The Roots of Benghazi

November 30, 2012 Topic: CounterinsurgencyFailed StatesSecurity Region: Libya

The Roots of Benghazi

Civilian control of a unified military will be crucial to Libya's fate.

It's time to move on from the finger-pointing over the September 11 attack in Benghazi. The United States must learn from its security lapses and intelligence failings, and the attackers must be brought to justice swiftly. But more importantly for both Libya's development and long-term U.S. interests, the focus must shift to fixing the security vacuum that allowed the tragedy to occur in the first place.

Since the attack the situation has become more unstable. Local militias known as revolutionary brigades and affiliated with towns, tribes or Islamist factions still rule the streets. The national army and police are hollow shells—ill-equipped, understaffed, and tainted by their association with the former regime. Assassinations remain routine and groups from rival towns continue to wage violent vendettas against one another. The country's newly elected parliament was unable to hold a recent session because armed militiamen blocked them from doing so.

Even worse, the organizations that the transitional government set up to provide security are part of the problem. The Supreme Security Committees and the Libya Shield Forces—coalitions of militias nominally under government supervision—have become a law unto themselves. Some have hardline Islamist leanings and others are involved in criminal activity. Most recently, these units started fighting between themselves—as clear an indication as any that the country is teetering on the brink.

For close observers of Libya, the country's descent over the past year was like watching a slow-motion train wreck. Handwringing over how this happened is pointless; it is now time for U.S. action to build up the country's security and defense institutions. Much of this must been done behind the scenes, with no boots on the ground and the recognition that Libyans themselves must carry most of the burden.

First, the United States must help resuscitate an existing program to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate members of the revolutionary brigades. Developed under the transitional government, the program was a step in the right direction, but it fell victim to ministerial infighting. With a newly elected and more legitimate government, that can change. The goal of the program is to wean young men away from the grip of militias by offering job training, scholarships, or entry into the regular police and army. "We have to show them that their future is not with the militias, that they honor the Revolution by putting down their guns," one Libyan official told me.

There are also purportedly plans under way to convert the brigades into a sort of reserve or national guard-type force, styled after the American model. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of a citizen-soldier, the Libyan government must take great care that this force does not become a means for the militias to preserve their power and regional power base, albeit under an official name.

Second, the U.S. and its partners must breathe life into the Ministry of Defense—an institution that was gutted under the personalized, hyper-centralized reign of Qaddafi. Helping this institution with basic staffing, organizational and planning functions is crucial to preserving civilian oversight of the army and ensuring that the country does not fall prey to a military junta.

The existence of an effectively functioning Ministry of Defense would also make it possible to train and equip the army, the third key task. On this front, the United States and its allies must help train a new generation of Libyan military leaders, focusing on junior- and mid-ranking officers, as well as senior non-commissioned officers. This is the cadre that forms the backbone of any fighting force but is largely absent in the case of the top-heavy Libyan army.

Much of the recent focus has been on quickly creating an elite force to tackle terrorism. While this is urgently needed for security, it fails to address the important institution-building challenges that are critical to the future of the Libyan security sector. Washington must think in broader terms about setting up an army that can control the country's porous borders and is respectful of human rights.

Perhaps even more important than the army is building the police force—a key institution where the state engages with citizens. Libyans have demanded that the militias leave the streets and police take their place, but the police lack training, discipline, credibility and numbers. In the past year close allies of the U.S. including Jordan and Turkey have provided police training in Libya. These countries, along with the United Nations, should be reengaged in this effort. Ending Libya's current malaise will require the restoration of trust between the center, Tripoli, and the periphery—Libya's towns and provinces. The Libyan Revolution, after all, was a grassroots revolt, and there is still widespread suspicion about attempts to impose authority from above. The establishment of lasting security will therefore hinge on an effective and inclusive constitution process that clearly delineates local and central powers. This is an area where the U.S. can offer advice from its own experience.

Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A frequent visitor to Libya, he served as a U.S. military attaché in Tripoli in 2009 and 2011. He is the author of The Struggle for Security in Eastern Libya.

Image: Flickr/Al Jazeera English.