By Group of scholar (*)

This report presents a city-based model of politics, economics, and for security. It describes a strategy for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. The report concludes with quotes from a recent report by the Libyan National Conference Process.

(The full report can be accessed here).



Libya is not, in and of itself, a top-tier foreign policy concern or vital interest of the United States. It is, however, an important interest, because of its key role in the dangerous crescent of land stretching west through the Maghreb and south into the Sahel regions of North Africa, to the Middle East and South Asia.

This overall region, whether Washington likes it or not, remains crucial to American and Western security—if not quite on a par with great-power threats, then close to them in importance.

Libya has been a major source of foreign fighters and terrorists in Iraq and Syria since 2003, with total numbers of its jihadists reaching well into the thousands—contributing to the highly unstable state of much of the Levant today. Libya has also been a source of hundreds of thousands of migrants to Europe from or through its territory, especially

after the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The vast preponderance of these migrants simply seek a better, safer life. But they include the occasional criminal or terrorist, contributing to European insecurities in recent years, and producing political backlash in many key NATO nations as well as other U.S. and European partners.

Thus, Libya has become a significant indirect threat to America’s allies in Europe and to its security partners in the broader Middle East, and its continued instability will only exacerbate that threat.

Since the death of four Americans in Benghazi in September 2012, the United States has been generally absent from the Libya file, except for occasional and limited counterterrorist actions.

Building on a recent meeting between the Libyan prime minister and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, there is now an opportunity for American leadership, involving only limited cost and risk, to make a substantial difference in Libya.

If effective, such a reinvigorated U.S. effort could help stabilize the North African pillar in a broader strategy to combat violent extremism.

Additional key pillars in that strategy must also be sustained in the Levant, in the Arabian Peninsula down to the Horn of Africa as well as the Sahel, and in South Asia.

Despite recent progress, there remain tens of thousands of Islamist extremists in the broader Middle East who seek to do harm to their region as well as in some cases the West.

The United States and allies therefore need a durable overall strategy to address these risks even after the big battles in places like Iraq and Syria are over. Libya policy can and should be seen in this strategic context, not simply on its own terms.

As part of a new initiative, the United States should restore an on-the-ground diplomatic and development presence in Libya. The U.N. mission there is helping establish some hopeful trends and merits strong American support.

As the major power that is least mistrusted by Libyans, the United States can also try to deconflict the roles of a half dozen or so external players that have engaged in proxy competition within Libya.

Libya’s population is small, ethnically mostly homogeneous, and generally urban and coastal, making the stabilization problem there somewhat less daunting than in places such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

Also, the United States should promote creation of an oversight board and a financial mechanism that would further empower localities in Libya, while also providing incentives to militias as well as other actors to improve their behavior.


Libya has floundered since the overthrow of Gadhafi in 2011, and continues to struggle now.

There are elements of a functional economy and governance, but otherwise only a hodgepodge of very weak central institutions and improvised local arrangements, as militias and other actors compete for the spoils of the state.

As a result, Libya remains in disarray, representing a potential source of terrorism. It also constitutes a clear and present danger in terms of unregulated flows of people to Europe, originating from within its own borders as well as neighboring African nations.

The risk of greater Russian influence is growing with time, as well. There may now be a glimmer of hope, however, as a U.N.-led effort in Libya starts to gain more traction. Encouraging, if fledgling, economic reforms in late 2018 add further promise.

We propose a new U.S. approach to Libya that centers on the concept of reinvigorated American engagement. For years, U.S. support for the U.N. mission has been passive, consisting largely of positive words in the Security Council.

More sustained and assertive U.S. leadership can make the difference as to whether, this time, the U.N. approach succeeds in uniting Libyans and their international partners, including with an important national conference that may take place in Libya in 2019.

As an essential element of this leadership, the United States should return Americans, and a U.S. Embassy and ambassador, to Libya.

It is important that the embassy presence be conducive to interaction with Libyans from many regions and tribes, and that it include numerous political and economic/development officers (as well as security personnel), too.

Consistent with existing approaches endorsed by the United Nations, numerous foreign countries, and many Libyans themselves, the United States and other outside actors should also focus on empowering individual municipalities. National-level efforts would continue as well, of course.

They could build up institutions including the coast guard and perhaps elite security forces to guard key national assets and personnel; they could also continue to promote economic reforms. But much of the emphasis should shift to local actors—elected municipal governments, supportive militias that are willing to abide by higher standards of behavior and cease criminal misconduct, and civil society groups.

Washington should also use more senior-level diplomacy to forge a regional and international consensus behind the U.N. process and reduce unhelpful and competitive external meddling in Libya’s domestic politics.

Because of its distance from Libya, its relative disengagement from the country in recent times, and its relationships with European allies as well as Persian Gulf partners, the United States is the only power that can credibly deconflict, at least partially, the roles of foreign actors.

We propose a city-first paradigm that would not be a radical departure relative to realities on the ground today, or to the expressed wishes of many Libyans.

Rather, it would constitute a significant shift in formal strategy and in political horizon or vision. It would only make sense if and when most major Libyan actors—current government officials, major militia leaders, technocrats in the current government, and other individuals committed to the country’s future—would endorse such a shift in approach.

Significant economic, political, and security activity would then center on the country’s dozen to 15 major cities. Criteria would be established for how local entities could qualify for their fair-share allotment of oil revenues and international aid.

An oversight board composed of Libyan technocrats and foreign experts would assess eligibility based on the actual behavior of the local actors.

They would have the power to dock militias and other local actors a percentage of their monthly allocation of funds in the event of serious misbehavior such as abuse of human rights, interference with normal economic activity, theft, or violence.

Libyan militias and political actors do sometimes have tribal proclivities, but they generally lack the kind of toxic ideological or sectarian motivations that worsen cycles of violence in much of the region.

They are driven more by competition for their share of the state’s wealth, as well as control of the neighborhoods and cities that matter most to them.

Our hope is that many can therefore be induced to change their behavior for the better. Such a process could start slowly but then accelerate, as militias and other actors witness how the dynamics work, and decide not to be left out of the new system.

National-level institutions would someday be constructed out of those metropolitan entities. They would include, ultimately, a new parliament, a gendarmerie, and/or an army.

But national elections, while still important to keep on the political horizon since there is no real alternative method to establish a national government that could be widely seen by Libyans as fair and legitimate, would not be rushed.

Counterterrorism would remain a top priority for the United States and other countries under the new approach. However, it would be pursued in a more nuanced way, with tighter standards about which local actors to choose as partners.

Because the threat of terrorism appears relatively constrained, there is less need to create potentially unsavory relationships with local actors who can help with the counterterrorism mission, but often at the expense of trying to create a more stable state.

Libya may now be in a position where the balance of these two priorities—immediate counterterrorism and stabilization (itself needed for successful long-term counterterrorism efforts)—can shift somewhat in favor of the latter.

Several in our group of authors, while endorsing all of the above ideas, also believe that the prospects for a new strategy in Libya would be very significantly enhanced by the authorization and deployment of a U.N.-sanctioned security force, assuming a request for such a force had been issued by key Libyan actors.

Given Libyan national pride and patriotism, that force should have a narrow mandate focused on protection of specific assets, institutions, and locations. But it would have to be granted robust rules of engagement for self-defense, in order to be effective.

to continue in Part 2


(*) The group of scholars are: John R. Allen, Hady Amr, Daniel L. Byman, Vanda Felbab-Brown, Jeffrey Feltman, Alice Friend, Jason Fritz, Adel Abdel Ghafar, Bruce Jones, Mara Karlin, Karim Mezran, Michael E. O’Hanlon, Federica Saini Fasanotti, Landry Signé, Arturo Varvelli, and Frederic Wehrey.


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