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Opinion

Libya needs outside help to avoid perpetual war

The abduction of Libya's Prime Minister Ali Zeidan yesterday shows that Libya is unlikely to emerge from anarchy without outside help. NATO should train government security forces. The UN or EU should sponsor a disarmament conference with the militias destabilizing the country.

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Thankfully, several NATO countries have already committed to train Libyan police and military forces so that the government can have some reliable troops of its own. Prime Minister Zeidan’s capture is a dramatic demonstration of how badly such a force is needed.

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Training will not be easy, given the challenges involved in selecting the right candidates and the time it will take to get the programs up and running. An earlier effort to train Libyan police in Jordan fell apart when the would-be cadets got drunk and set fire to a building. The Libyan government and their international partners, especially NATO, nevertheless need to accelerate current training plans.

But training government security forces is not enough. In fact, fortifying the government’s own military could backfire if militias see it as a threat.

Rather than give up on the training, however, the Libyan government could ask the United Nations or European Union to sponsor a national disarmament conference that brings together as many of the militias as possible for mediated deliberations about the country’s future. Most important would be getting the major militias from Tripoli, Benghazi, Misratah, and Zintan to participate.

Such a conference would have three purposes:

First, it would improve everyone’s understanding of the true aims and objectives of the militias that now control the country.

Second, it would reduce the number of arms circulating inside the country. Progress on this alone would be worth the trouble of the conference. It would also aim to get commitments against the use of force in Libyan political debate – in other words, establish agreed “rules of the game” for how Libya’s future will be decided.

Third, it would build trust among the militias and between the militias and the government. This would help reduce the chances that Libya’s powerful militias view the improvements to the national security forces as a threat, and would reduce the risk that Libya could collapse again into conflict. International backing for the conference would further bolster that trust.

It is too much to expect that such a conference would result in the immediate disarmament and reintegration of all of Libya’s militias. It would, however, serve as a first step toward this end, by providing an agreed framework that creates space for real political negotiation without the threat of force.

If security in Libya can be rebuilt, there is still hope it could become a positive force for stability in a turbulent part of the world. European countries have an intense interest in the outcome. (The tragic death of several hundred Libyan migrants off the Italian coast last week serves as a stark reminder.) The United States has a stake in the outcome as well, especially in ensuring that Libya does not end up trading Qaddafi’s tyranny for the tyranny of perpetual war.

Christopher S. Chivvis is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the author of the forthcoming book, “Toppling Qaddafi: Libya and the Limits of Liberal Intervention.

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