Chris Stevens Death Highlights Instability in Post-Gaddafi Libya: America Must Lend More Support

The death of an American ambassador and other embassy staff has impacted the post-Qadhafi U.S.-Libya relationship. The Obama administration has responded appropriately by refraining from placing blame for the attacks on Libya’s transitional government. Beyond this initial response, collaboration with Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shaghur and his cabinet will likely intensify. U.S. assistance to help build an effective security force in Libya should be a considerable part of that dialogue.

Stabilizing Libya’s security situation is a critical concern for Libyans, the U.S., and the international community. Of particular concern is the possibility that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi resulted not just from an ad-hoc collections of protestors, but religious ideologues with an agenda. President Obama has vowed to track down those responsible. But this is a diversion from the overarching issue that Libya's security is worsening and is directly impacting the U.S.

Thousands of revolutionary fighters remain armed and state security forces are weak.  Libya’s interim authorities have perforce harnessed the power these fighters and their brigades to provide localized security. The interior ministry’s temporary resolution to form a Supreme Security Committee (SSC) has co-opted local brigades under a national framework. But an effective police force is yet to be formed and is easily out-powered by the SSC, which has Salafists in its ranks. Despite the intention of the SSC to absorb militia power, state security remains at the behest of non-state actors. The transitional government has become increasingly incapable of controlling them.  

The combination of these developments with the rapid rise of Salafi strains in Libya is disturbing. And the ease with which weapons can still be obtained to further their agenda is alarming. Salafist have desecrated monuments of the Sufi branch of the faith in recent weeks. More disconcerting is the appearance that the SCC – the body created by the transitional government to maintain public order – provided cover for the acts.

Both the Libyan government and people are eager to solve the security problem and are open to technical and logistical support from abroad. Libyans in fact question why the U.S. has failed to offer more than it has. Indeed, all of Congress’ FY13 budget allocation to Libya is directed toward improving security. Priorities are arms control and protection of vast, porous desert borders in the Sahel region to the south. This known, yet unmonitored transit route for weapons and illicit goods has empowered extremists in Niger and Mali. Yet U.S. assistance to Libya for 2013 is a paltry 1.5 million. In comparison, its neighbors to the East and West – Tunisia and Egypt – will receive 23 million and 1.3 billion, respectively.  

This pittance is somewhat befuddling. Libya is perhaps one of the few Arab countries where influencing outcomes is possible. Libyans in general view the U.S. in a positive light due to the 2011 NATO intervention. Given recent events and the disastrous long-term consequences that a destabilized Libya can have on U.S. interests, Washington should increase U.S. security assistance considerably.

Doing so will serve two functions: 1) Earn favor with the Libyan government and people seeking a security solution, and 2) Help stabilize a country now critical to security in the entire North Africa region.

U.S. assistance to Libya must involve more than just dollar-doling. And the U.S. must not force itself. Doing so could backfire; Salafi elements could easily manipulate any appearance of a close relationship by the transitional government with the U.S. as leverage to turn the Libyan people against it.

Before assessing how the U.S. can be most effective, Washington must first ensure that its help is sought. Former State Department undersecretary for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman noted this just as the fight against Qadhafi wore down in 2011. His recommendation is the most sensible way the U.S. can assist the transitional government while addressing its own security concerns: offer to train Libyan security forces. The assistance is indirect, but lays the groundwork for a relationship based on the facilitation of mutual needs and requirements.

The Obama administration must act intelligently, however. While capturing those responsible for the consulate attack is necessary, the foreign policy objective should be far more encompassing. The attack is a wake-up call to the U.S. to offer more assistance to Libya than it has. The key now is to move forward with a plan for how the U.S. can help to improve the security situation in Libya without a dominating posture that only empowers the agenda of violent Islamists. U.S. assistance must present a carefully considered plan for security assistance, yet in tandem with what Libyans are asking for. Helping to train a legitimate, effective security force is a worthy start.