In Libya, ISIS is the easy problem

Friday 18/03/2016

While the Obama administration is leaking profusely plans for military intervention in Libya against the Islamic State (ISIS), I have talked with many people in Washington who worry about what to do in Libya beyond killing extremists. It is all too obvious that an air war without a political solution that mobilises Libyans against the extremists could leave the country even more destabilised than it already is.

It is not so clear what to do about that. A political solution is on the table, but its implementation is stalled, perhaps permanently. Even if the diplomats succeed in their current efforts to get the Govern­ment of National Accord (GNA) sworn in, its move to Tripoli poses big security problems, as the capital is in the hands of 15 or more mili­tias loyal to one of the country’s two separate legislative bodies.

Planning for a peacekeeping/ stabilisation mission is ongoing with the Europeans, including the British, French and Italians. The Americans won’t contribute ground troops but rather “enablers” such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance units and whatever else is needed — drones, aircraft, special forces — to attack ISIS.

There is a wide range of views on what kind of stabilisation mission is desirable or possible. Some think a light footprint limited to Tripoli, or even limited to protecting the GNA and foreign embassies, will suffice and arouse little Libyan xenopho­bia, provided the strategic commu­nications are adequate.

Others note that experience else­where in the world suggests that upwards of 70,000 international peacekeepers would be required in a country the size of Libya. A small force unable or unwilling to protect the Libyan population might arouse more resentment and resistance, not less. At the very least, major routes, cantonments of weapons, borders and oil facilities will need protection, either by international forces or Libyans.

Any stabilisation force will re­quire a GNA request, Arab League endorsement and a United Na­tions Security Council mandate. It will need to be able to supply and defend itself, including from ISIS and other extremist and criminal attacks. Those are tall orders.

But Libya also has some charac­teristics that make peacekeeping relatively easy: it is close to Europe, has good ports and a long coastline; it is mostly flat and desert, with few places for spoilers to hide, other than urban areas. The population is mostly Arab and overwhelmingly Sunni.

The country’s immediate neigh­bours — Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria — are all anxious to end the instabil­ity and block ISIS from establishing a safe haven in Libya, though they don’t necessarily agree on how to do that.

Beyond getting the GNA up and running, what to do about the militias in Libya is the most difficult governance problem. The Finance Ministry, which still functions, has been paying many of them. Others, especially in the south and west, have already gone into the private sector, running smuggling and other illicit businesses.

Past efforts to build a united Libyan security force by training people outside the country failed miserably. Next time around it will have to be done in Libya. Many of the militiamen will need to be dis­armed and demobilised, but there is little in the way of an economy to integrate them into. It is vital to re­member that the militias are linked to local patronage networks, which need to be mobilised in favour of stabilisation, not against it.

While the United States and others have the tools needed to kill extremists, it is not at all clear that they have what is needed to help the Libyans sort out their differenc­es and begin to govern in ways that will deny safe haven to ISIS, which already controls the central coastal town of Sirte.

The United States suffers from PDD: paradigm deficit disorder. A hundred T.E. Lawrences prepared to deploy with the militias and help sort out their differences might suffice.

But where would we get the 100 Arabic speakers with deep knowl­edge of the Libyan human terrain? We have all but forgotten what­ever we learned about such things in Iraq and Afghanistan, erased because the Obama administration was determined not to get involved again in state-building in the Mid­dle East.

The Islamic State is the easy part of the problem. The hard part is figuring out how Libya will be stabilised and governed once ISIS is gone.