What’s the world to do about Libya?

Oussama Romdhani

Published: Updated:

Two years after the death of Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi, political developments in Libya are still influenced by assassinations, kidnappings and other acts of politically motivated violence. Last week’s assassination of the Benghazi military police chief Ahmad al Barghathi shed light again on the consistent role of the militias in Libyan feuds.

Supporters Barghathi accused the commander of one of the militias as being responsible for the assassination. They then torched his Benghazi home and threatened him with assassination on a live radio talk-show. Amid all this turmoil, Libya was still reeling under the impact of the unprecedented kidnapping, carried out by Libyan militias, of the country’s Prime Minister Ali Zaidan.

Wild world of the militias

Most importantly, what the world will do about Libya depends heavily on what Libyans are willing to do about their own country. It is them who will eventually have to do most of the heavy lifting, not the outside world.

Oussama Romdhani

Most of the militias are supposed to be under ‘state control,’ acting as surrogates of the army and the police, sometimes even charged with the security of state buildings. A tribal alliance, for instance, controls the defense ministry, while the “Libya Shield” –the country’s most powerful militia- protects the interior ministry. At times, militias can function as substitutes to government forces. In other instances, however, they serve their own agendas. The disparate nature of the more than 225,000 militiamen reflects the divisions within Libyan government and society.

In recent months, militias carried out a blockade against a number of ministries and other institutions, including the interim parliament, to make sure the ‘exclusion law’ against former government officials was voted. In the wild world of the militias, the last word usually goes to those who have amassed the largest quantity of weapons after the 2011 civil war. Uncountable amounts of arms and ammunition, including thousands of Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MAN-PADS), have been unaccounted for since the fall of the Gadhafi regime. Prime Minister Ali Zaidan commented on this phenomena saying, ‘Weapons are being smuggled out of and into Libya by groups which are trying to murder and assassinate people and spread terror in the country.’

The lack of structured domestic security led U.S. Special Forces to be able to intervene in broad daylight and an Al Qaeda figure, Abu Anas al Libi from the streets of Tripoli. Abu Anas had been on the U.S.’s ‘Most Wanted List’ as a suspect in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Jihadist militias were predictably upset about the kidnapping. In retaliation, Ali Zaidan was eventually kidnapped.

The rising power of local militias, at the expense of the central government, has also led to the disruption of oil exports, as Cyrenaica ‘regionalists’ sought to ‘make up’ for the neglect they felt they suffered during the Gadhafi years. Geoff D. Porter, managing director of North Africa Risk Consulting, sees a paradox in Libya: ‘Instead of hydrocarbon receipts being the glue that holds the country together, they have become a tool for prying it apart.’ Autonomist trends in the Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan provinces represent a challenge not only to the central government but also to the territorial integrity of the country. In most of the Arab Spring countries, there are legitimate grievances from the long-neglected regions. However, there are also new local actors competing for the various spoils made available by the Libya’s instability. This was in recent months the reason for much of the oil production and export blockages. Exports dropped from 1.4 billion to about 300,000 barrels a day in September and down to 60,000 in early October. The loss in revenue as a result of such disruptions has been estimated at about $ 7.5 billion in just two months.

The central government in Tripoli has a hard time also controlling its thousands of kilometers of land and sea borders. Despite announcements by the authorities of ‘military zones’ and ‘closed borders,’ substantial parts of the southern border areas are controlled by the Tebus, the Tuaregs and other tribes and not the state. The nearly 1,700 km maritime borders are just as porous. This situation has allowed traffickers to transport illegal emigrants -- more than 30,000 so far this year -- across the Mediterranean to Italian shores. Neighbors north of the Mediterranean are anguished about the waves of refugees departing from Libya. Neighbors to the east, the west and south are anguished about the two-way flow of weapons and terrorists across Libya’s borders. Zaidan himself admits that the movement of weapons ‘endangers neighboring countries, too.’

The forgotten war

In the long run, Libya could eventually rely on its hydrocarbon riches and relatively small population to pull itself together. But to get anywhere close to cashing in its chips, it needs to stop the deteriorating security situation from further destruction. Paul R. Pillar, a former senior analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency stated, ‘Libya today exhibits some of the attributes of a failing state.’ He is not the only security expert to hold that view since the country has had four decades of an eccentric authoritarian rule. Former Amnesty International Secretary General and UN representative in Libya Ian Martin notes that “Libya has aptly been called the ‘stateless state,’” not only lacking security forces but left devoid of almost every institution of modern governance.” But there is more to Libya’s current quandary than the legacy of Gadhafi’s misrule. There are the unintended consequences of the foreign military campaign which helped topple him.

The 2011 NATO-led military intervention was meant to quickly get the job done. The ‘job’ was regime-change and not maintaining the peace in Libya. NATO did not heed the warnings that once the air raids stop, the situation on the ground could unravel uncontrollably. In April 2011, U.S. retired General James Dubik, among others, called for a continued role on the ground from the international community after the departure of Gadhafi. He believed the United States and NATO should be ‘providing security to prevent liberated Libya from sinking into chaos’ while ‘the responsibility for security, reconstruction and nation-building will likely fall to the United Nations.’ In May 20011, Russia called for “activating the peacekeeping potential of the United Nations and African Union.” There were also calls for Arab and Islamic peacekeeping forces, which went unheeded. Western fear of ‘mission creep’ made the idea of international troop deployment unappealing. Budget considerations, wariness about entanglement in yet another boots-on-the-ground situation in the Middle East, and the opposition of the Libyan Transitional Council were enough reasons to discard any notion of post conflict involvement. Then, everyone simply forgot about Libya. This selective amnesia is not without precedent. Shashank Joshi, Research Fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) was right in his observations that “Wars, once won, tend to be forgotten. This was the fate of Afghanistan in the years after 2001, Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. But Libya’s problems will not stay within its borders.” The Tripoli victory tours of French and British leaders, after the fall of Gadhafi, were not matched by any real follow up to prevent things from getting out of control in so called liberated country which they came to celebrate.

Libya once again made world headlines again when U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stephens and his staff were murdered in Benghazi, when oil exports stopped flowing and then when Abu Anas al Libi was kidnapped by the U.S. Delta Force. And while the West was not watching, Mali happened. It was a predictable blowback from Libya’s unfinished war. Weapons and fighters had been flowing out of Libya for months. Still, Western powers seemed somehow surprised when Jihadist and Tuareg fighting happened in northern Mali . A whole chain of blowbacks have unfolded since then. Even before the Mali campaign started, the In Eminas gas installations south of Algeria were struck by terrorists. Fleeing the French-led bombardment of the “Azawad” territory, Jihadists moved back north and sought safe harbor in Libya’s southern deserts and Tunisia’s western mountains.

What’s the world to do?

The situation in Libya has clearly become a regional and global issue. But what’s the world to do about it? Awareness about possible regional and international ramifications of the Libyan crisis has already convinced many in the international community of the need to help the fledgling Libyan state, especially in matters of security. Recent incidents encountered by Western security trainers in Libya are likely to mean that much of the training of Libyan will take place, at least initially, outside of Libya.

A number of European countries are expected to host some of that training. Various programs are being considered by Libya and its Western partners. About 8,000 Libyans will be trained by a number of NATO members, including at least 2,000 who will be trained in the UK. An additional bilateral program, the Security, Justice and Defense program (SJD) will be funded by Great Britain. The SJD program will ‘cover all aspects of security to enable Libya to guarantee the security of the state from any form of threat,’ said British Minister for International Security Strategy Andrew Murrison. A border control support program has been agreed upon between Tripoli and the EU in Brussels. Another potential field of cooperation will be to advise the Libyan government on how to deal with the huge arms flow.

Western security assistance will probably be inhibited by a number of considerations having to do with Libya’s domestic dynamics. Beside the safety issues, foreign trainers and advisors in Libya could face the resentment, if not the hostility, of Islamist and nationalist factions. Whatever good will and technical assistance it can get from its Western partners, Libya will have to figure out how to closely coordinate its national security requirements with those of its immediate neighbors. And despite his insistence on the pressing need of his country for foreign security assistance, Ali Zaidan is certainly aware of the caveats. ‘The last thing Libyans want is foreign soldiers on the ground,’ warned Charles Gurdon, director of the UK security and risk consultancy Menas Associates.

The West is also careful not to see its technical assistance lead to a full-fledged involvement in a civil war. As with other Arab Spring countries, the West will probably remain wary about over-committing itself financially in places where political and economic prospects are not yet clear. In Libya’s case however, there is incentives of ample oil and gas revenues that should reassure the country’s foreign partners which will allow the country to pay for its needs, especially if stability and security are restored. Most importantly, what the world will do about Libya depends heavily on what Libyans are willing to do about their own country. It is them who will eventually have to do most of the heavy lifting, not the outside world. Nobody can decide in their place if they want to keep their nation together. Nobody can sit in their stead, when the time comes, around the national dialogue and reconciliation table. Nobody but them can decide what kind of future country Libya should be.

Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.

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