When Libya comes up in policy discussions, the conversation quickly moves toward the state of play in Syria, where the regime appears to be upholding a tenuous ceasefire. Reports of attacks against the opposition are ongoing, however, and could quickly unravel the fragile agreement. Meanwhile, in Libya, efforts to consolidate democracy and stabilize the country are under a growing threat.
The Obama administration's approach to Syria, and its effort to employ coercive multilateral diplomacy, makes sense. Given the perfect storm of threats that underpin that crisis -- from direct U.S. national security concerns to escalating regional instability to systematic, brutal attacks on innocent civilians -- American engagement is essential. Unfortunately, however, the intractability of the Syrian crisis has pushed a very fragile Libya to the side, long before its time.
The dangers of this marginalization are not lost on the interim leaders of Libya, many of whom increasingly acknowledge the need for more help from their partners and allies. In fact, Prime Minister Mahmoud Jabril, speaking to a European audience in late March, noted that Libya felt practically abandoned because of Syria.
Jabril's concern is legitimate and its consequences could be devastating. Since the end of the NATO-led intervention, Libya's transitional government has struggled to impose its authority throughout the country. It is now grappling with ethnic and tribal disputes that have bubbled to the surface after decades of being bullied into submission by Qaddafi's strong-arm tactics. And going into the national elections in June, the country remains fragmented, both politically and militarily, as militia groups retain a level of legitimacy that has yet to be achieved by the transitional government.
Recent decisions by some militia leaders to participate in politics, without shedding their weapons or relinquishing their military roles, illustrates how hard its been to begin transforming disparate groups into a cohesive and responsible security force. Certainly this is an area where experienced actors -- whether international or regional organizations or partner governments -- might be able to provide greater assistance.
To date, efforts to reform Libya's military -- and reign in the militias -- have been ad hoc and sporadic. Sure, sending 2,000 former rebels to Jordan and Turkey for police training can be a useful, but to what end? Without links to a more broad-based strategy for reform, the likelihood that this training results in anything transformative is slim.
The challenges Libya faces are not just about uniting a fractured society. They are also about building responsive and accountable governance institutions out of the ashes of the skeletal ministries left behind. Because of his dependence on a small, loyal elite, Qaddafi left behind little more than a hollowed-out government and no functional civil service. By most accounts, Libya is rebuilding from scratch and it simply can't -- and shouldn't -- do that alone.
The persistent efforts in the east for regional autonomy and the violent clashes in the southern part of the country are a good indications of what Libya's future could hold the political transition fails. In a recent eruption of violence, the south saw nearly 150 people killed and scores displaced. Fault lines clearly, and understandably, remain raw and volatile. The central authorities have made some important verbal commitments and they don't the experience, capacity, or reach to deal with challenges such as these on a regular basis.
Finally, the impetus for the NATO intervention in Libya -- to protect civilians -- must remain a core priority even in the aftermath of official military operations. In fact, if anything, this need becomes more acute in a post-conflict environment. Competing interests can easily give way to a lawlessness that compromises the lives of innocent civilians.
A February 2012 report by Amnesty International documented scores of people detained and tortured by armed militias who remain outside the central government's authority. The most recent report by the International Commission of Inquiry on Libya expressed concern that despite verbal commitments by the interim government, enough has not been done to stop the violence perpetrated by militias seeking to exact revenge on loyalists. Worse still is NATO's unwillingness to investigate allegations of unintended civilian deaths during the official military operations. While the numbers of unintended deaths appear to low, the international coalition's lack of interest in examining such claims is striking. It sets a poor precedent and sends the wrong message about accountability.
Although the coalition military effort in Libya seems a distant memory to many, the ultimate goals of the mission remain vital. We are at historical moment for policy toward the Middle East and North Africa -- where the foundation for new policies are being created at the same time they're being implemented. This means every misstep is just as visible and just as precedent setting as every victory. Qaddafi may be gone but there is much more work to be done and the consequences of distraction could be disastrous. The daunting challenges that Libya is grappling with mean we can not afford, literally, to let Syria -- or any crisis -- detract from our commitment to contribute to the creation of a vibrant and inclusive Libyan democracy.
Sarah Margon is associate director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress. She previously served as senior foreign policy adviser to former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) Alex Rothman is a Research Associate on the Center's National Security and International Policy team.
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