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Kennedy School Review

Topic / International Relations and Security

Libya’s Compromise


How the Obama Administration handled the Bengazi attack in September—and whether it provided sufficient security—were fiercely debated issues during the Presidential election. Three months later, the election is over but the controversy smolders on. The current target is U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who is believed to be one of the frontrunners for the Secretary of State nomination. Republicans continue to hammer Rice for misleading the public on Sunday news shows. This episode, they argue, illustrates just why she would make a poor replacement for Hillary Clinton.

But the Benghazi attack raises two additional questions unrelated to U.S. politics. One year after the death of Muammar Qaddafi, why has the Libyan government failed to consolidate a monopoly of force? And should the U.S. do more to help?

Libya Post-Arab Spring: Loose Networks of Militias

It’s important to consider Benghazi within the context of Libya’s post-Qaddafi challenges. Libya’s security sector is highly fragmented—a legacy of Qaddafi’s forty-two year dictatorship and the 2011 revolution that finally brought it to an end. Qaddafi deeply distrusted the police and military and allowed both to atrophy. He disarmed the police and discouraged Libyan men from joining the armed forces. To suppress dissent and protect his regime, he relied on an insidious network of Revolutionary Committees and built special enhanced brigades led by his family members and close associates.

When Benghazians protested in February 2011, Qaddafi deployed these brigades to put down the uprising. In the eight months that followed, Libyans across the country rose up to defend their communities. They organized street-by-street into hundreds of militias. With NATO supporting from the air, the militias demolished Qaddafi’s brigades, liberated the capital city of Tripoli, and hunted down Qaddafi on the outskirts of his hometown.

In the vacuum, the militias emerged as the most powerful force in the post-revolution order. They patrolled their towns as well as the airports, hotels, and Tripoli neighborhoods they had liberated. As the heroes who overthrew Qaddafi, they refused to disarm until the aims of the revolution had been achieved. Many were unemployed before the revolution and had little reason to return to civilian life; some engaged in turf battles and criminal activity.

Libya’s interim leaders recognized the need to disarm the militias and build new, professional national security forces capable of enforcing the rule of law. However, unelected and without large forces at their command, the interim leaders lacked the legitimacy and capacity to take on the powerful militias. Moreover, there was everything to be done in Libya: preparations for the first national elections; the writing of a constitution; diversifying the economy; and countless other issues.

So the interim government did the only thing it could: it compromised. Some 100,000 revolutionary fighters were put on the government payroll under two new institutions—the Supreme Security Council and the Libyan Shield Force—which were loosely affiliated with the police and army, respectively. When public disturbances arose, the interim government asked commanders to deploy their militias to diffuse the problems. The militias pledged allegiance to the government, yet retained their original command structures and loyalties.

For months, the arrangement worked. Fighters provided basic security services and mostly behaved with dignity. The July elections were peaceful and produced a relatively moderate parliament. Yet the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi exposed the shortcomings of this compromise.

An Inflection Point

The Libyan government does not have national security forces that it can rely on to respond promptly and professionally in an emergency. Instead, it can only call upon the uncoordinated network of militias which—even if there is no particular ill will toward those in need—may or may not come when called.

With every month that passes, this arrangement becomes more entrenched. Rather than reintegrating into society, the militias are becoming a permanent fixture of the new Libya. In late October, a group of former fighters stormed the Libyan Parliament to protest the Prime Minister’s proposed cabinet. Many are asking: has the “golden hour” for demobilizing Libya’s militias passed?

Security sector reform in Libya is not yet hopeless. It was unrealistic to expect the weak interim government to swiftly disband the powerful militias after Qaddafi’s overthrow. This process will require time and hinge in large part on the creation of a diversified economy with jobs for the unemployed. It is unrealistic to expect the newly elected government to create professional national security forces within one year—or even a decade. The militias may retain a sizable role in the new Libya for many years to come.

But Libya currently has a window of opportunity to address security sector reform. The Benghazi attack focused Libyan attention on the issue; after hearing of Ambassador Stevens’s death, Libyans took to the streets and demanded that the militias disarm. Meanwhile, there are indications that Libyan officials realize they cannot accomplish these reforms on their own, and are more open to security sector assistance from the international community.

Going Forward: Keep Libya on the U.S. Agenda

Now is not the time for the U.S. to disengage. The U.S. should reaffirm its commitment to Libya and work with the new government to identify areas for further cooperation.

Following the Benghazi attack, the Obama Administration committed $8 billion to help create a counterterrorism force in Libya. However, a peaceful and prosperous Libya will require a professional army and police force. It will require civilian institutions capable of overseeing the armed forces and holding them accountable. For example, Libya’s Ministry of Interior needs to build basic human resource management systems. Interior Ministry officials do not know exactly how many police are on the payroll, nor who shows up for duty and when.  The Ministry of Defense was created after the revolution and lacks nearly all of the administrative functions vital to a large government agency.

Libyans are fiercely independent and rightly proud of everything they have accomplished. Any significant assistance programs must be packaged and explained to the Libyan people thoughtfully. Instead of pushing the international community away from Libya, the Benghazi attack could be a catalyst for closer cooperation and comprehensive security sector reform.


Alison Laporte-Oshiro is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. Previously, she worked on security sector reform at the U.S. Institute of Peace

Photo source here.