U.S. Considers Training Libyan Soldiers as Militia Violence Escalates

On November 16, Admiral William H. McRaven of the U.S. Special Operations Command said that the United States is currently considering a training mission to Libya. The announcement comes after last week’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, in which Congress heard testimony from government officials and expert witnesses on U.S. policy in North Africa. Security sector reform is one of the most pressing issues facing Libya’s political transition. The government’s inability to provide security and maintain its borders has led to a spike in militia activity, which has included the kidnapping of government leaders and militia promises to execute the law independently in major cities.

As described by McRaven, the program will have two components: training of Libyan conventional forces (ranging from 5,000 to 7,000 troops) and a “complementary effort on the special operations side” to provide a smaller unit with counterterrorism training. Pentagon Spokesman Col. Steve Warren also announced that the training will be done on a rotational deployment basis at a NATO base in Bulgaria. The challenge, according to the Department of Defense, will be vetting security personnel to receive instruction. McRaven acknowledged that “There is probably some risk that some of the people we will be training with do not have the most clean records” but this was ultimately “the best solution we can find to train [Libyans] to deal with their own problems.” McRaven’s candid assessment of potential trainees raises concerns about the program’s adherence to the Leahy Law.

The announcement comes after a particularly demonstrative weekend of lawlessness in Libya. At least 43 people were killed in Tripoli during clashes, with more than 450 wounded. The violence began when protesters broke into the Libyan General National Council building demanding action to curb the militias, which in turn attacked the protestors. The situation was resolved by decree from the local council and the council of elders from the city of Misrata, which demanded all militia groups withdraw from Tripoli over a 72-hour period. When Khalil al-Ruwaiti, leader of a unit in the Misrata Shield militia, announced his intention to follow the decree, other parties appeared to follow suit.

International efforts to help reform conventional Libyan military forces have been explored for some time. As early as last summer, NATO was reportedly considering a joint training effort to be held in Europe rather than on Libyan soil, and this operation appears to be a result of those discussions. While security reform is certainly needed, policymakers in the U.S. and NATO should consider the extent to which training could provide legitimate security forces with the means to perpetuate the violence if further stabilization efforts are not taken. Foreign advisors need to work with the Libyan government on issues related to the integration of the militias, including disarmament and public outreach. Moreover, the leadership of the Libyan military forces needs to have consultations with outside military leaders concerning professionalization and bureaucratic reform, as well as training focused on human rights and the rule of law.

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