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Washington Fights Fire With Fire in Libya

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Posted on Apr 15, 2014

Image by ssoosay (CC BY 2.0)

By Nick Turse, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

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U.S. Army Africa timeline of U.S. training of Libyan “General Purpose Force”.

Experts have, however, already expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the program.  In late 2013, for instance, Benjamin Nickels, the academic chair for transnational threats and counterterrorism at the Department of Defense’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, raised a number of problematic issues. These included the challenge of screening and vetting applicants from existing Libyan militias, the difficulty of incorporating various regional and tribal groups into such a force without politicizing the trainee pool; and the daunting task of then devising a way to integrate the GPF into Libya’s existing military in a situation already verging on the chaotic. 

For all their seriousness,” wrote Nickels, “these implementation difficulties pale in comparison to more serious pitfalls haunting the GPF at a conceptual level. So far, plans for the GPF appear virtually unrelated to projects of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) and security sector reform (SSR) that are vital to Libya’s future.”  

Berny Sebe, an expert on North and West Africa at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, noted that, while incorporating militiamen into a “mainstream security system” could help diminish the power of existing militias, it posed serious dangers as well.  “The drawback is, of course, that it can infiltrate factious elements into the very heart of the Libyan state apparatus, which could further undermine its power,” he told TomDispatch by email.  “The use of force is unavoidable to enforce the rule of law, which is regularly under threat in Libya.  However, all efforts placed in the development of a security force should go hand in hand with a clear political vision.  Failure to do so might solve the problem temporarily, but will not bring long-term peace and stability.”

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In November 2013, Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on Libya, pointed out that the project seemed reasonable in the abstract, but that reality might be another matter entirely: “[T]he force’s composition, the details of its training, the extent to which Libyan civilians will oversee it, and its ability to deal with the range of threats that the country faces are all unclear.” He suggested that an underreported 2013 mission to train one Libyan unit that ended in abject failure should be viewed as a cautionary tale.  

Last summer, a small contingent of U.S. Special Operations Forces set up a training camp outside of Libya’s capital, Tripoli, for an elite 100-man Libyan counter-terror force whose recruits were personally chosen by former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan.  While the Americans were holed up in their nighttime safe house, unidentified militia or “terrorist” forces twice raided the camp, guarded by the Libyan military, and looted large quantities of high-tech American equipment.  Their haul included hundreds of weapons, Glock pistols and M4 rifles among them, as well as night-vision devices and specialized lasers that can only be seen with such equipment.  As a result, the training effort was shut down and the abandoned camp was reportedly taken over by a militia.

This represented only the latest in a series of troubled U.S. assistance and training efforts in the Greater Middle East and Africa. These include scandal-plagued endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a program that produced an officer who led the coup that overthrew Mali’s elected government, and an eight-month training effort in the Democratic Republic of Congo by U.S. Special Operations forces that yielded an elite commando battalion that took part in mass rapes and other atrocities, according to a United Nations report.  And these are just the tip of the iceberg among many other sordid examples from around the world.


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