On 6 April the US temporarily pulled out its forces from Libya following the offensive on Tripoli launched by the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar, a military operation that has plunged the North African country into a new phase of the civil war. The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) motivated the move with the complexity and unpredictability of the Libyan crisis, saying that it ”would continue to monitor conditions on the ground in Libya, and assess the feasibility for renewed US military presence as appropriate”.
The withdrawal could be interpreted as a new sign of the US’ disinterest towards the Libyan crisis, confirmed in different occasions by President Donald Trump. However, the recent visit of a US delegation in Tripoli suggested that Washington was starting to reconsider its Libya policy. In March AFRICOM commander Gen. Thomas Waldhauser and the US Chargé d’Affaires to Libya Peter Bodde pledged US$500,000 in rapid non-lethal assistance to the Government of National Accord (GNA) in order to strengthen the capacities of the Tripoli Security Directorate. According to Bodde, who in early April was replaced by Richard Norland in a clear move to reassert US’ presence in Libya, the assistance complements the US$30 million package in ongoing security support to the GNA. The package includes training, as well as other projects to improve Libya’s border security management capability, clear unexploded ordnances and build coordination between security forces. The offer clearly aims at implementing the security sector reforms (SSRs) in a country where the proliferation of armed groups, the failure to disarm and demobilise them and the inability to reunify the military institutions continue to represent a serious obstacle to any negotiated solution.
The latest offer of assistance marks the prevalence of a bilateral approach to reform the security sector. Despite promising, attempts to provide assistance in a multilateral context suffered from the conflicting agendas of different powers regarding the Libyan crisis. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated several times the organisation’s readiness to help Libya rebuild its security and military institutions. However, the offer was undermined by the intra-European rivalry. According to Maghreb Confidential, France (whose government is considered supportive of General Haftar) and Germany raised their objections, in a moment in which both Paris and Berlin were at odds with Italy over Operation Sophia.
The offer by NATO also encroached upon other initiatives that received a preference in the most recent international forums. Talks in Cairo to reunify the Libyan military have been supported not only by France, which explicitly mentioned them in the outcome of the last conference on Libya in Paris in May 2018, but also by the UN envoy Ghassan Salamé, when he presented a revised Action Plan to the UN Security Council in November 2018, a few days before the conference organised by the Italian government in Palermo. Considering Egypt’s high stakes in the Libyan crisis, the assistance offered by NATO gradually became a reserve option, even tough Cairo’s unbalanced Libya policy and its strong inclination towards Haftar cast a shadow over any successful outcome of the Cairo talks.
The assistance offered by the US came at a sensitive time for the US-Libya relations, considering the misunderstanding about the airstrike against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Obari last February. In order to put the bilateral relations back on track, several senior leaders from Western Libya visited Washington, pressuring the US administration into making limited concessions to the beleaguered national unity government.
Among these officials was the Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha, a key figure in the recent efforts to introduce elements of SSRs in Libya. A senior leader from Misrata, Bashagha was appointed in the reshuffle that followed the August-September 2018 battle for Tripoli, a watershed moment for the SSRs in Libya. The fighting marked the end of the previous security arrangements, whose cornerstone was the establishment of the Presidential Guard (PG). Tasked with protecting government officials and diplomatic offices, the PG remained largely ineffective and subjugated to the ‘militia cartel’ that effectively rules in Tripoli.
Following the ceasefire, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has facilitated the establishment of new security arrangements for Tripoli and the approval of the Greater Tripoli Security Plan. These measures were intended to replace the irregular armed groups with regular police and security forces, curbing the influence of the ‘militia cartel’. However, despite some positive results, the move backfired when the main militias joined forces and established the Tripoli Protection Force (TPF). The new group has increasingly come at odds with the government led by Fayez al-Sarraj, opposing any measure intended to reduce the militias’ influence on the ground and take advantage of the war economy. Furthermore, a series of high-profile assassinations in Tripoli, new terrorist attacks and violations of the ceasefire, highlighted the failure to implement the new security arrangements, a circumstance confirmed by Bashagha himself after the attack claimed by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) against the Foreign Ministry’s building in Tripoli in December 2018.
This failure raises serious doubts on the strategy adopted by UNSMIL to improve the security sector in Libya, a strategy that according to Salamé would have seen the security arrangements gradually extend from Tripoli to the rest of the country. However, despite the great attention reserved to the SSRs in western Libya, there have been no credible attempts to tackle serious problems in the ranks of the Libyan National Army (LNA), which showed a concerning lack of accountability for the actions of its fighters. The case of Maj. Mahmoud al-Warfali, a Saiqa Special Forces senior leader wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for murders as war crimes, is noteworthy, especially following Warfali’s escape from prison in July 2018. Moreover, frequent violations of the international humanitarian law have been reported in the most recent LNA’s campaigns in eastern and southern Libya.
The LNA’s militarised approach and the lack of an oversight over the conduct of its fighters, which stems from Haftar’s unwillingness to place the LNA under a civilian command, collides with the principles of accountability and rule of law included in any meaningful SSRs. The lack of attention over these issues and the overwhelming focus on the security sector’s deficiencies of the GNA raise questions about the international community’s impartiality over the crisis in Libya, denoting a shortsighted strategy to reform a fragmented security sector.
Ultimately, internal factors such as the GNA’s inability to rein in militias and Haftar’s military adventurism will likely continue to fuel the conflict, preventing not only the implementation of SSRs and disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programs in Libya, but also any negotiated solution to the crisis. Furthermore, uncoordinated external initiatives have simply continued to translate in foreign meddling, increasing tensions not only between regional powers but also between traditional allies, transforming Libya in a veritable battleground in which Libyans continue to be the only victims.