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Wed February 26, 2014
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Outmanned And Outgunned, Libya Struggles To Fix Its Broken Army

Originally published on Wed February 26, 2014 10:34 am

In Libya, disputes are settled by guns.

On a recent day, just west of Tripoli, the Libyan capital, gunfire erupts, a battle between two families. It builds for hours; people run for cover. No one intervenes — even though a Libyan army base is just a mile away.

Inside that military camp in a town called Zawiya are 230 young men from across the North African nation, part of the government effort to address the country's most glaring problem: an almost nonexistent security force.

Three years since the fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Libya remains in crisis, a country with a lot of oil but little security. Most areas are still under the loose control of local warlords and militias.

Building a real national military would help solve the problem. While world powers are trying to help with training and equipment, progress is proceeding at a glacial pace.

In part, that's because the Libyans are starting from scratch.

Gadhafi used to worry that the same force he had used to seize control of the country 45 years ago would ultimately overthrow him. So he gutted the army, which was degraded further by the NATO bombing campaign in 2011 that led to the toppling of his regime. And then weapons stockpiles were looted, sending a flood of guns and heavy weaponry all over Libya.

Looking at the army now, there's clearly something missing. There are many older officers, defectors from Gadhafi's army. There are recruits that are barely out of their teens. But there's no one in between.

The real force is in the dozens of militias scattered across the country.

During an interview at the chief of staff's office in Tripoli, spokesman Col. Ali al-Shekhi lays out the obstacles.

"The biggest challenge is the widespread diffusion of weapons," he says. "And there is not much unity, so there are forces that have loyalty to the tribes or areas, and it is hard to break them up."

Since Gadhafi's death, security has been franchised out to the so-called revolutionaries who fought him. The government is paying them even as it tries to dismantle them. But the militias don't trust the authorities to share power.

Meanwhile, the militias' loyalties are divided. Some respond to the government, others to individual parliamentarians in the opposition. Some are loyal only to tribe, city and self.

It's not that Libya is a failed state, analysts and Libyan officials say — it's that the state still hasn't emerged.

The elected Congress has done little to build a democracy from the ruins of a dictatorship. It was only last week that Libyans elected the committee that's supposed to write its constitution.

The government pays the militias out of fear and necessity, and to keep some influence over them. But that hasn't stopped the armed groups from repeatedly bursting into the National Congress with guns and besieging ministries. The prime minister was kidnapped for a few hours in the fall, and the militia suspected of doing it is one of many actually on the government's payroll.

When asked how big the Libyan army is right now, Shekhi says he doesn't know. The ministry pays at least 180,000 people, but many of those salaries are for members of Gadhafi's old army; the actual number is just a fraction of those forces.

Down the hall from Shekhi's office, military officers talk to British consultants — apparently military liaisons — about training.

A video plays on the TV showing militia members, wearing mismatched military uniforms and carrying rocket-propelled grenades. It's security footage from inside a local TV station that has been critical of militias. It was raided the night before, ransacked and attacked with RPGs. The whole incident was caught on security cameras and broadcast on air. It's unlikely anyone will be arrested.

The officers watch nonchalantly and flip the channel.

It's the same story with the police, who are ill-equipped and unable to rival the weapons on the street. Libyans live through abductions and shootouts daily.

Defense Minister Abdullah al-Thani says the army is in the "beginning of its inception."

"It has been systematically marginalized and dismantled for over 42 years by the Gadhafi regime," he says.

The embattled government is pinning its hopes on the new so-called General Purpose Force. The plan is to send about 20,000 men abroad for training with the help of Turkey, Italy and others. Libya has asked the U.S. to train 6,000 to 8,000 of these men.

But Thani says there are so many hurdles. Many young trainees are being sent overseas to get them away from families and tribes. The Libyan military also hopes to train 10,000 men domestically each year.

This is all taking place as the state continues to try to integrate militia members into the security forces or back into civilian life. So far, this effort has largely failed and remains the most difficult task.

"As soon as they are assured the state is strong and the army is strong, they will hand over their arms and return to their affairs," Thani says. "But Libya is going through a difficult phase with many challenges."

It will take five to six years for things to improve, Thani says.

"The world wants Libya to [become] a state between a night and a day," he says. "That's impossible."

Back at the military base near Zawiya, the young recruits march proudly through an asphalt parking lot to the beat of a drum, saluting their aging Libyan instructors. Destroyed tanks and walls riddled with bullets surround them, relics of the civil war that followed the uprising against Gadhafi's abusive regime.

Col. Mustapha Saleh is the lead trainer in this small military camp. The men live here for five months in the hopes that the training will forge a loyalty to Libya rather than region, tribe and ideology.

Outside, a ferocious gun battle breaks out once again. On the side of the road, a woman quickly pulls her children from school and speeds off.

As the gunfire gets louder, there are no security forces to be seen, so young men from the neighborhood lean over a fence and direct traffic away from the fight.

The battle started when someone was killed and his family sought revenge.

This is how disputes are settled in Libya; for now, the only kind of justice is the vigilante kind.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're going to spend some time this morning learning about the difficulty of building a military from the ground up, and also the risk a country faces in the absence of a strong military. Libya found its place in the Arab Spring narrative when its dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, fell. But three years later, that country is unstable, to say the least. Most areas are still under the loose control of local warlords and militias. Libya's weak central government is trying to build a national military force, and although world powers are helping with training and equipment, it's been slow going. NPR's Leila Fadel spent time with Libya's fledgling army, and she brings us this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: This is how disputes are settled in Libya: guns. It's a battle between two families. It builds for hours, and people run for cover. No one intervenes, even though just a mile away is a Libyan army base. Inside that military camp, just west of Tripoli, in a town called Zawiya, is what the government hopes will address the country's most glaring problem: an almost non-existent security force.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING)

FADEL: It's 230 young men in matching green uniforms marching in unison. They came here from across this North African nation.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: One by one, the recruits say their names and where they're from. They come from Benghazi in the east, Sabha in the south, Jufra in the center. They're young and soft-spoken as they stand at attention in straight lines and spanking-new uniforms. Asked why they joined the fledgling army, the answer is always the same.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: To protect Libya. But they're starting from scratch. Moammar Gadhafi used to worry that the same force he had used to seize control of the country 45 years ago would ultimately overthrow him. So, he gutted the army. It was degraded further by the NATO bombing campaign in 2011 that led to regime change. And then weapon stockpiles were looted, sending a flood of guns and heavy weaponry all over Libya. Looking at the army now, there's something missing. You see a lot of older officers, defectors from Gadhafi's army, and then recruits that are barely out of their teens. But there's not really anything in between. The real force is in the militias, dozens of them across the country. Back in Tripoli at the chief of staff's office, I meet spokesman Colonel Ali al-Shekhi.

COLONEL ALI AL-SHEKHI: (Through translator) The biggest challenge is the widespread diffusion of weapons. And there is not much unity, so there are forces that have loyalty to the tribes or areas, and it is hard to break them up.

FADEL: Since Gadhafi's death, security is franchised out to the so-called revolutionaries who fought him. The government is paying them, even as it tries to dismantle them. But the militias don't trust the authorities to share power. Meanwhile, their loyalties are divided. Some respond to the government, others to individual parliamentarians in the opposition. Some are loyal only to tribe, city and self.

It's not that it's a failed state, analysts and Libyan officials say. It's that the state still hasn't emerged. The elected congress has done little build a democracy from the ruins of the dictatorship. And it was only last week Libyans elected the body that's supposed to write the constitution. The government pays the militias out of fear, necessity and to keep some influence over them. But that hasn't stopped the armed groups from repeatedly bursting into the Congress with guns and besieging ministries. The prime minister was kidnapped for a few hours in the fall, and the militia suspected of doing it is one of the many actually on the government's payroll. I asked Ali al-Shekhi how big the Libyan army is right now.

AL-SHEKHI: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: He doesn't know. The ministry pays at least 180,000 people, but a lot of those salaries are for members of Gadhafi's old army. The actual number is just a fraction of those forces. Down the hall from Shekhi's office, military officers talk to British consultants - apparently military liaisons - about training.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Do we think troops will be there on Sunday the 16th?

FADEL: On the television, a video plays of militia members wearing mismatched military uniforms and carrying rocket-propelled grenades. It's security footage from inside a local channel that has been critical of militias. It was raided the night before, ransacked and attacked with RPGs. The whole incident was caught on security cameras and aired on TV, but it's unlikely anyone will be arrested. The officers watch nonchalantly and flip the channel. And with the police, same story: ill-equipped and unable to rival the weapons on the streets. Libyans live through abductions and shootouts daily. Defense Minister Abdullah al-Thani meets NPR to talk about the challenges.

ABDULLAH AL-THANI: (Through translator) The army is in the beginning of its inception, because it's been systematically marginalized and dismantled for over 42 years by the Gadhafi regime.

FADEL: The embattled government is pinning all its hopes on the new so-called General Purpose Force. The plan is to train up about 20,000 men abroad with the help of Turkey, Italy and others. Libya has asked the U.S. to train six to 8,000 of those men.

AL-THANI: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: But Thani says there are so many hurdles. Many young trainees are being sent abroad to get them away from families and tribes. They also hope to train 10,000 men internally each year. This as the state continues to try to integrate militia members into the security forces or back to civilian life. So far, this has largely failed, and it remains the most difficult task.

AL-THANI: (Through translator) As soon as they are assured the state is strong and the army is strong, they will hand over their arms and return to their affairs. But Libya is going through a difficult phase, with many challenges.

FADEL: Thani says it will take five to six years for things to improve.

AL-THANI: (Through translator) The world wants Libya to be a state overnight. That's impossible.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

FADEL: Back at the base, the young recruits march proudly through an asphalt parking lot to the beat of a drum, saluting their ageing Libyan instructors who stand on a stage looking down on them. Around them are relics of the civil war that followed an uprising against Gadhafi's abusive regime: destroyed tanks and walls riddled with bullets. Colonel Mustapha Saleh is the lead trainer in this small military camp. The men live and train here for five months in the hopes that it will forge a loyalty to Libya rather than region, tribe and ideology.

COLONEL MUSTAPHA SALEH: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: When I ask about the gunfire outside, that fight between families that we can hear going on nearby, we're told don't worry. It's just a personal feud. But when we leave, we run into a ferocious gun battle.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

FADEL: The sounds get closer as we drive and try to navigate our way out of Zawiya. On the side of the road, a woman quickly pulls her children from school and speeds off.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

FADEL: As the gunfire gets louder, there are no security forces to be seen, so young men from the neighborhood lean over a fence and direct traffic away from the fight. Civilians have to fend for themselves. It is a battle that started when someone was killed and his family sought revenge. This is how disputes are settled in Libya. The only kind of justice is the vigilante kind. Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.