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May 21, 2014 | Commentary

Libya’s post-revolution government has experienced growing political instability in recent months, first with the kidnapping and then ouster of Libya’s first post-Gaddafi prime minister Ali Zeidan, followed by the abrupt resignation of his interim replacement Abdullah al-Thani after an attack on him and his family. Incoming Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq was only appointed following a chaotic parliamentary vote and remains a far from unifying figure.

Just as the political climate has quickly chilled, Libya’s new government must also contend with a rapidly deteriorating security situation. To the East, it faces armed Federalist militia groups that have already shown a strong inclination for blackmail, as evidenced by their prolonged seizure of oil ports that brought oil production to a standstill. Along its periphery, Tripoli had shown little capacity to control its porous borders or militia groups involved in the cross-border illicit economy.

In recent days, military forces loyal to renegade former general Khalifa Hiftar attacked Islamist militias in Benghazi, even as allied militias struck targets in Tripoli, including parliament. Hiftar, who famously called on the Islamist parliament to resign back in February, also appears to be gaining allies from both the formal security forces and among independent militia groups, like the Zintan in Tripoli and Federalist forces in the country’s East. Even more ominously, the powerful Misrata militia has announced their intention to take back Tripoli from Hiftar-aligned forces, thereby raising the spectre of the country’s slide to civil war.

Clearly, the government’s attempt to consolidate authority was dangerously undermined by the burgeoning number of militia groups following the 2011 revolution. In many ways, Libya’s militia problem was partially self-inflicted. After all, the transitional government made the fateful decision to place militiamen on the government’s payroll. It also more directly sought to utilize these fighters as interim security providers, by incorporating them into government sanctioned groupings – like the Libya Shield Force (LSF) or the State Security Committees (SSC) – or by using them to fill the ranks of state security forces, such as the Border Guard or Petroleum Facilities Guard.

By establishing these hybrid arrangements with militias, the government undoubtedly sought to avoid a similar situation to Iraq, where America’s push at de-Baathification and the disbandment of the Iraq’s military ultimately facilitated a violent insurgency in the country.

To be sure, Libya has so far avoided the large-scale violence that consumed Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Yet the country now faces a less bloody but equally intractable problem, with central authorities either being co-opted and/or directly challenged by these armed groups. If this trend continues, the country could easily find itself degenerating into further instability. And, as recent events have now shown, even the worst case scenario of a civil war can no longer be lightly dismissed.

Just as important, the government’s decision to co-opt militias also effectively spelled the end of its incipient disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) effort. In the revolution’s immediate aftermath, Libya’s National Transitional Council passed Resolution No. 60 to establish a Warriors Affairs Commission (WAC), since renamed the Libyan Program for Reintegration and Development (LPRD). The WAC/LPRD was tasked with overseeing a DDR process for former thuwar revolutionaries. Yet, despite some lofty training and reintegration goals, the WAC/LRPD’s most enduring accomplishment was the registering and screening these former combatants – resulting in a database of approximately 250,000 militiamen.

The commission provided a valuable service in documenting the true extent of Libya’s militia problem. But its effort at thuwar reintegration, a central part of its original mandate, has proven far less successful. Indeed, the WAC/LPRD only appears to have a reached a relatively small number of these former combatants with its vocational training programs. And its ability to convince thuwar revolutionaries to give up their personal arms and be reintegrated, whether into the private sector or formal security sector, has certainly been hampered by the state’s willingness to rely on these groups as de facto security providers.

Of course, Libya’s inability to pursue DDR and manage its militia problem can be at least partially blamed on the poor state of the country’s security sector, which endured decades of neglect and chronic mismanagement only to be further decimated during the 2011 civil war. In the absence of a strong security sector, it was admittedly rational for the government and ordinary civilians to place their trust on militia groups to provide security, just as it is rational that former combatants would refuse to give up their arms without the security guarantees only a central state can provide.

Yet, by empowering militias, the government effectively scuttled the DDR process and set back any effort at security sector reform (SSR). Hybrid-security arrangements duplicated the functional responsibilities of the military (with the LSF) and police (with the SSC), and also served to complicate their respective chains-of-command while weakening ministerial oversight. Indeed, semi-official militia groupings are only nominally under ministerial authority, which was on display when the government proved unable to curb the activities of Misrata militias within the LSF during the so-called Gharghour Incident or when Petroleum Facilities Guard forces joined Jadhran’s Federalist rebellion.

Militia groups also served to complicate the recruitment process for the security services, whether by constituting a more attractive avenue for would-be recruits or by having their members infiltrate and potentially control key elements of Libya’s military or police. Hiftar’s recent actions have only highlighted this danger, evidenced by the fact that both Libya’s Interior Ministry and its air force and special forces have sided with his rebellion.

For this reason, Libyan authorities and its international partners agreed to take more drastic action with rebuilding Libya’s armed forces: by establishing a 20,000-strong General Purpose Force (GPF), which would be trained outside the country by key donors, including the United States, Great Britain, Italy, and Turkey. This was seen as a necessary means to professionalize the force, inculcate loyalty to the state, and ensure that infiltration from militia groups – as opposed to integration of militiamen on an individual basis– does not take place.

Unfortunately, the GPF is no cure for the ills currently facing the Libyan state. Without directly dealing with the militia problem, it is uncertain what such an externally-trained force would be capable of solving. Indeed, it could serve as just another militia group – albeit one that is perhaps better trained, better-armed, and more inclined to serve as a Praetorian Guard for whatever group controls the state at that point. If the government uses the GPF to coerce or eliminate rival militia groups, it could be the harbinger of even worse things to come.

To prevent such a danger, the international community needs to ensure that other elements of a comprehensive SSR and DDR approach are simultaneously pursued. Various bilateral donors are already helping the Libyans rebuild their police force while the European Union has taken a particular interest in border security, and these efforts should continue. But, to ensure that this does not degenerate into a “train-and-equip” process, greater attention needs to be placed on reforming Libya’s political and judicial institutions – as a means to cement the legitimacy of the state and create greater trust among its citizens, ideally as a component of wider national reconciliation process. Equally important, Libya needs to reinvigorate its DDR process, which when combined with a holistic SSR effort might finally provide the means to adequately deal with the country’s militia challenge.


David McDonough is Manager, Research and Programs at the Centre for Security Governance and Senior Research Manager at the Security Governance Group. You can follow him on Twitter @DS_McDonough.