Time to Arm Libyan Rebels: Here's How


Apr 13, 2011

This commentary originally appeared on Christian Science Monitor on April 13, 2011.

The options available to the United States and its partners in Libya have sharply narrowed. As the US did in Bosnia, NATO and others must develop a train-and-equip program for the Libyan rebels that would help the opposition government gain control, oust Qaddafi, and establish a democracy.

The insurrection in Libya against the 42-year dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi has turned into a military stalemate. The battle lines have moved back and forth in Libya's crescent west of Benghazi, the opposition's de facto capital. Mr. Qaddafi has consolidated control of western Libya, and his forces are laying siege to the city of Misurata, the last remaining opposition stronghold in the west. A proposal for negotiations and a ceasefire by the African Union was rejected out of hand by the opposition leadership on the grounds that it did not provide for removal of Qaddafi, his sons, and his inner circle. With Qaddafi showing no signs of leaving, the options available to the United States and its partners have sharply narrowed.

To let Qaddafi restore his control of Libya would diminish US credibility. A de facto partition of Libya would generate continued instability and could require an open-ended coalition mission to enforce the no-fly zone and protect the population. An even worse scenario would be if Libya became a failed state like Somalia and a sanctuary for terrorists in North Africa. That suggests an obvious option for the US and its partners: to engage with an alternative Libyan government and help it gain control of the country. At a meeting in Washington, the representative of the opposition Provisional Transitional National Council said that what the opposition forces need is arms, ammunition, and training.

Should the US and its international partners decide to pursue this course of action, the first step would be to give the revolutionary government in Benghazi the military capability to defend populations in the liberated areas in the hope that they could eventually drive Qaddafi out and take control of the entire country.

Just arming the Libyan opposition would not be enough. The revolutionaries also need organization and training. However, it is not in the interest of the US or its partners to send or allow arms to flow to Libya indiscriminately without a way to verify where they might end up.

Train and equip like in Bosnia

In the short term, the opposition forces will have to rely on NATO and military assistance from friendly parties to keep Qaddafi's forces at bay. Over the longer term — months rather than weeks — the Benghazi government will probably need additional help to create from scratch a military force able to take the field against Qaddafi's army.

To do so requires looking at a future beyond Qaddafi. The long-term objective of a train-and-equip program for the Libyan revolutionary government would be to create a professional military force in a post-Qaddafi Libya that could support democratic institutions free of extremist elements. So how to get there?

What could work best in Libya now is a program like the one the US established in the mid-1990s to train and equip the armed forces of the Bosnian Federation. As in Libya today, there were concerns then about the presence of extremists on the Bosnian Muslims' side.

Iran had been a major provider of arms to the Bosnian Muslims since the beginning of the war and had gained significant influence. Thousands of foreign, mostly Arab, volunteers fought in the mujahideen brigade of the Bosnian army. One of the goals of the Bosnia train-and-equip program was to eradicate Iranian and foreign radical influences from Bosnia. The train-and-equip program gave the US leverage with the Bosnian government to achieve this objective.

Mindful of the Bosnia experience, here's what could be done in Libya.

Three steps to help Libyan rebels, opposition government

First, establish a task force to organize and supervise a train-and-equip program for the Libyan government in Benghazi. This is best done as soon as possible. This should not be a unilateral US effort and should include all partner nations willing to participate, especially Arab nations. Judging from some Obama administration comments, it is not clear if the US would be involved at all. But such a program is not likely to get off the ground without US initiative.

Second, an assessment could be made of the organizational, training, and equipment requirements of a professional democratic Libyan army.

Third, there would need to be a concerted effort to secure donations of appropriate equipment from donor countries. Training could be provided by military personnel of participating countries or by contractors, as was the case in Bosnia. The equipment and training would go to selected units of the Benghazi government armed forces. Accountability procedures would help to ensure that the arms provided are not diverted to improper purposes or unauthorized units.

None of this would require foreign combat troops in Libya or run contrary to the principles enunciated by President Obama in his speech on Libya. The Bosnia Train and Equip Task Force successfully administered the program with fewer than a dozen members, plus trainers. It enlisted the cooperation of more than a dozen countries in different aspects of the program. That program could serve as a roadmap for a similar program in Libya to mitigate risks and advance Western interests.

Angel M. Rabasa, a member of the Bosnia Train and Equip Task Force in the early 1990s, is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

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