Army offers a way out of Libya’s chaos

A credible central military will help unite Libya in a way that politics have yet to do, and Europe and the US have both an interest and a part to play in achieving that.

Ordinary Libyans continue to pay a high price for the way Muammar Qaddafi hollowed out the state’s institutions during his 42-year rule. Earlier this week, armed men attacked the country’s parliament under the instruction of retired general Khalifa Haftar. Many must look longingly at the stabilising role played by Egypt’s military in that country’s post-uprisings transition.

There are clear distinctions between Libya and Egypt, and the solution for one is not necessarily a prescription for the other. But in the absence of stable government – three different men have occupied the role of prime minister since March – a stronger central military could lead the way out of the post-Qaddafi chaos by diminishing the influence and autonomy of the heavily-armed militias that formed during the revolution.

Attempts to rein in the militias have mostly failed. In March, one group managed to load a former North Korean tanker with oil at an eastern port, broke through the central government’s attempt at a blockade and reached international waters, where they were negotiating the cargo’s sale when the vessel was raided by US Navy Seals.

Twice this year, shipments of weapons – including anti-aircraft guns – intended for the Libyan army were seized when they landed in Tripoli. One such raid was by the militia commissioned by the government to protect the airport, an initiative that was designed to begin integrating such groups into the national military.

Even within that context, the actions this week of former general Haftar, who led the rebel ground forces in the 2011 revolution, stand out. His forces’ use of warplanes and helicopters to attack Islamist rebels shows the country’s air force is not under central control.

A comparison can be drawn to Afghanistan, which was also a nation of warlords and autonomous militias in the chaos that followed the Soviets’ withdrawal. A key goal of the Nato-led force that invaded in 2001 was to rebuild the national army as a cohesive force to help unify the country.

Does that level of political will exist to help Libya, where the state threatens to collapse in on itself? Europe and the US have a clear self-interest in Libya becoming a stable country and not a failed state. Achieving that will prove exceptionally difficult, but aiding and training a central Libyan army will be a step in the right direction.

Published: May 19, 2014 04:00 AM

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