitioning India, Britain was driven by naked strategic objectives. As Narendra Singh Sarila has shown in his definitive study, The Shadow of the Great Game, the popular impression in the West that creating Pakistan was the only way Britain could stop the Hindus and Muslims from slaughtering each other is simplistic. Churchill and the British General Staff wanted military bases in India after they left. Indian independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru said that an independent India would be non-aligned, while leaders of the Pakistan movement promised Churchill full military cooperation.
In Indonesia, the Dutch had their eye on the rich resources of Sumatra when they combined it with overpopulated, impoverished Java, creating conflicts that invited CIA intervention during the cold war on the side of Sumatran rebels and have taken new forms in subsequent decades.
Eventually, Qaddafi is likely to consolidate control over the entire country, and he will be in a commanding position until then, in any case, because the rebel forces control a relatively small proportion of the country’s oilfields. As the Financial Times has pointed out, the rebel-held areas account for only a quarter of Libya’s 1.4 million barrels per day peacetime capacity; notably, Es Sider, Ras Lanuf and Brega, are all in a crucial area south of Sirte where government forces have proved increasingly effective.
Even if Qaddafi is defeated, Ray Takeyh argues, a centralized Libyan state is likely to survive given the erosion of tribalism by economic modernization. Qaddafi has adjusted provincial boundaries that conformed to tribal lines and has consolidated them into single districts to reduce the power of tribal chieftains in the larger areas. Significantly, state monopolies on oil revenue make the government, not the tribe, the source of material benefits.
Qaddafi’s campaign against Islamist forces has weakened them as an obstacle to a centralized state, and his creation of a significant bureaucracy makes the continuation of a strong central government likely.
To be sure, the longer the military conflict continues, the more difficult it will be to assure continued government rule. But even without Qaddafi’s commanding presence, a strong central state is likely, and for this reason it is important for the United States to promote local autonomy that protects the rights of tribal and ethnic minorities.