A trainee soldier from the Libyan army.
A trainee soldier from the Libyan army speaks with a commander in front of a shooting target during his graduation exam in Geminis October 30, 2013.
Esam Omran Al-Fetori / Courtesy Reuters

Last month, discussing the Obama administration’s plans for a more modest Middle East policy, National Security Adviser Susan Rice noted that Washington “can’t just be consumed 24/7 by one region, important as it is.” From now on, she implied, countries in the region, including Libya, would be relegated to second-tier priority.

As she spoke, the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) was preparing to step up its assistance in Libya to help the country rebuild its weak security sector. Over the summer, AFRICOM, along with the militaries of Italy, Turkey, and the United Kingdom committed to train, advise, and equip a new Libyan army -- a “general purpose force,” in formal military terms. The plan seems reasonable on paper. Trained at overseas bases outside Libya, the new force will allow the government to project its own authority, protect elected officials and institutions from the militias operating within the country, and compel the militias to demobilize and disarm. Washington sees the effort as a crucial step in Libya’s democratic transition and as a way to halt extremism and prevent the country’s lawlessness from spilling over its borders.

But the force’s composition, the details of its training, the extent to which Libyan civilians will oversee it, and its ability to deal with the range of threats that the country faces are all unclear. And the stakes are enormous. There are signs that some militias within Libya are trying to bloody the new army’s nose before it even enters the fight: a campaign of shadowy assassinations against military officers, particularly in the east, is likely half vendetta against representatives of the old order and half attempt to deter the central government’s monopolization of military force.

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. In addition, the absence of clear lines of authority -- nearly inevitable given Libya’s fragmented security sector -- meant that the force’s capabilities could just have easily ended up being used against political enemies as against terrorists. 

Things came to a head in August, when a tribal militia launched a pre-dawn raid on the poorly guarded training camp near Tripoli. No U.S. soldiers were there, but the militia did make off with sensitive U.S. military equipment. And that spelled the end of the mission; the effort was aborted and U.S. forces went home. (The Libyan government and U.S. special operations forces are currently searching for a new training site inside Libya to restart it.) Drawing lessons from this fiasco, the United States and its NATO partners have wisely decided that the new training mission for the general purpose force will take place outside Libya -- in Bulgaria, Italy, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. But that alone won’t be enough to ensure that the effort doesn’t face more significant hurdles.

First, the exact role of the 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 country also needs an effective, civilian-controlled National Security Council to oversee and de-conflict the functions of all of its security bodies, including border guards, oil facilities protection forces, and the police.

Second, the new force will likely be called on to police and quell intertribal and communal conflicts that have flared up across the country -- a role that is currently being played by militia coalitions loosely subordinate to the Ministry of Defense, the so-called Libya Shield Forces. That is why the army’s composition is so crucial: it must be, and be perceived as, nonpartisan and professional. To prevent the general purpose force 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. 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 militia men 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 midlevel officer ranks former leader Muammar al-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 who return to Libya and melt into the militias, or who 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 work force, 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 keep fighting. But few real alternatives exist, given the bleak employment scene and the unattractive options of the police and army, which remain tainted by their association with the Qaddafi regime. The Libyan prime minister recently raised the salaries of the regular police and soldiers to exceed those paid to the militias under the auspices of the Ministries of Interior and Defense. But it is unclear whether that alone will entice young men to leave the well-paid safety net of the militias for the privations of military life. What is really needed is a serious rebranding of the military and police that removes the blemishes of the Qaddafi era. A retirement and pension program that would entice some within the bloated senior ranks to retire could be a step in that direction.

In the east, the demobilization effort has encountered its firmest resistance, owing to the region’s historic marginalization under the old regime and the unwillingness of various armed groups, whether Islamists or federalists, to surrender. It is in that region, then, that recruitment into the new army is most important. Islamists in Benghazi told me that they were holding off on demobilizing and joining the army until a constitution was in place that could guarantee that the new army wouldn’t become the palace guard of another dictator.

Public anger over the U.S. raid in which Abu Anas al-Libi, an alleged al Qaeda operative, was captured may further erode the willingness of some Libyans, particularly Islamists, to join a U.S.-trained force. The influential Grand Mufti of Libya recently issued a statement asking whether young Libyans being trained by foreign militaries would acquire kidnapping skills. If and when U.S. special operations forces seize those suspected of last year’s attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, we can expect the Islamist backlash to further erode support for the creation of a U.S.- and NATO-trained army.

Both the Libyan government and outside supporters must recognize that Libya’s security issues are fundamentally political problems. Better training and equipment will not automatically confer legitimacy on the new army, compel militias to surrender their arms, or entice Libyans to join up. That legitimacy will be obtained through a broad political reconciliation under the auspices of the recently announced National Dialogue, a functioning parliament, a constitution, and an equitable judicial system -- and by a government that is able to deliver services across the country

Given resource constraints and Washington’s reasonable aversion to putting boots on the ground, the training of the general purpose force might seem like an appropriate level of U.S. engagement in Libya. Still, if the United States doesn't want to leave the country worse off, it should think very carefully about that force’s composition, mission, and oversight before the program begins. It must also heed those who argue that the mission should be accompanied by broader assistance designed to help Libya work through the economic and political challenges that underlie its insecurity. 

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