Finally, it seems that Libya's rebels have momentum on their side: They have pushed back Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces on multiple fronts and are poised to encircle the capital of Tripoli. Libyans, and the entire world, will no doubt cheer the country's liberation, but it's not time to celebrate yet. Even if Qaddafi falls sooner rather than later, the immediate post-war period will still pose serious risks to both Libyans and the international community.
The stakes couldn't be higher. A botched transition to a new regime could imperil the security and welfare in a post-Qaddafi Libya, discredit the NATO intervention, provide hfaven to international terrorists, lead to a new dictatorship, and even break up the country. We know from the experience in Iraq how costly a poorly planned transition can be.
The most pressing requirement will be reestablishing security. There's no sign as of yet that Qaddafi intends to go quietly. On Aug. 15, he implored his supporters to "pick up your weapons, go to the fight for liberating Libya inch by inch from the traitors and from NATO." Even if the regime collapses, remnants of his armed forces may take these words to heart. Tripoli presents the greatest challenge. While liberated areas in other parts of the country have stabilized quickly as Qaddafi's forces and sympathizers fled, there is no guarantee that the same will hold true for the capital. Many regime supporters and mercenaries have gathered there, and could mount the kind of "stay-behind" operation that brought chaos to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
Security cannot be maintained for long without at least a rudimentary system for police, courts, and incarceration. These new institutions will be forced to grapple with internecine warfare among rebel or tribal factions, revenge killings, and criminal gangs. The Qaddafi-era institutions may suffice in the immediate post-war period, but thorough reforms will be needed if the rule of law is to be established on a more permanent basis.
Humanitarian requirements are also likely to be acute in Tripoli as well as other newly liberated population centers. Even in liberated areas, casualties and humanitarian requirements have not yet been fully assessed. Electricity outages are already reportedly severe in Tripoli, while Misrata has been in need of food shipments. Following Qaddafi's fall, it will be vital to quickly restore basic services to these neighborhoods. Providing food, water, shelter, and health care for the most vulnerable -- including what may amount to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people -- will also be key. An angry citizenry does not make for a smooth transition.
Kickstarting Libya's economy will require getting its energy production and exports back online as quickly as possible. But it is not just a matter of getting the oil and gas flowing: A more transparent and accountable system for spending the resulting revenue, much of which used to disappear into Qaddafi family accounts, will be needed to help forestall quarrels over the proceeds and set the country on a more sustainable path. The post-Qaddafi regime will need to do a full accounting of its assets and try to ensure that some of them are not "privatized" by officials seeking to line their pockets.