The U.S.-led NATO war to topple the Libyan regime of Muammar Gadhafi helped create a nation of disparate rebel militias that to this day, two years later, refuse to give up their arms. This, along with the weakness of the central government in Libya, is making the fruits of our “democracy promotion” hard to recognize.
So, Washington’s plan is to further meddle in Libya’s internal problems and the Pentagon, through AFRICOM, is planning to weaponize and train a Libyan army. They call it “a general purpose force” and the aim is to give the new regime some teeth relative to the lingering rebel militias.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Frederic Wehrey details some of the problems with this plan:
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.
After the fall of Gadhafi, many Libyans fell back on their tribes and local territories for their identity and association. Unless the new U.S.-backed army is seen as representative of all those various societal components, it will likely spark new and intensify old tribal animosities along several cleavages. Needless to say, America’s previous attempts at nation building demonstrate rather conclusively that Washington doesn’t have the capacity, foresight, or local knowledge to be able to accomplish such a thing.
In addition, we should be prepared for some ugly human rights abuses down the road. Again, if history is any guide, U.S.-backed militaries, especially in underdeveloped Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa, typically commit grievous human rights abuses while America looks the other way. Americans should know by now that building up militaries in foreign countries is often synonymous with taxpayer-funded repression.
Last month, Will Crisp at the Christian Science Monitor reported that many of Libya’s armed gangs are motivated by a fear of future Western interference.
“Any sort of outside intervention that could be construed as Western interference is likely to provoke a serious backlash from some militias,” Oliver Coleman, senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at risk analysis company Maplecroft was reported as saying.
Libya contains all the ingredients for future foreign policy disasters and possibly getting bogged down in some long-term U.S. efforts, unless someone in Washington has the good sense to stay the hell out of it.