How to stop Libya becoming another Iraq
June 26th, 2014
02:53 PM ET

How to stop Libya becoming another Iraq

By Michael Shank and Najla Elmangoush, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Najla Elmangoush is the dean of Centre of Gender Studies at the Libya Institute for Advanced Studies in Tripoli. Michael Shank is the associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. The views expressed are their own.

With violence in Iraq dominating the news, there’s little attention paid to the similar implosion in Libya, aside from the usual periodic Benghazi rhetoric. Yet U.S. interventions in both countries have clearly backfired, leaving them all the messier because the U.S. didn’t carefully plan reconciliation processes in either country. And, without Washington’s willingness to engage in some self-reflection on what it did wrong with Libya, we risk seeing the same chaos that is unfolding in Iraq.

Sadly, the West’s neglect has allowed Libyan renegades like Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a former Gadhafi supporter who has recruited other ex-Gadhafi loyalists, to take charge. Haftar, whose is supposed to be fighting the extremists, has been behind the bombing of areas around Benghazi, and leads a powerful militia once part of the national army. He is also using the same language as the West regarding his refusal to “negotiate with terrorists.”

But none of this is helping Libya become more stable. Indeed, the security situation is deteriorating, and this summer witnessed the worst violence in Benghazi since 2011, when Gadhafi’s militia attacked the city. The latest example of violence – between Ansar al-sharia, the most dangerous armed Islamist militia group in Libya, and Haftar’s forces – claimed the lives of 19 civilians, with dozens more hurt.

A different approach is needed, one that brings the fractious groups together, reconciles differences exacerbated by Western munitions that have seeped into the country, and moves the country forward.

Libyans have grown frustrated with their government, and its inability to provide security, is understandable. Many residents live in fear, relocating to safe areas when fighting breaks out.

But a Western-sponsored disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process is not likely to be successful in such a volatile climate, when the perceived need for self-defense remains high. Instead, the answer lies with tribal leaders – the only ones who truly hold sway over much of the population.

After all, it was tribal leaders who brokered the deal that reopened the eastern oil ports taken over by armed rebel groups. They remain a formidable presence in traditional Libyan society, and should broker a process of restorative justice that can heal years of divisive and devastating fighting.

This is no small task – there are hundreds of militia groups, with different ideologies and political visions. But this should be priority number one for anyone who cares about Libya.

At present, the Libyan government is at the mercy of the militias, offering them money in the hope they will switch loyalties and build a national army. Yet money will only make the situation worse if the government fails to understand their underlying needs, which means not just assisting them in overcoming past violence, but also rethinking a system started by Gadhafi of favoring development and assistance in the West, especially Tripoli, over the east of the country.

The first step is to bring together the parties concerned in a dignified manner. Tarek Mitri, the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary General for Libya, announced this month the launch of a political dialogue initiative involving various influential Libyan actors. This is a good start. However, this initiative should be simply the beginning of a long-term process that goes beyond elite and political leaders. Representatives are needed from all levels of government, the National Congress, most militia groups, Haftar’s forces and civil society.

The second step, once everyone is at the table, is to address human rights violations. Violence is now embedded in Libyan society, thanks in part to the weapons flows from the West. But if Libyans are to have faith in the justice system, then a traditional approach – one that relies heavily on the participation of tribal leaders – is more likely to meet with success because it would be operating within familiar local linguistic and cultural contexts.

Throughout any of this, leaders from within civil society, traditional, and local nongovernmental organizations must have an opportunity use their power to prevent conflict and deescalate the violence. If the West wants to remedy the war-torn mess it left in Libya, this is the way to do it.

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Topics: Iraq • Libya • United States

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    Haven't we done enough damage in these two countries already? Now the stupid Neocons in Washington want us to continue our ignominious interference over there, thus creating even more misery than there already is! Enough is enough! Let's butt out, for crying out loud!

    June 26, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Reply
    • banasy©

      Troll name-stealer is obvious troll.
      You will never get the tone of JIF's posts correct. Now matter how long you try.
      Your absurd style (or lack thereof) gives you away every time.

      June 26, 2014 at 4:41 pm | Reply
      • So to clarify

        So to clarify. You think we should start yet another "unfunded/off-the-books" war. Ok. Got it.

        June 26, 2014 at 4:43 pm |
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini@

        Hello, @ banasy, and thank you.
        You used to be around more.
        I miss you.

        June 26, 2014 at 5:48 pm |
    • Marine5484

      Well put, Joey. Yes, we do need get out of the Middle East. In fact, we should never have taken Mohammar Qadaffy out.

      June 26, 2014 at 10:21 pm | Reply
  2. The GOP Solution

    The GOP Prayer/Mantra/Solution: Dear God...With your loving kindness, help us to turn all the Old, Sick, Poor, Non-white, Non-christian, Female, and Gay people into slaves. Then, with your guidance and compassion, we will whip them until they are Young, Healthy, Rich, White, Christian, Male, and Straight. Or until they are dead. God...Grant us the knowledge to then turn them into Soylent Green to feed the military during the next "unfunded/off-the-books" war. God...Give us the strength during our speeches to repeatedly yell........TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH!!!..........and........GET RID OF SS AND MEDICARE!!!
    In your name we prey (purposely misspelled, or is it?)........Amen

    June 26, 2014 at 4:42 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Quite right, The GOP Solution. The GOP preys on the ignorance of the people and that's wrong.

      June 26, 2014 at 10:24 pm | Reply
  3. Allan Kinsman

    The middle East has suffered much under the recently demised oppressive dictators. The United States and other Western countries have spent a great deal of time post world war 2 rearranging borders.. There may be a time when we can add thoughtfulness in the mix. Like other places in the world which have access to monies from oil it brings out a drive for those seeking it's "rewards". When money from oil is used for terror we could make an example and not buy this oil. Our politicians and corporations however have made oil so important it seems we spend all our time, energy and human resources attaining or controlling it. A recent study showed the wind, tidal and solar resources equal to all current domestic and foreign oil import. Now I realize these kind of resources are a forbidden topic and not a cultural norm but at some point could we take a minute to examine the potential advantages of pursuing these potentials? America's drive for oil has provided a narrow long term dismal future driven by the readily available petro dollars to influence a narrow vision of a overall energy policy.

    June 26, 2014 at 7:26 pm | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini@

      @ Allan Kinsman, the clarity of your thinking, your tact, and your choosing the form of a question for this comment tell me that you are aware of the great inertia of business establishment that affects the investigation of these potentials far more than cultural norms do.
      A study may or may not be completely accurate in its conclusions, but that is not the question.
      Of course, I would be enormously happy if my country's natural resources could be harnessed to replace foreign oil.

      June 26, 2014 at 8:55 pm | Reply
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini@

        Oh–have I just admitted to the general public that I don't own any foreign oil wells?
        Shucks. Another mistake.

        June 26, 2014 at 9:18 pm |
      • Allan Kinsman

        Proofs, a very good idea. And, on this site just where would you begin?

        June 26, 2014 at 11:17 pm |
  4. Danro

    Lybia is not Iraq. Lybia while it has many problems is trying to become better. Let's remember that most democratic countries did not become so overnight or even after 2 years. It took the US, France, etc a while to establish themselves. I believe that Lybia will eventually sort itself out. Iraq on the other hand I fear will turn into a giant mess. Iraq along with Syria and maybe even Lebanon will be one huge Somalia.

    June 26, 2014 at 9:35 pm | Reply
  5. chri§§y

    Lmao @ Joey YOU DONT??? (sarcasm) that was funny though. Thank you for the laugh!

    June 26, 2014 at 10:59 pm | Reply
  6. Retired Military

    Leading from behind, weapons out of Lybia going to Syrian rebels (read ISIS), ISIS gaining prominence taking over eastern Syria and northern Iraq, our administration claiming they were caught by surprise, feckless foreign policy by pen and phone. This administration fueled the so called Arab Spring which has blown up in our faces. The near and middle east is in complete chaos and on the verge of a complete free fall. I guess this Administration is more of the JV team...ISIS, not so much. I guess these are all phoney scandals too.

    June 27, 2014 at 12:14 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    Would the monarch be a unifying figure in Libya?

    June 30, 2014 at 11:22 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      In some areas tribal loyalty is more important than national unity.

      June 30, 2014 at 11:23 am | Reply
  8. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    As soon as I read, "stop Libya becoming." I stopped reading.
    English grammar deserves maintenance. The French carefully protect their language. Why can't we?

    June 28, 2014 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  9. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    Well, I was less than candid.
    I have to admit that, because my replying was observed.
    Mea culpa.

    June 28, 2014 at 5:22 pm | Reply

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