The autonomy of militias and an inadequate security sector are threatening Libya’s stability and transition to democracy, warns Frederic Wehrey after returning from a trip to the country. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, Wehrey analyzed the worsening crisis and how Washington can help improve the security situation.

The United States and other powers are preparing to train and equip a new Libyan national army to bolster stability. But building security forces should only be a part of a broader solution. The plan to train the army is also not without risks, and potential pitfalls must be avoided to ensure that the new force does not polarize or destabilize Libya further. Washington needs to proceed cautiously and deliberately.

Policy Recommendations

  • Clearly define the military role and mission. Libya does not need a bloated, conventional military force, but should build a more specialized one that is able to provide effective border security, help prevent trafficking of drugs and weapons, and lead counterinsurgency efforts.
     
  • Create a nonpartisan and professional force. To prevent the unit from becoming a private militia tied to a particular group, recruits—including current militia members—need to come from a broad swath of Libyan society and there needs to be effective civilian oversight.
     
  • Demobilize and reintegrate militia members. Members of militias must be given real incentives to disarm and reintegrate into Libyan life by joining the workforce, entering education programs, or joining the regular military.

“Better training and equipment alone will not automatically confer legitimacy on the new army, compel militias to surrender their arms, or entice Libyans to join up,” concludes Wehrey. “Legitimacy will only be obtained through broad political reconciliation, a constitution, and a representative government that is able to deliver services across the country.” 

U.S. security policy must take a holistic view and go beyond building an army. 

Chairman Kaine, Ranking Member Risch, committee members, I am grateful for this opportunity to speak with you about Libya’s worsening security crisis and the next steps for U.S. policy in building Libya’s army.

I join you today having flown back last night from a two-week research trip to Tripoli, the western mountains, and the troubled eastern city of Benghazi. It was my sixth visit to the country and my fourth since the revolution. 

The focus of my recent trip was to assess the prospects for demobilizing and disarming the country’s powerful militias while building up the regular army and police, and reforming its defense institutions. I held frank and detailed conversations with a variety of official and non-official actors:  the special forces commander in charge of securing Benghazi, militant federalists in the east, the heads of Islamist militias, civil society activists, and parliamentarians.

Diagnosing the Problem

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sectors, and identity politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.
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Much of Libya’s worsening crisis stems from the power and autonomy of the country’s roughly 300 militias. Lacking its own police and army, the transitional government in late 2011 and 2012 cut a deal with these militias, putting them on the payroll of the ministries of defense and interior. By all accounts this has been a Faustian bargain that has given the militias freedom to pursue agendas that are political, ideological, and in some cases, purely criminal.     

The militia menace has been especially stark in Tripoli, where armed groups from outside the city—Misrata and Zintan—have claimed what they see as the spoils of the revolution, occupying public and governmental institutions, raiding the army’s training camps and facilities, and pressuring the parliament to pass legislation. In the east, militias allied with the country’s federalists have shut down oil production while in the south they guard the porous frontier.

Over the weekend, I witnessed a remarkable turn of events in Tripoli that suggests public patience with the militias has reached a tipping point. On Friday, protestors marched peacefully on a compound in Tripoli belonging to a powerful and predatory Misratan militia, demanding that they leave. Forty-six people, including the elderly, women, and several adolescents, died in a hail of gunfire by militiamen wielding heavy caliber weapons. The message was uniform and clear: “We want the militias out of Tripoli, and the national army and police to take their place.”  

When I left Tripoli, the Libyan national police and army—long thought to be nonexistent and missing in action—were out on the streets of Tripoli in full force, to thunderous applause from the city’s residents. The question before us now is whether this remarkable episode presages a real dismantlement of militia power, or whether it is simply a tactical redeployment.

U.S. Security Assistance: Opportunities and Challenges

In response to Libya’s deepening crisis and Prime Minister Zeidan’s request for greater outside assistance at this year’s G8, the United States, Italy, Britain and Turkey are planning to train and equip a new Libyan national army, denoted in military terms as a general purpose force. In theory, the concept seems sound: bolster a professional Libyan army to protect elected officials and institutions, allow the government to function free from militia pressure, and compel the militias to disarm.  

But the plan also carries risks. Unanswered questions about the force’s oversight, mission, inclusiveness of different regions, and composition could potentially polarize and destabilize Libya’s already tenuous landscape. Many Islamists in the east believe the planned army is hardly a national one, but rather a palace guard for the prime minister.   Already there are signs that militias are trying to bloody the nose of the new army before it even gets off the ground.

To avoid potential pitfalls, the following issues and questions need to be resolved:

First, the exact role of the general purpose force needs to be determined. As its name implies, it is meant to be a regular infantry, focused initially on securing government installations and protecting officials. But what Libya really needs is a more specialized, gendarmerie-type service to tackle border security, illicit trafficking in narcotics and weapons, and low-level insurgency. 

It does not need another bloated, conventional military force that sits in its barracks—a far too common occurrence in the Arab world, where armies’ self-entitlement and insularity have proved unhealthy for democracy. The Libyan revolution was not launched to replace one colonel with another.

Second, the general purpose force must be—and must be perceived as—nonpartisan and professional. To prevent it from becoming a private militia of a particular tribe, region, or political clique, recruits must be integrated into mixed units that draw from a broad swath of Libyan society. The case of a separate and underreported U.S. effort to train a small Libyan counterterrorism unit inside Libya earlier this year is instructive. The unit, set up by U.S. Special Operations forces, was hardly representative of Libya’s regional makeup: recruitment appeared to be drawn overwhelmingly from westerners to the exclusion of the long-neglected east.

And at least some of the new enlisted ranks and junior officer corps must come from the militias. Many senior officers in the Libyan army detest that idea, viewing the militiamen as ill-disciplined rabble or excessively politicized. In many cases, though, these young men bring the real-world battlefield experience and small unit leadership that is so desperately needed in the Libyan army, whose junior and mid-level officer ranks Qaddafi had hollowed out.

Teaching recruits to function as cohesive fighting units—rather than focusing solely on imparting individual soldiering skills— is also essential. The training mission cannot just produce soldiers who are better marksmen but return to Libya and melt into the militias, or moonlight as militiamen in addition to their day job in the army. To prevent that worst-case scenario, proper vetting for motivation, aptitude, past human rights violations, and criminal history is also vital. Recent failures bear this out: an effort last year to train Libyan police officers in Jordan collapsed when poorly screened recruits mutinied against what they perceived as unduly Spartan living conditions.

Third, and perhaps most important, the training program must be accompanied by a reinvigorated demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration program for those in the militias. These young men must be given economic and social incentives to leave and either enter the workforce, pursue schooling, or join the regular police and army. Many of the revolutionary fighters I have spoken with over the past two years do not want to remain in the militias. But few real alternatives exist.

Mr. Chairman, to conclude: given the stunning display of popular and government willpower I witnessed this weekend, the United States and Libya’s other friends face an important window of opportunity to help improve Libya’s security situation. But the United States needs to proceed cautiously and deliberately. Better training and equipment alone will not automatically confer legitimacy on the new army, compel militias to surrender their arms, or entice Libyans to join up.  

That legitimacy will only be obtained through broad political reconciliation, a constitution, and a representative government that is able to deliver services across the country.

In this respect, U.S. security policy must take a holistic view. It must go beyond building an army to include sustained assistance to the prime minister’s ongoing initiative of a national dialogue that can establish agreed upon rules of the game and address and mitigate the deep-seated roots of the political disenchantment that fuels the militias’ persistence. The United States must also lend advice and expertise to the ongoing constitutional process that will ensure proper civilian control of the military and delineate authorities between federal and municipal government.  

Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today.