It is hard to talk about what the international community should do in Libya without reflecting first on how both it and Libya got into the situation in which they find themselves today.
During the revolution and the transition away from Gadhafi’s rule, both NATO’s member states and the United Nations (as well as Libyans themselves) sought an international “light footprint” in Libya. Interestingly, both parties were using the same language to learn from different experiences. U.N. officials, based on the experiences in Somalia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, advocated for smaller, politically led missions with coordinated international assistance, working through local staff and non-governmental organizations.
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 U.N. and NATO were able to pursue “light footprint” approaches in Libya because they had a political entity – the National Transitional Council – 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 of it 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 “de-Baathification” 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 interim government of Prime Minister Abdurrahim al-Keib, under direct pressure from those fighters, got the U.N. to release frozen state funds to pay them. These were the best of the bad options, but defined the government’s future scope of movement on the security sector, while NTC and General National Congress 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 such as 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 the 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. It should also be well-coordinated with the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and the Libyan government. Parts of the program, such as that relating to 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. Even the most developed states contain profound political divisions, but such debates must be housed within institutions that can accommodate them without politicians or local communities’ resorting 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 role of the prime minister. Accommodating these debates is a goal best achieved by competent and impartial mechanisms of the state, not politicians.
Peter Cole is lead editor of “The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath” (London, Hurst, 2014). This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).