Fixing Libya, and Europe’s Migrant Woes – From the Bottom Up

Over the last few months the oil-rich North African state of Libya has come into focus, once again — not for its seemingly endless political dysfunction, but the negative externalities it produces: a treacherous channel for millions of would-be Sub-Saharan emigrants hoping to get to Europe (a substantial percentage of which which perish in the desert, or drown on the way), and radicalized youth, who have been linked to several recent terrorist attacks in Europe and North Africa, including the Manchester bombing in May.

Pointing to the existence of a range of alternate development programs for Africa, EU Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini last week appeared  to rule out any ‘Marshall Plan’ that might coordinate and amplify European assistance, to Libya — and the broader region.  But in the case of Libya, most of these funds are directed at stopping the flow of migrants, not local reconstruction and development. As Mogherini is aware, there are major impediments to joint action by member states, that include disagreement on the core causes of the conflict, lack of political will, and the fact that many of the countries affected, have different cost/benefit calculations with respect to intervention.

EU President Antonio Tajani recently called for up to 6 billion dollars to stop migrants, and 10 billion dollars to do the same in Libya’s southern neighbor, Chad (along with Niger, Mauritania and Mali, devastated by the outfit of weapons and fighters from Libya).  UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on a recent trip to Benghazi and Tripoli, pledged a paltry sum of 9 million euro to help control terrorism and trafficking in persons.  The Italians, for their part, have been accused of paying off local militias to stop the flow of migrants to their shores.   Uncoordinated and vague, these pledges have little chance to make progress — but large potential to make things worse.

Over the last five years,  the international community has played a progressive game of tag in Libya:  The U.S. predicated its 2011 ‘leading from behind’ strategy in Libya on financial support from Europe, which did not come; it then tacitly gave the green light to Qatar and Turkey to fill the gap, which sped up the radicalization of the revolution –  as happened in Syria.  With an eye to a quick fix, but with little truck on the ground, the U.N. then worked for more than two years to reconcile the two emerging ‘sides’ through a Byzantine governing roadmap called the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), which was to produce a government of national accord (GNA).

Predictably that initiative failed, for the simple reason that it misdiagnosed the nature of the Libyan conflict, and tried to fuse groups with vastly different agendas and levels of local legitimacy.  In 2014, an 80s-era defector from Gaddafi’s army, General Khalifa Heftar, now allied to Libya’s Eastern-based government, generated a broad following by expelling Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) from large parts of Libya’s east.  Back in Western Libya, the Islamic State took advantage of the GNA’s weakness  (and the collusion of some of its members) to set up a base in Sirte, while Al Qaeda and IS set up training camps from which to launch terrorist attacks in Tunisia, Algeria and Europe.   All the while, the migrant problem exploded, fed by criminal operations that profits on the traffic in arms and people. Fearing further advances by IS, Europe prematurely switched its official endorsement to the GNA, hoping for its cooperation in Western bombing of IS – which did not eliminate IS, or Libya’s woes.  In fact, IS is (again, predictably) making a comeback.

Which brings us back to the Marshall Plan analogy:   The purpose of the 1948 4-year, 13 billion dollar (130+ billion in today’s money) program, was to provide assistance and expertise to European countries devastated by war,  to make sure that Europe’s “free institutions survive, consistent with the maintenance of the strength and stability of the United States,” and to facilitate regional development and coordination. If Europe were to pass on the support the U.S. rendered it seventy years ago, to North Africa and the Sahel, it too would benefit, from increased security and reduced immigration.  Moreover, the U.S. could better focus the fight against disruptors in the Levant — as what goes on in North Africa impacts what happens in Syria and Iraq.

Libya’s problems would be solved relatively quickly if a number of things happened simultaneously; first – all foreign unsanctioned military support to parties in the Libya conflict is shut off.  At one point this meant principally Qatar, which has arguably done the most to politicize and radicalize the conflict, with back-up from Turkey.  The list of countries intervening in Libya’s conflict now include Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which are waging a proxy war in Libya against Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood;  second, individuals known to be coordinating terrorism and brigandage should be subject to credible, immediate sanction and arrest; and third, the automatic tap funding militias on all sides of the conflict needs to be turned off.  The tap cannot be closed, without a safety net to catch the majority who are not implicated in militia violence.  There are concerns that such a move will turbocharge the country’s descent into complete lawlessness – something resembling Somalia during the worst of its conflict- but really, there’s not much farther to go.

That requires a level of multinational coordination that is implied by the Marshall analogy.   How could this be done?  One can imagine a voluntary coalition of states, managing both a Marshall-like fund, a reporting and enforcement mechanism, and regional assistance, in concert with international organizations, including the World Bank, the U.N. and African Development Bank — and most important, Libyan civil society.  The focus would be Libya and all those countries impacted by Libya’s post-revolution implosion, i.e., most of North Africa and the Sahel.  Membership would be limited to those countries that are willing  to foreswear unilateral military or non-humanitarian logistical support to any party in the Libyan conflict, to allow monitoring of their own activity, and to sanction other states that violate these commitments.  To borrow (very loosely) from the lexicon of the Syrian conflict these would be the ’Friends of Libya’.  This arrangement could help ‘shame’ those states who currently see in Libya’s chaos a means to narrow political, military and economic objectives, into pursuing a larger communal gain.

The Friends of Libya would channel rapid assistance on a decentralized, bottom-up basis, to all those towns and regions that can demonstrate an operational degree of self-governance,  security and self help (as exhibited by local and municipal elections, demonstrated initiative, and a reasonably stable physical environment).  This will obviously be harder to accomplish in some areas than others – but as more parts of Libya stand on their feet, the easier it will be to deal with the greater problems.  Further, a ‘fast track’ funding facility is desperately needed for towns and regions to demonstrate progress, according to their own needs.  There is an enormous unmet demand for small scale investment and loans across the country.

While jobs and security will not eliminate extremism, they will help shore up the Libyans’ ability to recover, and resist outside and internal spoilers. Rather than having a multilateral body determine Libya’s electoral districts, let those be decided on the ground, according to local will and ability.  The cities that are closest to being able to fulfill those criteria cross the current political fault-lines include Benghazi, Misurata, Zintan, and various smaller cities in Libya’s south.

With respect to Heftar, the international community should do what it needed to do back in 2014, which is to strike a deal – the same deal that should be offered to every other regional and local authority in Libya:  in return for substantial assistance, strong assurance of respect for  national elections, and the subordination of forces to a civilian, elected government.   Assistance need not come in the form of outright grants– once Libya’s economy has recovered, it will be able to pay much of this money back.  And indeed, those that participate within this framework now, should be given priority for contracts, in line with the productive, transparent assistance they provide.  And Libya, and the world, will be the better for it.

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