Peter Cole, lead editor, The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath (London, Hurst, 2014). 

It is hard to talk about what the international community should do in Libya without reflecting first how it, and Libya, got here. During the revolution and the transition, both NATO’s member states and the UN (and Libyans themselves) sought an international “light footprint” in Libya. Interestingly both parties were using the same language to learn from different experiences. UN figures, learning from Somalia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, advocated for smaller, politically-led missions with coordinated international assistance working through local staff and NGOs. Military strategists, learning from costly, bloody and indefinite nation-building projects in Afghanistan and Iraq, sought better relationships with locally-trained partners, supported by special operations and air power.

Both the UN and NATO were able to pursue “light footprint” approaches in Libya because they had a political entity—the National Transitional Council (NTC)—that was credible and assertive enough to set the terms of intervention. Both Mustafa Abdul Jalil and the Executive Office resisted, for example, “boots on the ground” or large multinational stabilization teams. But at the same time, the NTC did not have the mechanisms to prevent competition by local Libyan entities and networks for arms, territory, and training. It could, and did, absorb and incorporate these networks; indeed it was pressured to do so by Libyans and foreign diplomats. But, it thereby became less able to register and direct weaponry and ammunition (some foreign, most captured locally) through what remained of the armed forces.

As with the war, so with the peace. Abdul Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril moved the NTC to Tripoli and governed through existing ministries rather than other transitional mechanisms, for sound reasons such as avoiding Iraq’s “debaathification” scenario. But these ministries had very limited capacity. The army and police, which deconstructed themselves during and after the 2011 conflict, were limited not just by capacity, but because they lost officers, political legitimacy, and weaponry to revolutionary fighters. The Kib administration, under direct pressure from those fighters, got the UN to release frozen state funds to pay them. These were the best of bad options, but defined the government’s future scope of movement on the security sector, while NTC and General National Congress (GNC) politicians accepted and sometimes promoted multiple, competing security entities on the state payroll for political reasons.

What the international community “should” do, then, is bound up with where Libyans are at. For example, initiatives like the General Purpose Force can inject much-needed new blood and training into the armed forces, but must proceed tentatively—for reasons of political legitimacy (it exists at the request of the Prime Minister of an interim government), vetting, and government capacity to pay for that training and monitor and absorb trained fighters.

In the meantime, the practical and patient training and capacity building requested by the Libyan government under the rubric of the Justice, Security, and Defense program agreed in Paris in February 2012 is unglamorous but vital. This work should be politically informed and appropriate to the still-changing political and communal character of Libyan institutions and those who staff them—and well-coordinated with the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and Libyan government. Parts of the program, such as border security, have suffered when this has not been so.

It is a question of patiently and incrementally adjusting and improving mechanisms of governance, listening to all Libyans while they are having broader political debates around that governance (on federalism, for example). Those debates can be facilitated by the UNSMIL-supported National Dialogue, but need not be fully resolved. The most developed states contain profound political division, but such debates must be housed within institutions that can accommodate them without politicians or local communities’ resort to allies in the security sector, as has variously happened in Libya’s debates over political isolation, federalism, Islamism, army and police reform, and the Prime Ministership. Accommodating these debates is a goal best achieved by competent and impartial mechanisms of the state, not politicians.