On its long road to recovery from the Qaddafi era, Libya will need to build effective and responsible security forces in order to generate the safety and stability necessary for development and growth. To their credit, international partners recognize this requirement and are publicly committed to supporting Libya in this effort. In recent months, plans to create a Libyan General Purpose Force (GPF) have been underway. This may be a step in the right direction, but success for Libya’s GPF will require dodging several pitfalls.

While details about the GPF remain hazy, the general outline is clear. At the request of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, international partner nations from the G-8 and beyond—including the United Kingdom and the United States—have agreed to train a military force that could be comprised of as many as twenty thousand Libyans. Cohorts will drill as small units—companies being the largest element—comprised of foot soldiers, junior officers, and senior noncommissioned officers. Each unit, after training together for around six to twelve weeks, will deploy with its exact personnel intact in actual, as-yet-unspecified operations across Libya.

This deceptively straightforward design faces several complications. There are difficulties in terms of implementation. Where the GPF will train is one question. Cost, logistics, and national pride may favor training inside Libya, but limits on the foreign military footprint and shortcomings in force protection may preclude that possibility. Recent events have shown that Libyan forces remain unable to protect either their materiel or themselves. 

Who will receive GPF training is also a challenge. Some initial basic screening, filtering, and vetting of applicants—probably to be done in Libya—is necessary, even if only to weed out possible terrorist infiltrators. Yet any selection process will be fraught with the potential for politicizing the trainee pool. Not all good revolutionaries make good soldiers, but excluding militia members could exacerbate partisanship, despite plans to use the screening process to mix soldiers’ regional backgrounds within units.

Questions remain regarding how the GPF will integrate into Libya’s existing military context. Continuing arms embargoes may limit equipment to the nascent GPF, while sliding a hundred newly trained companies into a structure commanded by Qaddafi-era senior officers will run the risk of disobedience by troops and intergenerational friction among officers.

For all their seriousness, these implementation difficulties pale in comparison to more serious pitfalls haunting the GPF at a conceptual level. So far, plans for the GPF appear virtually unrelated to projects of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) and security sector reform (SSR) that are vital to Libya’s future. To the extent that the GPF addresses Libya’s myriad militias, it is to exclude their members, which could ultimately serve only to isolate the GPF from Libya’s security realities.  

The GPF’s mission also poses a conceptual challenge. What exactly is the force’s so-called general purpose? The expression may sound appealingly ‘all purpose,’ but no security force is generic, and this ostensibly banal expression actually carries a long history of specific meaning: general purpose force usually denotes a conventional military force, especially when contrasted with non-traditional power, such as nuclear capabilities. Libya may in fact need this basic military competency, but a conventional force would be ill-equipped to carry out police and gendarmerie missions or to face pressing problems with today’s transnational threats, a fact that helps explain why the world’s top 50 defense spenders—a category that includes Morocco and Libya’s neighbors Algeria and Egypt—are currently reducing spending on their own GPFs while increasing investments in cyber and special operations forces.

Even as a conventional military force, moreover, Libya’s GPF will be influenced by exigencies extraneous to its mission. International partners will likely train not only according to what Libya needs and requests, but also according to what their own authorities, specializations, and interests dictate. Turkey and Italy, two probable partners, might offer to share their gendarmerie expertise; the United States, on the other hand, will likely offer counterterrorism support—in addition to training Libyan Special Forces bilaterally. The Libyan government, meanwhile, seems to have settled on the GPF largely for internal political reasons. A conventional military force is the least divisive and most widely palatable baseline option among Libyan political stakeholders at present: the GPF is really the ‘lowest common denominator’ force.

In the long run, serving the nation and its strategic interests will be the central conceptual challenge for Libya’s GPF. Revolutionary upheavals force a reconsideration of security forces, and Libya has a historic opportunity to rethink its national security strategy (NSS). Libya might rebalance its navy and coast guard investments in the wake of losing many expensive maritime assets, for instance. By contrast, building a GPF without knowing its raison d’être is the opposite of strategy. It may be argued that Libya’s threats are so urgent and military training takes so long, the GPF must begin its work right away, even if Libya does not yet have an NSS or even a constitution in place. But some fundamental issues cannot be avoided: to what will GPF soldiers swear allegiance if Libya’s political order is so radically undetermined? And some corollary benefits of strong militaries cannot be forced: how will the GPF bolster a Libyan national identity if its value to the country remains unarticulated?

In these circumstances, the GPF’s future allows for some frightful scenarios. Notions that the GPF will gradually slot into a discrete role eventually assigned by Libya’s NSS, or that the GPF might grow and give birth, as it were, to a brood of healthy national security apparatuses a few years down the road, seem like wishful thinking. An armed force built outside an NSS, without connection to DDR or SSR, and devoid of a clear mission is more likely to become something all too familiar in Africa and the Middle East, namely a military used to protect a regime against its citizens. Libya’s GPF might become, as some have warned, just one more militia—the government’s militia, so to speak—in Libya’s already fragmented security landscape.

Libya’s GPF is a project in the making. Pitfalls abound, but time remains to address and hopefully avoid them. Conceptualized and implemented wisely, Libya’s GPF might still help to put a beleaguered nation on a path toward progress.

Benjamin P. Nickels is the academic chair for  transnational threats and counterterrorism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS). The views expressed here are those of the author alone.