By Christopher S. Chivvis, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Christopher Chivvis is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and author of the forthcoming book ‘Toppling Qaddafi.’
The car bomb attack this morning near Benghazi hospital, which some reports suggest may have killed a dozen people, is further evidence of the pressing need for the United States and its allies to up their support for the nascent Libyan state by paying to train and equip a Libyan security force loyal to its elected government. Unfortunately, U.S. support is stalled by Washington’s reluctance to spend even modest sums on Libya, a country widely viewed as rich and capable of paying its own way.
Today's attack, coupled with the strike against the French embassy on April 23, marked a new phase in the deterioration of Libya’s internal security situation, which has been near anarchic since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi. Since the bombing, former revolutionaries have assaulted the Foreign Ministry and the Justice Ministry in protest against the inaction of the provisional government, which itself is paralyzed by pervasive insecurity.
The Libyan government’s failure to unify and establish control over the country’s multiple militias after the end of the 2011 war is looking more and more disastrous as time passes. And by adopting a laissez-faire policy toward security in Libya after the war, the United States and its allies who helped the Libyan rebels topple Gadhafi share in the responsibility for the country’s current predicament.
The best thing the United States and its allies can do now is to deploy a small team to train and equip a Libyan security force that is loyal to the government in Tripoli. Such a force might be roughly modeled on the successful British effort in Sierra Leone, which trained a cadre of several thousand soldiers with only a few hundred British officers in 2000 and 2001.
Unfortunately, funding for such training has been hard to come by given the financial crisis in Europe and the perception in Washington that Libya can afford to take care of its own needs. It cannot. Despite the fact that Libya is an energy producer with one of the highest income levels in Africa, the Libyan government is fragmented, disorganized, and working in highly insecure and unstable conditions. It is impossible for the government to do much of anything, including fund the training of its own security forces.
Ideally, European governments would step in. But while the European Union is planning a small mission to help Libya get control over its porous borders – an important part of the problem – it is unlikely to do much more. The U.N. mission is not authorized to take action. Qatar, whose Emir visited Tripoli recently, has reportedly paid for at least some training. But if forces loyal to the government are going to get the training they need, it will almost certainly have to come from the United States – in the short term at least.
Not taking action will be far more costly than footing the bill for a small-scale training mission today. With luck, someday Libya will be stronger and will remember how the United States provided the assistance it needed to make stability possible. But if nothing is done now to shore up the security situation, extremists will continue to undermine work of the more moderate post-Gadhafi state. These anti-government forces already control large parts of the eastern province of Cyrenaica, of which Benghazi is the capital. If these extremists are not brought under control, NATO’s successful 2011 intervention will start looking more like a failure and the stability of the region, from Egypt through Tunisia and into Algeria will suffer.
Because of its proximity to Libya’s shores, Europe would pay the price of a collapse first. But the U.S. interest in a stable North Africa that is not a haven for radical militancy would also take a hit. It is time to cough up the proverbial ounce of prevention, lest the United States and its allies be forced to swallow several pounds of lingering regional instability down the road.