This piece is part of a series titled “Nonstate armed actors and illicit economies in 2023” from Brookings’s Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors.
As we look ahead to 2023, it is easy, indeed facile, to predict the worst in Libya. Political and societal divisions persist, human rights are flagrantly violated, weapons are aplenty, negative foreign interference continues, the list goes on. Yet, the October 2020 ceasefire agreement remains intact, though not fully implemented, and the prospect of return to the kind of large-scale warfare witnessed in 2019-20, while not inconceivable, appears unlikely. This relative calm offers an opportunity for the United States and like-minded allies — in addition to working on the seemingly intractable political process — to build on pre-disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) efforts launched last year to start tackling Libya’s hybrid armed group quandary.
This is a generational challenge that should take into account several factors which set Libya apart from other post-conflict contexts: 1) Libya is a rentier state in which the majority of the population on all sides of the conflict draws a salary from the state; 2) the hybrid armed groups are vertically-integrated enterprises that have fully infiltrated official bodies; 3) sustainable DDR and sector security reform (SSR) requires justice, accountability, and a decentralized approach; 4) direct incorporation of armed actors into the political process should be avoided; and, 5) Magnitsky-level sanctions should be on the table for those who abuse human rights and perpetrate the blatant theft of the Libyan people’s patrimony. Above all, DDR and SSR efforts must continue to honor the Libyan people’s demand for civilian control over the military.
The Hybridity Spectrum in Libya
Nearly 12 years ago, Libyans rose up against Moammar Gadhafi, the man who had brutally ruled them for 42 years. Though the United States had learned much from the 2003 regime change debacle in Iraq, those lessons sadly were not translated on the ground in post-revolution Libya, much to the detriment of the Libyans and the international coalition that had brought Gadhafi to his knees. Perhaps the greatest challenge since Gadhafi’s overthrow has been the inability of successive Libyan governments to exercise the monopoly over the use of force.
In his book “All Necessary Measures?”, Ian Martin, the first United Nations (U.N.) special representative, has comprehensively detailed the key decisions taken by international actors and Libyans during the critical window following Gadhafi’s downfall. On the issue of what to do with the plethora of armed groups that had emerged, Martin comments on the “failure to understand the armed groups and tackle the full security sector. Here the greatest responsibility lay with the governments that had supported, armed, and directed the rebel battalions and who were needed to provide a strong coordinated ‘diplomatic quorum’; they made no effort to do so, and it was far beyond the capacity of the U.N. to create this.”
By the time I arrived in Libya as the deputy U.N. special representative-political in the summer of 2018, the number of hybrid armed group actors in western Libya had mushroomed by several orders of magnitude from the approximately 30,000 on the books following Gadhafi’s ouster. While the number of Tripoli-based armed groups had decreased, those that remained had consolidated their power in a vertically-integrated model running from senior government offices to the young men toting guns on the street. Hybrid armed groups across the country exacted their pound of flesh from the state in the form of acquiring arrest, detention, surveillance, and intelligence-related authorities, all the while conducting mafia-style activities including the smuggling of people, fuel, drugs, and weapons.
In the east, a larger armed actor, General Khalifa Haftar, was busy with his own project, having by 2018 defeated most of the eastern extremist militias and absorbed into his forces various armed groups and many of the remnants of Gadhafi’s erstwhile army. A Libyan caudillo, Haftar had long set his sights on ruling the country of his birth along the lines of the “army with a state” model favored by more than a few Arab autocracies. Haftar took his best shot in April 2019, in an ill-fated bid to capture Tripoli that ended in defeat after the decisive entry of the Turks on the side of the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli.
Moving toward Stabilization and More Effective State-building
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the complex and inter-related DDR and SSR files in Libya, but such efforts must above all honor the Libyan people’s demand for civilian control of the military. The October 2020 U.N.-brokered ceasefire agreement offered an opportunity to tackle Libya’s hybrid-armed group dilemma. Ground has already been laid with official Libyan actors, including the Joint Military Commission and civilian authorities in Tripoli, to advance pre-DDR efforts, notably during a meeting hosted by the Spanish government in May 2022. Those efforts should continue with the United Nations, the United States, and like-minded allies taking the following factors into account:
- Libya is a rentier economy with a weak, even practically non-existent, private sector and a “state” bursting with over-staffed and negligibly efficient institutions (in 2020, for instance, the prime minister’s office alone boasted over 900 employees). Over 80% of Libya’s working age population draws a salary from the public coffers. Therefore, any DDR effort should factor in the likelihood that armed group members will be integrated into existing “state” structures — in other words, into the very entities that many but not all of them have pillaged over the last decade.
- To the extent possible, the DDR/SSR process should be devolved from the center to local communities. With the national political process frozen, there should be a push for genuine decentralization which can open opportunities for armed group actors to fold more appropriately into the areas and communities from which they hail and which they purport to (and in some cases indeed do) provide protection. Local communities, including municipal councils, civil society organizations, elders’ councils, and women’s groups should be consulted on security arrangements, including the much-needed withdrawal of heavy and medium-sized weapons from urban areas. Local communities will know better than centralized authorities how to reintegrate armed group actors into their milieu, forsaking the gun for more peaceful occupations.
- Caution should be exercised before proceeding with the proposal put forward by some actors, mostly in western Libya, to establish a separate “national guard” in which to absorb armed group actors. Libya does not need a national guard as much as it needs competent border guards and a well-trained and less predatory critical infrastructure protection force. A national guard, with a separate budget and weapons’ arsenal, could evolve into a competitor to rival the national armed forces. This could be a recipe for more, not less, conflict.
- Sustainable peace requires justice. The DDR/SSR exercise should be guided and complemented by a focus on human rights training for those heading to the military, police, and security sectors. There should be individual vetting, rather than the absorption writ large of whole groups into these sectors. Anyone implicated in human rights abuses should be selected out, with a separate accountability process that is part and parcel of an overall national reconciliation package. Armed actors throughout the country have committed terrible abuses over the last decade, from the mass graves in Tarhouna, to the targeted assassinations and the forced disappearance of Libyan women activists and politicians, to everyday preying on their fellow citizens as well as the sickening treatment of African and Asian migrants — all with zero accountability for the perpetrators. Magnitsky-level sanctions should be on the table for all actors who abuse human rights and plunder the state.
- How armed group actors are included in the political process requires careful deliberation — and a caveat emptor. The approach the U.N. took under the Berlin process, with its three inter-related Libyan tracks, was to use the military track — the Joint Military Commission — as the format in which armed actors would be formally represented. General Haftar selected five officers from his forces, while the then-U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli appointed five officers representing the major urban areas in western Libya: Tripoli, Misrata, Zawiya, and Zintan, as well as an officer from the city of Gharyan. In the political track, and in keeping with the Libyan demand that there be civilian oversight of the military, armed actors were permitted to dispatch civilian representatives. Since then, however, armed groups have pushed their way more directly into the political process, with the help of foreign actors who have hosted “secret” meetings between the western Libyan armed groups and Haftar’s military and civilian representatives. When in January 2022 I met in Libya with the armed group representatives who had attended such a meeting in Morocco at the end of 2021, it was clear to me that they were enjoying their elevated status inside the political tent, openly boasting that the civilians would do as they were instructed — hardly a good omen for civil-military relations, let alone a process free from threats and intimidation.