Should the West start putting boots on the ground to establish law and order in Libya to help the teetering government of Ali Zeidan train a general purpose force that later could maintain security in the North African country?
That’s what David Ignatius seems to be suggesting in his opinion piece in today’s Washington Post, which concludes with a comment from Karim Mezran, a Libyan political scientist and senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, who says Libya is so fragile now that NATO may have to send in its own security forces to keep order until the long-delayed training program is ready.
Ignatius apportions blame between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans for the U.S. failing to take some simple steps that “might have limited the country’s descent toward anarchy. But Libya became so toxic after the Benghazi attack that the United States has been slow to provide help.”
But more germane are the simple steps that Libyans themselves have failed to take since the ousting of Col. Muammar Gaddafi — and no amount of U.S. or Western assistance can make up for them. The original source of the country’s instability and lawlessness rests with Libyan leaders themselves.
In the immediate weeks and months after the toppling of Gaddafi, the National Transitional Council blocked the enactment of security plans for the formation of a new national army through the demobilization of militias and re-training of rebel fighters. The various factions did so in order to retain their power and clout. This was one of the reasons one of Libya’s most able politicians, Mahmoud Jibril, resigned from the NTC.
And ever since then whenever a serious security plan has been proposed the various political and militia factions have sabotaged it, reluctant to accede to a change that would diminish their influence. All too often the militias are seen by reporters as somehow disconnected from politics – but they aren’t: political faction and militias work often hand-in-glove, something I have written about for the Jamestown Foundation among others.
Second, militiamen have also been reluctant to integrate into fledgling armed forces, preferring instead to take a government salary and remain under command of their militia leaders and to have few demands placed on them. They have lacked discipline: in the summer of 2012 dozens of police trainees demanded to be returned to Libya from training in Jordan because they found what was being asked of them too onerous – they complained among other things that they had to get up early in the morning. Others rioted in Jordan because of delays in their return home two days after completing a three-month course.
Third, the Zeidan government and any replacement will remain weak for as long as ordinary Libyans fail to rally round. More than a year ago Jibril told me he feared for Libya for as long as ordinary Libyans fail to protest in the streets in large numbers in support of government efforts to introduce security. I heard an echo of that the other day from a former political exile and onetime rebel leader Abdul Rahman El Mansouri. He told me last week of his frustration at the failure of Libyans to get fed up with what is going on and make clear their anger with politicians and militias alike.
In the end the descent into anarchy is not a Washington responsibility but a Libyan one, and it isn’t American inattention that is a worry but Libyan inattention. There are – and have been for weeks – Western military training teams around. There is a 100-strong EU border enforcement advisory team in Tripoli, for example. None of them are doing much, unable to leave compounds and hotels. It is up to ordinary Libyans to seize the opportunities presented by the ousting of Gaddafi. The West can’t win the future for them.
And putting NATO troops on the ground in Libya isn’t going to help. The appearance of Western troops I suspect would inflame problems and prompt a violent reaction from militant Islamists and foreign jihadists.