A Holistic Approach to Security in Libya


With the arrival of Ambassador Deborah Jones last month in Tripoli to assume the months-vacant ambassadorial post, there is a newfound opportunity to reinvigorate the relationship between Libya and the United States. Reports indicate that she received a warm welcome from the Libyan government and people who are eager to elevate their country’s engagement with the United States. Indeed, for the past nine months since the tragic events in Benghazi claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three members of his team, US-Libyan engagement declined as violent clashes continue throughout Libya and US policymakers grapple with securing their missions in Tripoli and around the world.

The United States still enjoys a great deal of popularity in Libya. An inert but well-meaning government and an inexperienced but vibrant civil society hold the United States in high regard and look to it for technical assistance and capacity building that would help Libya move forward. With the US mission in Tripoli now under the direction of a highly qualified and ambitious ambassador, there is a tremendous opportunity to harness that goodwill and lend more robust political support to fulfill Libya’s democratic aspirations.

There are several ways in which the United States can reinvigorate its partnership with and assistance to Libya, but it is important to understand that the deteriorating security situation in Libya is a consequence—not the cause—of a weakened central government with limited capacity to govern the transition, provide its citizens with public services, or respond to security breaches. As a result, its credibility and legitimacy are on the line in the face of emboldened armed militias, criminal organizations, and terrorist groups throughout the country. Armed militias, in particular, however disparate, are suspicious of efforts to disarm them and to empower opaque figures that they allege are part of the former regime. With the challenges of territorial control, credibility, and capacity intertwined, the issue of security and dismantling militias should be tackled with a multipronged approach:

  1. The Libyan government should call for a national dialogue conference where all sectors of Libyan society—including civil society organizations, militias, political parties, and business associations—meet to discuss fundamental issues such as national identity, national reconciliation, transitional justice, governance structure, decentralization, and more. This is a fundamental step toward building consensus and relegitimizing state institutions. Not only would such a dialogue serve as the foundation for a national pact addressing the country’s most pressing matters, it would also compel every group within society, especially the armed militias, to declare their intentions and their allegiance to the state-building effort. The United States should encourage the Libyan government to undertake this responsibility, advocating for international efforts to support the Libyans’ capacity to do so. With the recent statements from UN Special Representative for Libya Tarek Mitri before the Security Council and G8 leaders expressing their commitment to Libya’s transition, the political space to realize a national dialogue is there. It is important that the United States help to give momentum to this initiative.
  1. To overcome its image as incapacitated and inactive, the Libyan government should establish task forces for five or six high-priority initiatives in the fields of the economy, institution-building, and political reform, drawing in capable individuals from across the spectrum of ministries and agencies. By creating targeted teams to undertake specific responsibilities, these task forces would work more efficiently to overcome bureaucratic and political obstacles, demonstrating their effectiveness to the Libyan people and building their confidence in the government’s ability to act. The United States could embed advisors, providing technical support to these task forces as they work toward realizing their respective goals. This way, Libyans would set their own priorities, thus taking ownership of the process, and the United States and other international allies would share their institutional knowledge and help build the Libyans’ capacity.
  1. When it comes to restoring internal security, contrary to popular belief, militias need to be seen as part of the solution and not only part of the problem. The idea of voluntary disarmament of the militias or a buy-back of their weapons is unrealistic and will not work given the weak central government. It is important to recognize that for many of the young men who fought against Qaddafi, being a militia member and a revolutionary is a status symbol and, in the absence of professional opportunities, a permanent job. One much-discussed plan to address this acute problem is to create and integrate the militias into a National Guard. This would be similar to the US National Guard, where, in addition to their full-time job, citizens would commit to train a few weeks a year, keep their weapons, and become a territorial militia. In the Libyan case, militiamen would continue serving in the defense of the revolution, available to be called upon by the government in case of threats to the constitution and the state’s legitimate institutions. In this way, militias would become invested in a formal government structure that is not at odds with their revolutionary goals. The government would thereby absorb these individuals into the economy with substantive job opportunities and discourage them from forming competing armed blocs—a critical component for success.
  1. The integration of militiamen underscores the need to support Libya’s economic development. Enjoying the advantage of oil revenue, Libya is not the typical recipient of foreign assistance. Nonetheless, questions remain about the government’s ability to ensure that the country’s oil wealth reaches citizens in the form of public works. Authorities in Libya need technical advice to build infrastructure and deliver services to meet the people’s needs. The United States could deliver this assistance by establishing partnerships between American and Libyan cities. An exchange program through which delegations could visit each others’ cities to learn about public administration—from street cleaning to hospital management and more. With the improvement of local government capacity, opportunities for employment would increase, contributing to the long-term growth and diversification of the Libyan economy.
  1. With regional security issues of mutual concern to both the international community and Libya, the US government needs to engage Libyans in restructuring and strengthening their security forces, in close cooperation with European partners (such as the Italians, who are also involved in this arena). As the Libyan government has yet to decide how to organize the country’s security forces, US technical assistance would be important at the planning level. The United States and its partners should also contribute the necessary equipment for effective policing and border control. Trained security forces will be ineffective without the technology necessary to carry out their mission.

These suggested measures will require a robust and shared commitment between Libyans and Americans. Fortunately, unlike its neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt, which have large, ineffective, and dysfunctional institutions, Libya is in this respect a tabula rasa. In working with their Libyan counterparts, US policymakers can be creative and original in devising solutions to Libya’s challenges without the burden of previously entrenched structures. With Ambassador Jones now at the helm of the US embassy in Tripoli, now is the time for the United States to rekindle its engagement with Libya, harnessing that country’s goodwill to address the shared security concerns and to realize hopes for its successful transition to a stable democracy. 

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Photo: US Department of State

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