Libya: Make It Go Away

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April 5, 2018: The country is still chaotic because of the hundreds of militias and private armies operating with little supervision. Many of these are unifying behind what is left of the GNA (Government of National Accord) in Tripoli in an effort to survive. While many Western nations consider the LNA (Libyan National Army), or at least some of its commanders, to be war criminals the fact is that pro-GNA faction leaders are no better and often a lot worse. The Arab nations that have long supported the LNA and its creator Khalifa Hiftar understand this and the fact that Hiftar is simply a more effective military leaders and, after living in the U.S. for over a decade, knows first-hand what works. Most Libyans, having little or no personal experience of a much less corrupt and more productive Western economy, just want someone to make all the chaos and pain go away. There is no easy way to make that happen. A first step would be to form a united government. That is still a work in progress.

The major obstacle to a united government are the many Islamic militias of Misrata. There are over 500 officially recognized (registered) militias in Libya. That is not all of them but is more than half and comprises about 80 percent of the armed manpower in Libya. The problem is that about half the registered militia are from one coastal city ; Misrata. The third largest city in Libya (after Tripoli and Benghazi ) it has a peacetime population of 2 8 0,000). The Misrata militias have a lot of members who support Islamic conservatism , but not something as extreme as ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) . During the 2011 rebellion the Misrata militias were the most numerous and experienced in Libya and did most of the fighting and took most of the casualties. In 2016 they did the same against ISIL in Sirte. Most other militias in the country are for local defense and often run by men who see this as an opportunity to steal.

There is a major problem in that the Misrata militias contained a lot of people who supported an “Islamic government” and a lot of Libyans do not trust the Misrata militias because of this. Neither does general Hiftar and the LNA. The UN backed GNA government in Tripoli has long depended on Misrata for dependable armed forces to deal with outlaw militiad in general and the more extreme Islamic groups in particular. Libyans note that the late dictator Kaddafi based his rule on being able to portray himself as an “Islamic” leader. Thus for decades Kaddafi used Islam to justify his many excesses. Libyans see the Misrata militias trying to do the same and are more inclined to side with Hiftar and an elected government. But the Misrata militias are still a major force in western Libya and opposition to Hiftar unites most of them.

Shrink The Black Market

A major motivation to restoring public order is to shut down the criminal gangs that are using kidnapping, extortion, embezzlement, smuggling (especially illegals headed for Europe) and outright theft to enrich themselves. UN experts and most Libyans agree that this means the black markets and all the outlaw groups are moving large quantities of cash through Libya. Some of it stays in Libya to finance the local criminal activities while most goes to foreign bank accounts that are deliberately difficult to track down. Libyans fear that their leaders are stealing much of the oil income and foreign aid and using this underground economy to get the loot out of the country. Some of this does happen but no one is sure how much. Shutting down this shadow economy is necessary to get the pre-war economy going again. To do that requires a united government that can bring it all under control. Currently the Central Bank of Libya and the Audit Bureau (created to audit financial institutions for evidence of corruption) are deadlocked because of disagreements over procedure and the extent of the Audit Bureau power to summon bank officials for interrogation and access to the bank databases and logs. So far the auditors are being blocked by judges who side with the banks and this sort of thing appears to be another sign of widespread corruption. Shutting down the illegal economy is a great idea but no one knows how to make it happen.

Optimism Versus Reality

Despite seven years of chaos and fighting Libya did rather well (ranking 70 out of 156) on the UN sponsored World Happiness Index. The top ten are all the usual suspects (Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia). Ironically Israel is the least miserable nation in the Arab world (being 11th on the world list). However last year Algeria was the happiest state in Africa but this year fell to third. Number one was Mauritius, which is a tiny (population 1.3 million) island state off East Africa that has been well run and prosperous because of tourism and has been generally peaceful since it became independent 50 years ago. Libya is now number two and has since 2011 been seen as chaotic and an Islamic terrorist haven but in 2017 the situation improved a lot and that was reflected in Happiness Index. Neighbor Algeria has less oil than Libya but also suffers from chronic government corruption and economic stagnation despite all the oil wealth and that does not make Algerians happy. Libyans are hoping for a return to the good old (pre-2011) days but that is another triumph of hope over experience.

Generally the Happiness rankings are similar to the corruption survey. Thus the U.S. is at 18th place on the Happiness List, Morocco is at 85, Algeria at 84, Palestinian Territories at 104, Egypt at 122, Tunisia at 111, Mali at 118, Niger at 134, the UAE at 2o, Saudi Arabia at 33, Kuwait at 45, Russia at 59, Japan at 54, South Korea at 57, Turkey at 74, Jordan at 90, China at 86, Pakistan at 75, Venezuela at 102, Lebanon at 88, Somalia at 98, Iran at 106, Iraq at 117, Bangladesh at 115, Burma at 130, India at 133, Afghanistan at 145, Yemen at 152, Syria at 150 and at 156 (last place) Burundi. Communist dictatorships like North Korea and Cuba block access to data needed for the survey and were not rated but it is rumored they are not happy places.

Libyans may not be so optimistic for the 2018 Happiness Index. During the first three months of 2018 oil production did not rise but fell by over five percent because of labor disputes and a key landowner protesting that oil workers had left trash on his land. This is all about getting a larger chunk of the oil income. Everyone seems to be more concerned about themselves than doing something to get Libya functioning once more.

Already this month the head of the LIA (Libyan Investment Authority) had to repeat that the $12 billion dollars of Libyan government funds frozen in a Belgian bank by the UN are still there and have not been looted. Given the degree of corruption Libyans have seen since 2011 (and details of how much the Kaddafi government made off with) there are always new rumors that despite UN assurances the sequestered funds overseas are still intact. The problem is that Libyans don’t trust the UN either, which itself a notoriously corrupt organization but pretends to be otherwise.

Most Libyans want their Kaddafi-era welfare state back, but bigger and better. Kaddafi held power for so long, despite his bizarre behavior and mismanagement, by spending over half the oil income on a shabby, but effective enough welfare state. Anyone who misbehaved had their benefits cut off. Kaddafi would also cut benefits for the extended family of those who opposed him. This was a remarkably effective way to run a police state. With Kaddafi and his secret police gone, people still want their welfare state and not a shabby one either. But without control of the entire country and full oil production, the new government has no way to deliver the expected goodies. Then there's the corruption, with many militia leaders inclined to grab local welfare funds for themselves.

April 4, 2018: At a meeting in neighboring Niger the Libyan (the GNA) delegation agreed with its three southern neighbors (Sudan, Niger and Chad) to reestablish joint border controls to so the Libya cease being a lawless area where all sorts of criminal operations can operate freely. Another meeting will be held in a month to start working out the details and the rules that all will follow. The problem here is that most of the Libyan forces along the southern borders belong to the LNA, not the GNA.

April 3, 2018: At the eastern port of Brega a Turkish freighter docked and spent over a week taking 5,000 tons of scrap collected by the LNA, which uses the proceeds to fund LNA. This scrap is considered part of the urban wreckage caused by seven years of fighting. The LNA has organized cleanup crews in the many areas it has cleared Islamic terrorists and other outlaws from. Most of the debris is just dumped in the countryside but the metal scrap has value and the LNA has no large financial backers so most make what it can when it can.

In the south (Sabha, 770 kilometers south of Tripoli) fighting, apparently between Tabu and Zaghawah tribesmen broke out again and in the last month has left ten dead and 38 wounded. The casualties were light, as they usually are during these tribal feuds. The GNA accuses the LNA of hiring foreign mercenaries to deal with the tribal feuding. The reality is that the LNA commander hired fighters who would follow orders since most of the armed groups native to the area are unpredictable because of factionalism and tribal politics.

April 2, 2018: GNA counter-terror forces began an operation to shut down small ISIL groups operating outside Western towns and cities Misrata, Bani Walid, Tarhouna, Msallata, Al-Khoms, and Zliten. These small bands of gunmen basically prey on anyone they come across and until recently no one had organized an armed effort to shut these desperados down.

April 1, 2018: The UN found that during March five civilians were killed and eleven wounded by terrorist violence. Throughout Libya Thid is a sharp from January and February when there were several terror attacks. There were many more casualties among the military forces (LNA and militias) as well as the few Islamic terror groups still operating. Various surveys indicate that nationwide fewer than 500 civilians died during 2017 from the fighting between militias, Islamic terror groups, criminal gangs and the LNA. The armed men in these groups suffered higher casualties, most of them among the Islamic terror groups, which were considered legitimate targets by everyone.

Outside the western city of Misrata the airport was shut down when gunmen from a militia showed up to free two men who had been arrested at the airport.

March 31, 2018: In the eastern city of Benghazi there was gun battle between two pro-LNA militias when members of one militia accused the others to tolerating members who were drug dealers. At least two people were killed and several others wounded.

March 30, 2018: In the east (outside Ajdabiya) a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives at an LNA checkpoint leaving eight dead and many others wounded. Most of the casualties were soldiers.

March 29, 2018: In the west the Misrata and Zintan militias agreed to put aside their differences and unite their forces in an effort to improve public security in western Libya. This also ended the presence of pro-Hiftar militias near Zintan (a largely Berber city 135 kilometers south of Tripoli). Since 2014 Hiftar had tried to expand his allies around Zintan but the Misrata militias were closer and had more to offer. At one time the Zintan militias controlled many neighborhoods in Tripoli but the Misrata militias drove them out in 2014 and it took over three years for the Misrata militias to repair that damage. The Hiftar plan was to use the airport outside Zintan (which had a peacetime population of 50,000) to bring in supplies and some troops if he were to go after Tripoli. Despite general weakness of the GNA forces the loss of access to Zintan makes it much more difficult for Hiftar to try and take Tripoli. Algeria and Tunisia support the GNA and the new Misrata-Zintan alliance because it means better security for the western borders. Currently the Hiftar forces are concentrating on restoring security along the southern borders.

March 27, 2018: In Benghazi six Indonesian sailors, who had been kidnapped by a Libyan militia six months ago when their sea going fishing boat was boarded (while in international waters) and everything portable stolen. The boat was taken to Benghazi where the crew were held prisoner and survived by fishing from the docked boat and selling the fish in a local market to buy stables (rice, vegetables). The militia was persuaded to release the crew for no ransom. The Italian captain of the ship was recused a month after the boat was captured and the details of that are unclear.

March 26, 2018: The Vatican, Rwanda, Canada, South Korea, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Norway all established diplomatic relations with the GNA and their diplomats in Libya officially announced that.

March 25, 2018: The GNA prime minister (Fayez al Sarraj) offered to share power with Khalifa Hiftar and make Hiftar the head of a united Libyan armed forces. Hiftar would also be able to appoint some his people to the presidential council (the nine man cabinet). Hiftar turned this down because, although Saffaj has held the GNA job for two years he is considered weak and not in control of all the armed groups that are technically subordinate to the GNA. Hiftar tried negotiating with the GNA in the past and now considers Sarraj illegitimate because he cannot really accomplish anything. Hiftar prefers to go with the current UN plan for elections in 2018 and that the HoR (House of Representatives government in Tobruk) is recognized as the major political player in the country. In late 2017 the HNEC (High National Elections Commission in Libya) began registering voters and by early 2018 had determined that there were about 1.8 million potential voters and had shown that it was possible to register nearly all of them by mid-2018. But all the details for 2018 elections are still not known nor has s date been set.

March 24, 2018: In the south (700 kilometers south of Tripoli) an American UAV used a missile to destroy a vehicle crossing the desert near Ubari oasis . Two senior al Qaeda officials in the vehicle died.

March 9, 2018: In the east (outside Ajdabiya) ISIL used a car bomb to kill three LNA men at a checkpoint.

 

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