By Jason Pack
For a range of reasons, 21st century civil wars have tended to be more protracted and multiparty than those of the 20th century.
One is that the 21st century’s international system is more fractured and therefore promotes proxy intervention while consistently hampering mediation efforts. Another is the decreasing importance of territorial control to the outcome of civil wars.
Globalization, the internet, and the withdrawal of American hegemonic power all reduce the relative importance of controlling strategic pieces of territory.
Of course, airports, roads, oil installations, military barracks, and ethnic heartlands still retain military importance, but over the last decades institutions, economic structures, and media narratives have gained increasing strategic weight.
As a result, many 21st century conflicts are no longer fought primarily over territory or even rival national visions, but for more obscure and hybrid logics whereby control of territory is merely one dimension of a multidimensional, multiplayer chess game.
In such multifaceted wars, it is impossible to bring peace to a war-torn nation without addressing the complex root causes of the violence.
Merely returning the combatants to their antebellum territorial locations will not suffice in instances where territory was militarily contested only to provide leverage over an economic institution or grant one side an optic of victory.
Nowhere are these complexities on starker display than in Libya, where since 2011 the country’s seemingly endless Wars of Post-Gadhafi Succession have not fundamentally been fought over the control of territory, but rather over the control of economic institutions, patronage networks, and the amorphous optics of legitimacy and international support.
Over the course of the spring of 2020, Libya’s most recent round of civil war — the “War for Tripoli” — was militarily won by the defenders, a loose amalgam of forces affiliated with the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord.
But pushing back the troops of Gen. Khalifa Hifter and those aligned to his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) — such as various tribal forces in eastern Libya or the Kaniyat militia from Tarhuna in western Libya — has not fundamentally addressed the underlying causes of conflict.
Hifter’s April 2019 assault on Tripoli was brutal, illegal, driven by megalomania, and cunningly designed to upend the U.N.-mediated National Conference process, yet it did cleverly play upon certain communities’ genuine grievances about how the country’s oil wealth is distributed and how its various economic institutions are constructed.
In the wake of the War for Tripoli, as a new stalemate set in around Sirte and Jufra over the summer of 2020, the real causes of the conflict remain totally unaddressed.
Supporters of the LNA project throughout Libya wished to take over Tripoli, not primarily to leverage military dominance to kill their opponents or carry out forced deportations of defeated populations, but to change the heads of Tripoli’s semi-sovereign economic institutions and to muscle in on corrupt patronage networks.
As such, the 2019-20 War for Tripoli, as well as its antecedents — the 2018 “Southern Tripoli Late-Summer War,” spearheaded by the aforementioned Kaniyat militia, and the 2014 “Tripoli Airport War,” led by the Libyan Dawn faction — were never fundamentally about territorial, military, or even conventional political demands.
They were about gaining access to the fonts of both legitimate and corrupt enrichment: letters of credit, smuggling networks, subsidized petrol, and control of those myriad institutions to which Libya’s sui generis economic system grants the ability to exert de facto fiscal, financial, and legal power.
Therefore, although Hifter and his allies have been wholesale evicted from western Libya, the grievances they highlighted, preyed upon, and took advantage of remain unchanged.
Now that the threat from a common enemy has been removed, the anti-LNA coalition is rapidly fraying. There are anti-corruption protests in the streets and cabinet-level positions have been reshuffled to inhibit popular officials from executing long-overdue reforms.
Moreover, the economic and humanitarian situation in Tripoli is literally worse than ever. Power and internet outages affect whole neighborhoods, prices of essentials have skyrocketed, and internecine feuding among Tripoli’s militias and political factions is the order of the day.
Amid this chaos, the international community, led by Germany, the U.N., and the U.S., supposedly achieved a political breakthrough in August 2020 by encouraging a cease-fire declaration from a new matrix of political interlocutors.
They have done an admirable job triangulating the international proxy political dimensions of Libya’s civil war by getting Egypt, Turkey, Russia, and the UAE to agree to certain frameworks, while largely sidestepping the real economic issues that represent the underlying causes of violence.
Bizarrely, even where incremental progress has been made on economic issues, it has been relegated to the shadows. The forensic audit of the eastern and western branches of the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), conducted by Deloitte, is finally underway, yet it is being carried out amid far too much secrecy for my taste.
Nonetheless, it can still be a useful steppingstone. It is set to run for six months and then to be handed over to the Libyan National Audit Bureau (AB) for follow up. The AB is the body that has a legal mandate to inspect the books of Libya’s semi-sovereign economic institutions.
Nonetheless, the AB is also very much a part of Libya’s current system of semi-sovereign institutions. It is beyond doubt that, over the years, it has prevented many instances of corruption, but it has also blocked many legitimate projects from going forward, especially in the health care and electricity sectors.
More critically, the AB is deeply entrenched in the Libyan status quo and has perverse incentives to uphold the current structures. It cannot and should not be tasked by internationals like the U.N. with further safeguarding Libya’s wealth or holding officials and institutions accountable.
Doing so would only create more structural barriers to systemic reforms and a genuine transparency agenda.
An International Financial Commission
Following on my earlier proposals encapsulated in this re-released draft, I call on Deloitte, the CBL, and U.N. Support Mission in Libya to complete the contracted audit now underway.
Then, rather than handing things over to a newly empowered AB, I call on those three entities to use the ongoing audit and the newly-launched multi-round Morocco talks as the basis for having the main Libyan institutions and political players (including the CBL and the AB) request the International Financial Commission (IFC) that I describe in this re-released paper.
This step cannot wait for a peace deal between east and west — it must either proceed it or be an integral part of it.
The recent plenary discussions being held in early September 2020 in Morocco between the eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR) and the western-based High State Council (HSC) present the perfect opportunity to merge the discussions about reforming Libya’s semi-sovereign institutions into the mainstream of international peace mediation efforts.
Working together the HSC and HoR have the legal ability to replace the heads of the main Libyan economic institutions and they have now publicly committed themselves to exploring ways to do so.
To make their choices more palatable to Libyans fed up with corruption and politics as usual, they should announce that their newly appointed institutional heads will only take up their position in exchange for calling for the IFC.
Once the IFC has been set up, it can convene the top international experts on Libya’s economy and give them a formal role in providing background information and certifying the neutrality, thoroughness, and accuracy of the follow-up transparency and reform initiatives described in this paper.
These subsequent auditing processes should be expert-led (rather than just by professional forensic auditors, who may lack Libya knowledge).
Jason Pack is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Middle East Institute and the Founder of Libya-Analysis LLC. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Middle East Institute