We don't know when Gaddafi will finally fall or accept a ceasefire that could pave the way for his exit. But we can be confident that, whatever the Colonel's fate, he'll leave Libya in an unholy mess. Cities have been pummeled by artillery bombardments and refugees cluster on the Tunisian and Egyptian borders. The tribal political settlement that underpinned Gaddafi's rule has broken down. The rebels have armed thousands of ill-disciplined young men who may not lay down their arms willingly.
In these circumstances, there will be no easy transition to peace. In Egypt, where the revolution was comparatively straightforward, the fall of Mubarak has been followed by ongoing unrest and religious violence. There may well be an even bloodier period of score-settling in Libya, possibly comparable to the wave of Albanian attacks on Serbs after NATO forced Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo in 1999.
It's almost certain that some sort of international peacekeeping force will be required to stabilize the situation. At the London conference on Libya at the end of March, Hillary Clinton and her colleagues asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to start stabilization planning. What options does he have?
Ban oversees 100,000 peacekeepers worldwide, handling trouble-spots from Haiti to the Congo. But the UN's deployment mechanisms are cumbersome and forces rely heavily on poorly-equipped units from Africa and Asia. During the post-electoral crisis in Côte d'Ivoire, many UN units have all but refused to go out on patrol, while peacekeepers in Congo failed to stop mass rapes near their bases in mid-2010. Elsewhere, UN personnel have been involved in disgraceful acts of sexual exploitation themselves. In spite of these episodes, the UN has many impressive troops under its command -- the Brazilian troops who helped restore order in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake won rave reviews from U.S. marines. But the UN's systems for gathering forces and getting them into theater simply aren't equal to managing a rapid, messy deployment to Libya. Under these circumstances, it might seem tempting to turn to NATO.
But a NATO deployment to Libya is politically unfeasible. It would fuel Arab suspicions that the West wants to occupy the country for its oil. Given German and Turkish qualms about the Alliance's existing role in the crisis, the North Atlantic Council might not reach consensus on a peace operation anyway.
The European Union, which has launched a series of small stabilization missions in the last decade, is also divided over Libya. EU states have approved the use of military assets to bring aid to Libyan refugees, but it's likely that European personnel will only deploy in Egypt and Tunisia for safety's sake.
So when it comes to a post-Gaddafi peace operation, the UN will almost certainly take the lead. To do so, it'll have to drop "business as usual" and improvise ways to get decent troops on the ground fast. Luckily it has a precedent for this: the 2006 rapid deployment of European contingents to Lebanon to help end the war between Israel and Hizbollah. Although the European units answered to the UN, they used their own logistical mechanisms to speed up their deployment, and a special strategic cell was set up in New York to back-stop them with NATO-quality situation assessments and contingency planning.
If Ban Ki-moon wants to get ahead of the game in Libya, he should ask for Security Council authorization to establish a comparable cell to start planning for peacekeeping options now. He should also convene a series of closed door meetings with potential troop contributors -- including not only the Europeans, but also Arab militaries and militarily-capable non-Western powers like Brazil -- to see if they'll offer him troops.
Doing this would raise concerns among those Security Council members, not least Russia and China, who as it is aren't whole-hearted fans of the Libyan campaign. But Ban can emphasize that the UN won't deploy anything without a new Security Council resolution. To give his efforts more legitimacy, he could also set up a special advisory group of African and Arab nations that have peacekeeping experience and are concerned with Libya, ensuring regional buy-in for any future peace operation.
What would the actual operation look like? If Libya is extremely unstable, military planners will naturally argue for a heavily-armed force. But a large military force would be expensive to maintain and could become a high-profile target for Islamist terrorists, just like the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
One option would be to deploy significant numbers of troops in the first phase of operations, with a mandate to disarm Gaddafi's forces and repatriate his African mercenaries, but draw down to a lighter presence after 3-6 months, as long as security conditions permitted it. This lighter force, tasked with monitoring military and political developments, could be backed up by an over-the-horizon reserve of heavy units based in Italy or France, ready to deploy at short notice to quell any resurgent violence.
Experience from the Balkans to Liberia also suggests that, to deal with disorder in cities such as Tripoli or Sirte, the UN should supplement its military presence with riot police, who tend to handle such incidents better. Uniformed personnel will also need to be accompanied by effective civilian experts -- there will be a particular need for Arabic-speaking political staff able to mediate between all Libya's factions.
This mediation process will be exceptionally hard: the UN will not only have to forge a basic agreement on consolidating peace between Libya's factions, but also guide the drafting of a new constitution and advise on post-conflict justice. Who, if anyone, from the old regime should face trials for the atrocities of recent weeks? Is it possible to integrate elements of Gaddafi's circle into a new, stable government?
These questions will be tough to answer in any case, but especially difficult if peace has to be negotiated on the basis of a fragile ceasefire -- which now looks like the most likely short-term outcome to the war. Even if Colonel Gaddafi leaves Tripoli, he will retain some ability to manipulate events from abroad.
The UN is quite proficient at the technical aspects of these processes, such as constitution-writing and election management. But it has very limited knowledge of Libya's internal political dynamics. Although the UN already has political teams in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, good Arabists are in short supply. Ban Ki-moon should talk to countries like Qatar about seconding diplomats, just as he could talk to the European Commission about borrowing public finance experts to help restart Libya's stalled economy.
With Gaddafi holed up in Tripoli and the rebels bogged down in central Libya, it may seem premature to start designing the military and civilian elements of a post-Gaddafi stabilization mission in such detail. Yet time and again, whether in Kosovo or Sierra Leone, the UN has discovered that speed is the essence of effective stabilization: if a peace operation stumbles early on for lack of plans or personnel, it may never regain momentum. As the Libyan war drags on, the UN at least has extra time to plan the peace.
Bruce D. Jones is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Director of the NYU Center on International Cooperation (CIC). Richard Gowan and Jake Sherman are Associate Directors at CIC.