What We Can Learn from the Attacks on U.S. Embassies

This week's U.S. embassy attacks are the product of intense jockeying for power in an Arab political landscape riven with both new and familiar challenges. Here are five key lessons to take away from an ugly week

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Yemeni protesters storm the U.S. embassy in the capital, Sana‘a, on Sept. 13 2012

3. Post-Gaddafi Libya Is, at Best, a State in the Making

The speed with which Libya’s elected leaders raced to condemn the deadly attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and promised to crack down on those responsible may have appeared to be a stark contrast with the apparent paralysis of their Egyptian counterparts. But Libyan leaders’ determination to respond in a manner appropriate for a country seeking to build relations with Washington may not be matched by capacity. The monopoly of organized force that in most countries defines the nation state was shattered in the war to bring down Gaddafi, leaving a void that has been filled by a patchwork of competing militias.

(MORE: Libya: Killing of U.S. Ambassador Highlights Country’s Post-Gaddafi Struggles)

“Because the country lacks a fully functioning state, effective army or professional police, local actors have stepped in to provide safety, mediate disputes and impose cease-fires,” says William Lawrence of the International Crisis Group (ICG), which on Friday issued a new report on Libya’s security challenges. “But ultimately, these actors cannot take on the state’s role in implementing ceasefires and ensuring conditions of peace. Truces remain fragile, and local conflicts are left frozen or fragile rather than truly resolved.”

The debacle at the Benghazi consulate was a graphic illustration of the fact that militias armed with rocket launchers and mortars are able to operate with relative freedom in the new Libya, with the national army and police force more of a notion than an established reality, as security remains dependent on the sometimes tenuous relationships between different militias. “Until now, central authorities have acted chiefly as bystanders, in effect subcontracting security to largely autonomous armed groups,” says Robert Malley, ICG’s Middle East and North Africa program director. “This is not sustainable. The new government needs to take concrete steps to reform its security forces and establish structures of a functioning state. Anything less will perpetuate what already is in place: local disputes occurring in a fragmented and heavily armed landscape with the ever present risk of escalation.”

PHOTOS: Protesters Scale U.S. Embassy Walls, Tear Down American Flag

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