“The biggest obstacle to confronting ISIS is Libya’s broken state”

An interesting piece discusses how to best intervene in Libya.

It starts, “In recent weeks, a succession of U.S. and European officials have warned that military operations to stop the creeping advance of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the shattered North African state of Libya are imminent. Since the summer of 2014, ISIS has exploited a governance vacuum and a factional civil war in Libya to expand what was once just a toehold into a foothold. It has clashed with, and in some areas displaced, older jihadist groups affiliated with al Qaeda. It has used Libya’s lawlessness to attract foreign recruits, conduct training, and plot operations abroad. ISIS now controls the central coastal city of Sirte and is attacking the nearby petroleum facilities to prevent much-needed revenue from reaching Libya’s central bank. And perhaps most worrisome, U.S. officials recently stated that ISIS has sent hundreds of fighters from Iraq and Syria to Libya in a calculated fallback strategy; the total number ISIS fighters in Libya is estimated between 3,000 and 6,500″.

Correctly the authors write that “There’s no doubt that the ISIS presence demands a forcible response, above all from Libyans themselves, backed by Western support. That assistance is likely to involve special operations forces—who are reportedly already on the ground—liaising with, training, and advising Libyan units, backed by aircraft using precision-guided munitions. But this approach carries great risks. The West must proceed carefully, or else it could exacerbate Libya’s political fractures, encourage warlordism, or undermine attempts to re-establish a single government and lay the basis for a cohesive and civilian-controlled military. Any strategy to tackle ISIS should first aim at bridging Libyan political divides and channeling assistance in a way that promotes cooperation between rival forces. For Libyans and Western governments alike, the biggest obstacle to confronting ISIS is Libya’s broken state”.

They note that “For the past year and half, the country has been split into two loose constellations of political factions and armed actors. The first is the Tripoli-based “Dawn” coalition, which comprises Islamist fighters and militias from the western part of the country. The second is the “Dignity” umbrella, which is drawn from eastern tribes, federalists, some western militias, and Qaddafi-era officers recruited into a self-styled “Libyan National Army” led by General Khalifa Hifter. In the past year, internal power struggles have fractured these two groups to the point that they exist only in name. Worse, both have been so focused on preventing rivals from gaining ground that they’ve allowed ISIS to expand, often cynically using the terrorist group’s presence to accuse their adversaries of collusion. Representatives from the two sides recently signed a UN-brokered agreement to form a unity government, which, Western officials hope, will soon issue a formal invitation for military assistance. But the unity agreement is fragile and incomplete, having been pushed through under Western pressure despite resistance from key local players. The Presidency Council, the nine-member executive body established by the agreement, has started to falter before even having managed to form a government. Unless it can obtain the formal support of Libya’s two rival legislatures and take office in the capital, Tripoli, the unity government will be widely perceived as a Western puppet”.

The writers make the point that “Two options are currently on the table: a training program to stand up new army units loyal to the government and a counterterrorism effort focused on providing assistance to those forces on the ground that are most capable and most willing to confront ISIS. Neither option offers a remedy to the problem of factionalism in Libya’s security sector—and both could make matters worse. The training program is based on the flawed premise that Libya lacks skilled fighters. In fact, it has lacked governments capable of bringing skilled fighters under state control. A Western training effort in 2013–14 to build a national army—the so-called general purpose force—failed because there were no national structures for recruits to join: rival political interests in Libya’s state institutions had turned the security sector into a hodge-podge of factional militias. Another training program risks simply repeating this error unless the Presidency Council can agree on a realistic roadmap for building a unified and professional military. In the best-case scenario, such efforts would result in a reliable military for future governments to use. But it would not offer an immediate response to the urgent ISIS threat”.

The writers go on to argue “Counterterrorism assistance must proceed hand-in-hand with building inclusive political and security institutions. The two should be mutually reinforcing. Instead of a training mission or a direct intervention in the form of airstrikes, the West’s priority should be to support the establishment of integrated structures and units in the security sector. At the political level, that will require intensive engagement to overcome the standoff over the army leadership and promote cooperation between representatives of rival factions in the Presidency Council, its government, and the military command. On the ground, the West must tie assistance for the fight against ISIS to a process of integration of armed groups”.

He notes the need for co-ordinated foreign assistance and that “Western involvement in Libya should be geared toward supporting the unity government, which will need to back any efforts to promote battlefield coordination among regional militias. No single faction should receive assistance unless it is considered both neutral in local power struggles and loyal to the unity government. Further, if the government makes progress on re-unifying command structures, Western assistance should flow through a national chain of command, rather than directly to regional coordination centers. Of course, if the council remains paralyzed by internal divisions or the agreement collapses, the Western backed regional coordination centers will have no chance of ever evolving into a foundation for an integrated military. At the very least, however, the strategy will reduce the risk that military assistance will widen political rifts and contribute to the failure of the unity government. Alarmist assessments of ISIS in Libya should not lead to a hasty and heavy-handed intervention. ISIS may be expanding its presence in Libya, but it has not been able tap into the popular discontent of broad segments of the population—yet”.


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