Militia Mayhem Underscores Libya’s Power Vacuum, Threatening its Revolution

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Munition crates are seen at an unguarded storage facility in the desert, some 62 miles (100 kilometers) south of Sirte, Libya, October 26, 2011(Photo: David Sperry / AP)

It’s hardly unexpected that a U.S. political-media culture that routinely repackages yesterday’s panicky improvisations as today’s established “doctrines” has seen many in Washington hail Libya as “the new model” for U.S. intervention abroad. With comparatively limited investment of Western treasure — and no troops on the ground, although the Qataris are reported to have sent hundreds of commandoes in — the NATO alliance enabled a rag-tag coalition of rebel militias to overthrow a vicious dictator. But doctrines — remember President Bush’s “preemption”? — have a nasty habit of producing unintended consequences.

Even though NATO formally ended its military involvement in Libya on Monday, the outcome of the war to overthrow Col. Muammar Gaddafi is far from certain. Gaddafi is gone, no question, but it is to be expected that his supporters will yet stage an insurgency. Whether they succeed in rallying a counterrevolutionary campaign will depend in part on how those who overthrew Gaddafi handle the challenge of reconciliation in a society where the dictator maintained substantial popular support until the very end.

Early indications suggest there could be trouble ahead. There are increasing reports out of Libya of victimization of communities deemed Gaddafi loyalists by this or that rebel militia — remember, the rebels don’t have an “army” as such, but instead comprise more than 300 autonomous locally-based militias of varying stripe. 

U.N. Human Rights officials, for example, reported Tuesday that militiamen from the city of Misrata have been “terrorizing” the civilian population of the town of Tawargha, with a number of instances of murder, torture and rape as the rebel fighters take revenge on the townspeople for their alleged support of the old regime. The Transitional National Council has vowed to investigate.

Tales of abuse by self-empowered militiamen who appear to be answerable only to their own local commanders have emerged in a number of other settings, highlighting the overwhelming and urgent priority of disarming and demobilizing militias and drawing some of their fighters and officers into a single security force answerable to the TNC. But achieving that right now may be a tall order. The militias, based variously on affinities of tribe, neighborhood, shared experience in Gaddafi’s armed forces or Islamist ideology, are loosely coordinated and riddled by rivalries that have already on occasion erupted into shootouts.

Reports from recent days have painted a worrying picture:  Borzou Daragahi in the Financial Times (subscription) described a firefight among rival rebel groups at Tripoli’s main hospital on Monday, and reports that the residents of the capital are growing increasingly antagonistic to the gunmen roaming the streets, ostensibly to protect them. Report after report from Libya has civilians complaining that they are as vulnerable now to arbitrary terror as they had been when Gaddafi ruled the roost.  Doctors have threatened to go on strike if gunmen continue to enter the hospital

The doctors concerns are underscored by the Telgraph‘s account of the hospital shootout:

“[The battle began] when militia from the town of Zintan were stopped by guards from the Tripoli Brigade from entering the city’s Central Hospital to kill a patient… doctors and patients had to flee the building and two elderly patients died of heart attacks during the shooting, which lasted from about 1am until dawn. Heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns were used by both factions, supposed allies who in reality nurse a dangerous rivalry.

The shoot-out started when a group of gunmen arrived at the hospital in search of a man they had shot earlier in the night. Witnesses said the gunmen were drunk, and had come to finish the man off after learning that he had survived and been taken for medical treatment.”

The Guardian’s Gaith Abdul-Ahad on Tuesday offered a sobering account of the workings of one of the many autonomous militias operating in Tripoli, rounding up those accused by their neighbors of having been regime loyalists, many of them former regime officers themselves. These groups, all well armed, are out for revenge, arbitrarily arresting those they suspect, sometimes for the most spurious reasons, wreaking havoc on communities in which they operate (antagonizing them to the point that they becomes a natural constituency for any insurgency) and so mistrustful of their rival militias that they’re constantly in danger of getting into firefights with allied groups.

Turf battles among rival rebel formations underscore both the growing urgency and the difficulty of the Transitional National Council (TNC) in creating a monopoly of force in post-Gaddafi Libya.  The TNC recognizes the priority of creating a single, politically answerable security force, although whether it has the means to do so is unclear as yet. Many of the militias are made up of former regime officers and soldiers who joined the revolution, others are Islamists or local lads from the hard-as-nails siege cities of Zintan and Misrata, many of whom appear to be seeking to avenge their own losses by victimizing civilians believed to have supported Gaddafi. While fighters from these distant towns played a decisive role in the battle for Tripoli, by all accounts the residents of the capital would rather see them head home now, but in many instances those militias — claiming a need to guard against a resurgence of the regime — don’t appear in any hurry to return home.

There are clearly also political power struggles among the militias, and a high degree of mutual suspicion between some of their commanders and ranks. Tensions between experienced senior military men from the old regime who’d joined the rebellion, and the Islamist and local fighters who did much of the heaviest fighting, have been visible for some time. Already last July, there were signs of trouble when senior rebel military commander General Abdel Fattah Younes, a veteran Gaddafi soldier who’d joined the Benghazi rebellion in February, was executed by rebel militiamen, believed to be from an Islamist faction. More recently, TNC leaders accused Qatar of funneling support to Islamist militias in order to boost their standing in the post-Gaddafi order.

Having acquired a measure of local power by taking up weapons, many militiamen are in no hurry to disarm. And no such process appears to have begun, as yet.  When it does, it will face political challenges: A spokesman for the Islamist Abdulhakim Belhadj, leader of the most powerful militia in the capital – the Tripoli Military Council – told the Washington Post, “Creating a new army is not going to be by an official statement or resolution. It has to come after a negotiation.”

Those who did the bulk of the fighting will expect to their contribution reflected in a share of power in overseeing the transition.

The jostling among various rebel factions comes amid a power vacuum created by the regime’s collapse:  Gaddafi was toppled by superior force, not of a centrally organized disciplined rebel army, but of foreign air forces that tipped the battle — and which are now gone, although there’s precious little they could have done from the air in urban battle that pitched rival groups of lightly armed irregular infantry against one another. And the absence of a strong central government with the means to impose its will, while localized militias control their own turf, risks unleashing a Mogadishu-style spiral of chaos. Having lived through decades of hell under Gaddafi, the leaders of the various militias have a strong shared interest in avoiding chaos and further suffering.  But if the TNC is unable to quickly provide a single, centralized authority that delivers security, history says the risk of insurgency will rapidly rise.

And the U.N. Security Council on Monday expressed concern over the whereabouts of large stockpiles of heavy weaponry looted from the old regime’s arsenals, particularly surface to air missiles — a reminder of the considerable lethality available to those who would wreak havoc in a Libya undergoing a transition.

The threat of chaos suggests one of two outcomes: Either power will coalesce around a handful of militia groups who will forge an  alliance strong enough to impose its will on the others and swallow them up into a single national army; or foreign peacekeepers are brought in to impose the missing monopoly of force necessary to provide security, oversee the creation of a national army. The “Libyan model”, in fact, remains a work in progress — and its outcome is far from certain.