By Michael E. O’Hanlon & Federica Saini Fasanotti
There has been mildly encouraging news out of Libya in recent months, almost nine years after the overthrow of Gadhafi led to chaos rather than an improvement in governance and stability.
The international community has ignored many chances to help the country get back on its feet.
Now it has another opportunity that should not be squandered, lest a humanitarian tragedy ensue, and Libya once again becomes a gateway of numerous refugees streaming into Europe, as well as extremists making their way to the conflicts of the broader Middle East region.
The immediate reasons for this renewed opportunity come from a series of military setbacks by the forces of Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, which is essentially one large militia operating out of strongholds in the east.
Last spring, Haftar and his forces moved south then west, taking much of the country, including the central regions where oil is produced, ultimately knocking on the door of the capital of Tripoli, a city otherwise generally spared of the fighting until then.
Haftar benefited from Russian mercenaries and United Arab Emirates airpower, and quieter assistance from countries such as Egypt, France, and Saudi Arabia.
Fortunately, various militias operating in support of the Government of National Accord, led by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj and blessed by the United Nations, have managed to push Haftar back, first out of the city center, then out of nearby strongholds, and now entirely out of the west.
The situation is still fluid, to be sure, and Russian warplanes have been seen in the country, raising the prospect of an escalation. With material assistance from Turkey, however, the tide has now turned.
Libya again resembles what had been the norm for a number of years, with a well intentioned but weak government effectively controlling only parts of Tripoli, various militias dominating in one city or another, some oil flowing with production, and the population generally managing to scrape by, at least more so than people in other war torn Middle East lands such as Yemen and Syria can. This means there is an opportunity.
Tracking a similar state of affairs in 2018 as part of a working group led by the Brookings Institution, we advocated a form of governance based on cities for Libya.
Rather than a strong central state with its own powerful military, we favored effectively stitching the country together piece by piece from the ground up.
Militias and other local power brokers that tolerated outside observers, minimized use of violence, and provided security or services to local populations would, under this concept, qualify for a prorated share of the oil revenue in Libya.
An oversight board composed of Libyans as well as outside technical experts would make the determinations about who qualifies for such funding, and who should be at least temporarily docked from some of it based on bad behavior.
A United Nations observation force could also deploy to the country in small numbers, not to keep the peace, but to report on violations and thus incentivize the militias to keep the peace between themselves and within the areas they control.
The situation in Libya does not suggest that all armed groups in the area can lay down their weapons. Their existence is not only a phenomenon related to power.
It goes much deeper. Young men, without a state grid capable of giving them a critical citizenship dimension, have found their economic and social realization in the militias, a sense of belonging that will be difficult to unhinge.
Over time, this system could evolve into a set of municipal governments and small armies or paramilitaries that would then join the coast guard as a truly national security service. The effort would happen from the bottom up and not the top down.
But there are some problems.
Haftar may not yet have accepted his return to a regional power broker in just part of Libya. If he is hatching plans to retake much or all of the country again, he will have to be stopped.
But the challenge is that this kind of idea is not going to emerge from the Libyans themselves.
There is not enough trust, and there are too many disparate actors, all of whom are relatively weak.
None except perhaps Serraj are in a position to request the economic and security assistance, along with a United Nations observation force, that would most likely be needed for such a concept of recovery and reunification.
At a time of uncertainty at home and abroad, and with diplomatic efforts from North Korea to Afghanistan and elsewhere mostly dead in the water, the administration should consider arbitrating a new peace process to promote a vision of cooperation in Libya.
The United States more than other parties is still seen by most Libyans as neutral and relatively well intentioned.
The moment is ripe to give this problem another try, while being more realistic about what it will take to bring some semblance of order to Libya than other previous efforts have attempted.
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow, and director of research, in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, where he specializes in U.S. defense strategy, the use of military force, and American national security policy. He co-directs the Security and Strategy team, the Defense Industrial Base working group, and the Africa Security Initiative within the Foreign Policy program, as well.
Federica Saini Fasanotti is a nonresident fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. She is also a senior associate at ISPI in Milan. She is a historian specialized in counterinsurgency and asymmetric wars. Her fieldwork and research have covered, among others, Afghanistan, Libya, and the Horn of Africa.