The US may never train a single Libyan militiaman in the Canary Islands, but the plan to create yet one more armed group to inject into Libya's already fractious sea of competing militias is going forward—and is fraught with peril.
For more than half a year, a militia controlled the three largest ports in Libya. Other militiamen have killed unarmed protesters. Some have emptied whole towns of their residents. Others work with criminal gangs, smuggling drugs, carrying out kidnappings for ransom, and engaging in human trafficking. Still others have carried out arbitrary arrests, conducted torture, and been responsible for deaths in detention. Armed men have also murdered foreigners, targeted Christian migrants, and fought pro-government forces. Many have attacked other nascent state institutions. Last month, for instance, militiamen stormed the country's national assembly, forcing its relocation to a hotel. (That assault was apparently triggered by a separate unidentified group, which attacked an anti-parliament sit-in, kidnapping some of the protesters.)
Some militias have quasi-official status or are beholden to individual parliamentarians. Others are paid by and support the rickety Libyan government. That government is also reportedly engaging in widespread abuses, including detentions without due process and prosecutions to stifle free speech, while failing to repeal Qaddafi-era laws that, as Human Rights Watch has noted, "prescribe corporal punishment, including lashing for extramarital intercourse and slander, and amputation of limbs."
Most experts agree that Libya needs assistance in strengthening its central government and the rule of law. "Unless the international community focuses on the need for urgent assistance to the justice and security systems, Libya risks the collapse of its already weak state institutions and further deterioration of human rights in the country," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said recently. How to go about this remains, however, at best unclear.
"Our Defense Department colleagues plan to train 5,000 to 8,000 general purpose forces," Anne Patterson, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year, noting that the US would "conduct an unprecedented vetting and screening of trainees that participate in the program." But Admiral William McRaven, her "Defense Department colleague," has already admitted that some of the troops to be trained will likely not have "the most clean record."
In the wake of failed full-scale conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military has embraced a light-footprint model of warfare, emphasizing drone technology, Special Operations forces, and above all the training of proxy troops to fight battles for America's national security interests from Mali to Syria—and soon enough, Libya as well.
There are, of course, no easy answers. As Berny Sebe notes, the United States "is among the few countries in the world which have the resources necessary to undertake such a gigantic task as training the new security force of a country on the brink of civil war like Libya." Yet the US has repeatedly suffered from poor intelligence, an inability to deal effectively with the local and regional dynamics involved in operations in the Middle East and North Africa, and massive doses of wishful thinking and poor planning. "It is indeed a dangerous decision," Sebe observes, "which may add further confusion to an already volatile situation."
A failure to imagine the consequences of the last major US intervention in Libya has, perhaps irreparably, fractured the country and sent it into a spiral of violence leading to the deaths of Americans, among others, while helping to destabilize neighboring nations, enhance the reach of local terror groups, and aid in the proliferation of weapons that have fueled existing regional conflicts. Even Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Amanda Dory admitted at a recent Pentagon press briefing that the fallout from ousting Qaddafi has been "worse than would have been anticipated at the time." Perhaps it should be sobering as well that the initial smaller scale effort to help strengthen Libyan security forces was an abject failure that ended up enhancing, not diminishing, the power of the militias.
There may be no nation that can get things entirely right when it comes to Libya but one nation has shown an unnerving ability to get things wrong. Whether outside of Tripoli, in Bulgaria, the Canary Islands, or elsewhere, should that country really be the one in charge of the delicate process of building a cohesive security force to combat violent, fractious armed groups? Should it really be creating a separate force, trained far from home by foreigners, and drawn from the very militias that have destabilized Libya in the first place?
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Nation Institute. A 2014 Izzy Award winner, his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Nation, at the BBC, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (now in paperback).
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones's They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America's Wars—The Untold Story.To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.