Assessing U.S. Security Assistance to Libya

On the one year anniversary of the 2012 attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, the Libya Working Group (including members from the Project on Middle East Democracy, the Atlantic Council, and Freedom House) sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry outlining critical ways to re-engage with Libya during its transition period. As signatories to the letter expressed, “While security remains a top priority, it cannot be adequately addressed without also focusing on Libya’s political and economic challenges.” The letter calls on Secretary Kerry to “act in line with the commitment [he] outlined in March” in which he “assured Libyans that ‘the United States will continue to stand with Libya during this difficult time of transition.’”

According to the State Department, the United States has provided $170 million in assistance to Libya since February 2011, “mostly in response to urgent humanitarian and security challenges in the immediate aftermath of the beginning of the conflict.” At least $5 million of this aid is security assistance, including non-lethal equipment, conventional weapons destruction, weapons abatement, border security training and advisory support to the Ministry of Defense. President Obama has used drawdown authority granted in the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to transfer personnel protective gear, uniforms, and meals under these regulations. Libya has also been included in the Defense Institution Reform Initiative (DIRI), a program administered by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) that is intended to provide “ministry-to-ministry advising.” And finally, in late September 2012, nine Libyan officials traveled to Washington under the Export Control and Related Border Security program of the State Department NADR program (Non-proliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining and Related Programs). The officials visited several sites in Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona to learn about “strategic planning, integrated border management, and the importance of training academies.”

While these actions taken so far are important, many analysts argue that security assistance in particular is not sufficient to address two key Libyan points of concern:  border control and security sector reform.

Libya has 2,700 miles of land borders with other states, including fluid boundaries in the South with Sudan, Chad, and Niger. These borders are very porous, and there have been numerous reports of weapons smuggled from Libya fueling regional conflicts. The Libyan General National Congress has called for the UNSC-imposed arms limitations to be repealed in order to allow Libya greater agency in defending its borders (Resolution 2009, passed in September 2011, requires advance notification and approval of any arms and military equipment transfers by a Sanctions Committee specific to Libya). Beyond allowing for the transfer of non-lethal military equipment and the provision of technical and financial assistance and training to the Libyan government in March 2013, no members of the international community have moved to lessen the restrictions.

Security sector reform is a second major challenge for the Libyan government. Mismanagement and cronyism during the Qaddafi years hindered the development of the Libyan National Army. Since the revolution further reduced the military’s operating capacity, different amalgamations of militias have taken control of certain security operations, but they remain outside the formal military and have unclear loyalties and chains of command. Right now, the largest groups are thought to be the Supreme Security Committees (under the authority of the Interior Minister) and the Libya Shield (controlled loosely by the chief of staff), but these two labels are more like umbrella names for several different individual armed units. Efforts to integrate these services have been unsuccessful, largely as a result of bureaucratic confusion and mistrust among leaders. Since June, the U.S. and NATO have been considering whether or not to embark on a major training mission in Libya, but no plans have been formally presented. Recently Fox News reported that U.S. Special Forces soldiers offering counterterrorism training to Libyan forces withdrew from the country after U.S. weapons were stolen from a military installation in July.

The U.S. can take positive steps to provide assistance related to these two key security challenges. Rather than supporting an influx of lethal military hardware into Libya, the U.S. should focus on more outreach and training on border security, as well as facilitating dialogue between Libya and its neighbors about border control concerns. The U.S. can also take a more active role in organizing the training of a reformed Libyan National Army, as professionalizing the armed forces will reduce the legitimacy and appeal of the militia groups currently commandeering control of state security. Finally, Libyan participation in programs like the DIRI is essential for security sector reform. The letter to Secretary Kerry outlined these and other points that could be immediately addressed by the United States in its efforts to better assist Libya’s transition.

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