One thousand and one failings

By Hamzeh al-Shadeedi, Erwin van Veen & Jalel Harchaoui

This paper looks at security initiatives in Libya between 2011and 2018 in the context of its civil war to identify security sector stabilisation and development lessons for future SSD efforts and programmes.


Lessons from global security sector development practice

The internationally-sponsored SSD practice of the last decade represents a mixed bag in terms of featuring relatively few examples of long-term, politically well-informed and balanced programmatic interventions. Rather there have been many instances of poorly designed train-equip-build interventions that mostly benefited state security forces, with little attention to security sector governance, non-state security actors (other than as adversaries of state security organisations) or the people’s security priorities.

Many interventions have tended to focus on the state as a proxy for a focus on people – assuming that states will at some point start taking care of their citizens – and on capability improvements – on the assumption that improvements in governance would somehow follow in their wake. In reality, neither assumption has held up in the often neo-patrimonial, violently contested, personalised and fragmented political orders of fragile and conflict-affected states.

Moreover, the practice of DDR has shifted from its traditional focus on post-conflict situations as part of a broader ‘peacebuilding recovery package’ to include settings of ongoing violence with more varied conflict conditions and combatants. Quite a few DDR efforts have been a sort of internationally-funded scheme to purchase outdated weaponry and stimulate immediate demobilisation with limited regard for longer-term livelihood prospects or combatant-community relationships. It is fair to say that a fair number of such internationally-funded initiatives were short-term successes but amount to longer-term failures, a few notable indigenous efforts excepted.

Despite these developments, a number of practical lessons on what successful SSD programmes look like, and how they are implemented, can be distilled from global practice on the basis of a rapid review of key policy and academic literature. These are summarised as operational building blocks below and briefly discussed afterwards.

Four operational building blocks for effective SSD programming

(1) A political strategy to negotiate change – This means that an SSD programme must be based on a sound analysis of the political economy of security in a particular country, including the key interests and actors involved in SSD. Such analysis can subsequently be used to enact a political strategy in support of programme implementation.

It enables navigation of the contested political landscape by linking key interests to incentives. It also provides ideas on how these can be deployed to marshal support and overcome resistance to bring about citizen-oriented change in how security is organised and provided. In addition, it serves as a hedge and point of reference to resist the inevitable efforts elites and armed groups are bound to undertake to politicise any SSD process to create competitive advantage. Both analysis and strategy require regular updating.

(2) Entrepreneurial support within the relevant donor bureaucracy – In respect of programme implementation, it is vital to recognise that the operational realities of conflict-affected countries and the administrative requirements of donor bureaucracies are in permanent tension with one other. To avoid a situation in which this tension stalls or even blocks progress, there needs to be individuals within the donor bureaucracy who can mobilise and creatively overcome administrative hurdles where programme realities require it.

(3) An adaptive approach to programme design and implementation – Programmes in conflict-affected environments face a fluid pace of events, with regular setbacks and windows of opportunity. To adapt to the pace of events and avoid being rendered irrelevant, programmes need to be constructed in a manner that allows for regular and fast – albeit well-documented – adjustment of their objectives and be flexible in how they allocate their resources (time, money, expertise and political capital). Moreover, programmes require regular reflection on, and testing of, their initial assumptions against implementation progress and ongoing analysis.

(4) A long-term engagement, meaning six years or more – SSD programme success depends critically on gaining the confidence of those local and international actors that are essential to the effort. Conflict-affected environments are notoriously low on trust and high on coercion. This means that building relationships supportive of progressive SSD requires time and effort. There are no shortcuts. Moreover, operating adaptive programmes is demanding and requires more time to than linearly designed programmes. Practical experience indicates that programmes need to last at least six years or longer to have a chance of making relevant changes.

As a result, and in general terms, effective SSD requires an initial focus on pragmatic improvements that are realistic in a particular context as demonstrated by an in-depth assessment of elite and people security interests. Such improvements must be pursued in a way that is politically savvy, inclusive-enough, adaptable, long-term and benefits from support that is aligned across donor bureaucracies.

Points of departure for security sector development

During conflict, coercion and violence are used to enable and block political change, and also to obtain economic advantage. This makes efforts to transform the function and possession of the associated capabilities for violence both politically sensitive and delicate. Powerful vested interests will resist it. SSD is by definition a highly politicised process in the sense that conflict actors will try to use it to create a competitive advantage.

The risks of instrumentalization of support offered by international actors are substantial. These risks do not necessarily decrease in the ‘post-conflict’ phase because contemporary intrastate conflicts are typically protracted and hybrid in nature, with violence continuing in certain areas of a country and/or exhibiting rapid changes in intensity. This makes it harder to delineate clear war-to-peace transitions, more difficult to focus on the longer-term, and more challenging to initiate effective SSD efforts.

An obvious point to make is that SSD at national level can and should not take place without either a clear prior victory/defeat, or one/several political agreement(s) that unite(s) key warring factions around a common way forward on major governance issues – such as the distribution of (state) power, the nature and modalities by which it is exercised, the allocation of revenues, and how to reconstruct a halfway functional bureaucracy.

Against this backdrop, reflections on SSD in Libya may seem to come at an odd moment as, since April 2019, the country has sunk back into more intense fighting after years of relative and negotiated calm. Large parts of the country are run by makeshift coalitions of armed actors that feature a broad variety of motives and intentions. Yet, if it is accepted that there is no place for SSD at scale in Libya at present, the time for reflection is in fact propitious because it can be undertaken without pressure for immediate action.

Based on the review of key episodes of the Libyan civil war between 2011 and 2018 and of 12 major security initiatives undertaken in this period, a number of critical observations on prospects for SSD in Libya can be identified to inform further thinking:

Key assumptions underlying the global SSD paradigm are not necessarily relevant in Libya, in particular that a unitary state exists that can be worked with and that there is a coherent bureaucracy (including security forces) that can be strengthened.

The central challenge for SSD in Libya is the fragmentation of the political and security environment with numerous armed factions competing to establish and maintain their authority. There is no permanent material or ideological connection between most of these factions. The nature and intensity of their relations varies significantly across place and time.

While, arguably, the main priority should be to consolidate these armed groups, this needs to be accomplished in a way that takes account of their interests, is reasonably well regulated and contributes as much as possible to ‘people-oriented’[48] security and professionalisation/ institutionalisation at the national level.

None of the modest efforts to strengthen the Libyan security sector have so far achieved these objectives. Instead, many exacerbated the fragmentation that undermines SSD prospects. Past operational and strategic fail factors must be prominently addressed in future SSD efforts.

Building on these observations, Table 2 below proposes eight points of departure for future SSD in Libya. They are relevant to any international actor wishing to engage in such initiatives, both at the strategic level of thinking through what SSD efforts should aim to achieve, and at the operational level of devising how SSD efforts need to be implemented.

It is important to emphasise that these points represent an interlinked set of factors. They are not a menu of options. Moreover, in our analysis they are necessary conditions for the success of future SSD efforts in Libya, but not sufficient. This is because many other pieces of the puzzle required for effective SSD have not been discussed in this paper.

These include:

a) the need for a detailed mapping of the interests, relations and power dynamics between Libya’s top-20 armed groups,

b) dissection of the nature, composition and interests of coalitions like the LNA,

c) analysing political and security developments, in particular geographic areas with their own power dynamics such as Tripolitania, the Fezzan and Misrata,

d) understanding the influence of ideologies like Salafism on the conduct of the war and expectations of future governance, and

e) assessing the precise objectives, relations and type of support of key foreign countries such as the UAE, Egypt, Turkey, Russia and France for particular Libyan armed groups. Together, analysis of these issues will generate the strategic insights and operational parameters necessary to develop pathways for future SSD in Libya.


About the authors

Hamzeh al-Shadeedi is a researcher at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, whose work focuses on security and the rule of law in Iraq. He used to work for the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute, dividing his time between country analysis of Libya and Iraq. 

Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow with the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute. His research primarily focuses on the political economy of conflict in the Levant – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Palestine/ Israel – against the backdrop of Iranian, Turkish and Saudi foreign policy. His work also takes an occasional look at security sector reform, peacebuilding and adaptive programming more generally.

Jalel Harchaoui is a research fellow with the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute. He has been specializing in Libya and covering particular aspects of the country, such as its security landscape and political economy. He is also a frequent commentator on Libya in the international press, publishing widely in Foreign Affairs, Lawfare, Politique Étrangère, Middle East Eye, Orient XXI, War on the Rocks and the Small Arms Survey.


Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute

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