Pay Attention To Benghazi

by Jonah Shepp

No, not #Benghazi the pseudo-scandal, but the Libyan city itself, where fresh fighting broke out last week between militias loyal to the current government and forces led by a rogue ex-general who wants to excise Islamist extremists from the country’s political life:

Two camps are taking shape: The Islamist politicians who dominate Libya’s interim parliament, and their rivals, who are gradually amassing behind Khalifa Haftar, the retired general. His forces have attacked Islamist militias in Benghazi and claimed credit for an attack on the General National Congress (GNC), as parliament is called. In a bid [Monday] to diffuse the crisis, acting prime minister Abdullah Al-Thinni called on the GNC to vote immediately on a 2014 budget and to confirm his successor, the prime minister-elect, before a recess and elections for a new interim legislature. …

Last Friday forces under Mr. Haftar attacked Islamist militias in Benghazi that he said authorities had failed to rein in. On Sunday, militiamen apparently aligned with Haftar attacked the GNC building in Tripoli. He is demanding that the parliament cede its role to a constitutional drafting committee elected in February; he insists that he does not aspire to lead Libya.

Juan Cole takes a closer look at the sequence of events. Ishaan Tharoor provides some background on the militias:

According to a recent RAND Corp. report, Libya’s militias number in the “low hundreds” — and that’s a conservative estimate. The rebels who fought the Gaddafi regime were never a united, cohesive force. They were at best a loose alliance of various, motley factions: tribal bands, army and regime defectors, armed groups that emerged during certain intense uprisings — such as those in the port city of Misrata and the towns of the Nafusa Mountains, for example — which then became power brokers with guns in the chaotic aftermath that followed Gaddafi’s overthrow. Meanwhile, in the security vacuum, Islamist groups once repressed or marginalized gained traction, launching a string of attacks and assassinations on government officials and other factional rivals in major centers such as Tripoli and Benghazi.

Keating thinks Qaddafi’s paranoid style made the current situation more or less inevitable:

As Robert Haddick of Small Wars Journal wrote in 2011, Qaddafi’s army was likely weak by design. The late leader was always more concerned about coups and internal uprisings than international threats. A strong military with a well-developed command structure could have created a situation in which—as with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt—the commanders pushed him aside in the face of popular discontent. For security, he relied instead on institutions like the Khamis Brigade, a special operations forces “Praetorian Guard” commanded by his son. …

What Qaddafi’s paranoia essentially created was a country with a disorganized and underdeveloped central military that was nonetheless flooded with heavy weaponry. In other words, once a power vacuum emerged, there was a perfect mix in place for violence and chaos.

And yes, by the way, America has learned a thing or two from the 2012 attack:

[P]ost-Benghazi considerations appear to have played a role in precautionary security steps taken by the Pentagon this week as inter-faction fighting has escalated across Libya and in the capital, Tripoli, in particular. The Pentagon has moved aircraft and dozens of Marines to a US naval air station at a NATO base on Sicily in Sigonella, Italy. The Marines were dispatched from a US crisis response team based in Spain that was created in response to the Benghazi attacks.

The State Department says the US is watching Libya closely with the security of Americans there in mind, but that no evacuation decision has been made. “The situation on the ground, obviously, could change quickly, and so we’ll continue to evaluate and update our posture as needed,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.