It’s Not Benghazi, It’s Everything

While Republicans played politics, Libya was imploding. Now the Pentagon is readying an embassy evacuation, and the country may be beyond salvation.


This week, scandal-hungry Republicans worked to establish the ninth congressional committee investigation into the deadly attack on the American consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. But the real scandal in Libya may be the one playing out in real-time as the country descends into the bloodiest bout of chaos since the civil war that led to the ouster of strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Libyan authorities, to put it bluntly, have lost control of their country. A revolt by a rogue general against Libya’s Islamist groups has pitted the nation’s vast constellation of militias against one another, with civilians increasingly caught in the crossfire. The country’s neighbors and partners are frantic: Over the weekend, Algerian forces dropped into the capital city Tripoli to exfiltrate their ambassador and later closed all border crossings with Libya; Tunisia amassed 5,000 troops at the Libyan border; and the U.S. Defense Department doubled the number of aircraft on standby in Italy and deployed hundreds of Marines to Sicily in case they needed to abruptly evacuate the embassy, a decision that could come at literally any moment.

For the Obama administration and its NATO allies, the chaos raises troubling questions. Shortly after the alliance intervened to help overthrow the brutal dictator in 2011, the U.S. — which had consistently promised that no American ground troops would be deployed to Libya — left the country quickly without a comprehensive effort to build a workable governance system or internal security apparatus. The beehive of radical militias that operate freely in Libya now pose a security threat to both American personnel in the region and Libya’s neighbors.

Lawmakers could have used their oversight powers to ask administration officials tough questions about current U.S. policy towards Libya and press for a more aggressive effort to prevent the country from imploding. Republicans, though, instead remain focused on the night the U.S. ambassador and four other Americans died in Benghazi and the administration’s bungled communications efforts in the following days. A broader examination of the White House’s handling of Libya would reveal a country mired in internal dysfunction and violence, and a U.S. administration largely powerless to change the course of events on the ground. 

On Friday, Major General Khalifa Haftar, a retired general who lived in exile in Virginia before returning to Libya in 2011, launched an unauthorized campaign against Islamist groups in the country in a campaign that he says is designed to prevent the country from descending into the hands of radical groups. Haftar, the leader of what he calls the "National Army," ordered his paramilitary force of armed fighters, jets and helicopters to root out Islamist fighters in Benghazi in an attack authorities say killed 70 people and injured more than a hundred. The general’s critics say he’s trying to establish a secular dictatorship in Libya, which threatens to trample any chance of democracy in the North African nation. Haftar advertises himself as nationalist who is protecting Libya from an Islamist takeover.

On Saturday, Haftar’s men ransacked parliament in Tripoli and declared the legislature suspended. In response to his vigilante campaign, interim Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni denounced the forces as "outlaws" and imposed a no-fly zone over Benghazi to rein in the general’s air power. As a concession, the interim government offered to nominate a new prime minister, but Haftar has pledged to continue fighting. Now, towns and militias are beginning to take sides in response to Haftar’s insurrection against Libya’s Islamists.

The Obama administration has reiterated that only Libya can solve its own internal problems. "Libya has many challenges, and we’re aware of that," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday. "We believe they cannot be overcome if its leaders don’t settle differences through dialogue and work together."

Last week, in London, Secretary of State John Kerry pledged to do "all we can to help the Libyans" solve their political problems.

"We need to try to accelerate the effort to bring about stability and security and the governance that is necessary to provide the time and the space for Libyan authorities to be able to confront the threat from extremism and the challenges that their country faces of just providing governance to their people," he said at a meeting of the London 11, a gathering of world powers that support the Syrian opposition.

While everyone knows what Libya needs, making it actually happen is a much more perplexing problem. It’s the type of dilemma that deserves the attention of congressional hearings. But while some efforts have been made to examine the woes of post-Qaddafi Libya, particularly by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the vast majority of GOP attention to Libya has focused exclusively on the administration’s response to the 2012 attack in Benghazi, not the underlying causes of the attack.

Don’t expect that focus to change anytime soon. In his announcement about the creation of a subcommittee on Benghazi, House Speaker John Boehner made no reference to the problem of roving militias or a desire to explore Libya’s problems in general.  "The House will vote to establish a new select committee to investigate the attack, provide the necessary accountability, and ensure justice is finally served," Boehner said earlier this month.

While the various allegations surrounding a Benghazi "cover-up" can seem unwieldy, the problems facing Libya are no less daunting.

Since the fall of Gaddafi, Libya has remained an unruly mess. The military and police, which were dismantled during the revolution, are disorganized and weak. The central government commands little respect and wields almost no authority. Filling this power vacuum is a disparate and diverse universe of militias that play off a variety of allegiances ranging from religiosity to ethnicity to locality (such as neighborhoods).

Despite numerous elections in the years since Gaddafi’s overthrow, successive administrations have never been able to govern in a way that satisfies the competing interests of the country’s Islamist parties, which are backed by independent militias.

Marc Jacquand, the United Nation’s former strategic planning advisor at the organization’s support mission in Libya before the revolution and following Gaddafi’s overthrow, says one of the biggest failures in the aftermath of the conflict was not getting the militias to disarm.

"At its core, this was a political problem," said Jacquand. "When we started talking about disarmament of the militias, there was a huge fight within the ministries on who would manage this project. We were never able to get any traction on this project."

With the specter of Iraq hanging over the heads of NATO, and in particular the Obama administration, the West had no appetite for using ground troops to help oversee the disarmament of rebels, Jacquand said. But even if that were different, the Libyans were resistant to the idea of a heavy foreign footprint inside the country.

The White House seems to have understood that problem, and the administration instead unveiled a program late last year that would have brought roughly 8,000 Libyan soldiers outside the cou
ntry for military training designed to turn them into the core of a new Libyan army. The program has struggled to get off the ground, however. A former U.S. official involved in the creation of the program said the administration seemed to quickly lose interest in the program and was never willing to devote the resources necessary to train enough troops to actually help pacify Libya.

"You don’t need 8,000 soldiers; you need 15,000 or 20,000," the official said. "And you needed to get them trained and deployed quickly. These guys didn’t need to be remotely up to our standards. They had to be loyal to the central government and willing to get into the fight quickly. That never happened." 

Another way the U.S. could have potentially stemmed the influence of the militias was by launching a concerted economic recovery and employment creation program. Libya is marred by high rates of unemployment, especially among young men. That presents an opportunity for the country’s network of militias. "There’s a very large population of unemployed youth just sitting around who are very vulnerable to the call to arms or being recruited by militias or armed forces," Jacquand said. "These militias are feasting on these unemployed youth."

However, the U.S. preferred to leave many issues related to the economy to the Libyans and other international institutions. "They really did not seek to play a major visible role," said Jacquand.

One area where the U.S. did play a big role was efforts to round up the alarmingly large supply of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADs) that found their way into the hands of militias. After Gaddafi’s fall, the State Department led a multilateral campaign to hunt down and destroy the leftover shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles from Gaddafi’s huge stockpiles. It was estimated that Gaddafi had 20,000 MANPADs before his regime collapsed, sparking security concerns given the weapon’s ability to take down civilian airlines. "The U.S. was very involved in the MANPAD issue," said Jacquand. 

With the hours upon hours of hearings dedicated to Benghazi, very little of that time focused on how Congress could help provide the resources the administration might need to improve the situation in Libya. The fact that this isn’t likely to change bodes poorly for the country’s future.

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