The Real Benghazi Is Stumbling Toward Civil War

But political constraints in Washington make any significant U.S. action in a disintegrating Libya a long shot.

A Libyan woman displays her voting ID during legislative elections at a polling station in Benghazi.
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
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Kaveh Waddell
July 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

Since the at­tack that took the life of Am­bas­sad­or Chris Stevens and three oth­er Amer­ic­ans in Septem­ber 2012, Benghazi has taken on a life of its own, serving as everything from a ral­ly­ing cry against the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to a de­ris­ive hasht­ag pok­ing fun at ad­min­is­tra­tion crit­ics. But for all the talk about the year-and-a-half-old scan­dal, what’s hap­pen­ing in the real Benghazi, Libya, today has re­ceived little at­ten­tion. As lim­ited mil­it­ary aid and train­ing flow in­to Ir­aq and Syr­ia, Libya is slip­ping closer and closer to out­right civil war.

After the end of the 2011 NATO mil­it­ary cam­paign in Libya that ous­ted Col. Muam­mar el-Qad­dafi, the trans­ition­al gov­ern­ment that was set up seemed to be poised for a peace­ful trans­ition of power. But be­fore long, former rebels and mi­li­tia groups, un­happy with the slow pace of change after Qad­dafi’s gov­ern­ment was toppled, began to clash with gov­ern­ment forces.

The at­tack on the U.S. Con­su­late in Benghazi promp­ted many West­ern gov­ern­ments to close up their dip­lo­mat­ic mis­sions in Libya, and the situ­ation there con­tin­ued to un­ravel. In Oc­to­ber 2013, then-Prime Min­is­ter Ali Zeidan was briefly ab­duc­ted from a hotel in Tripoli by an armed mi­li­tia; three months later, the coun­try’s deputy in­dustry min­is­ter was as­sas­sin­ated.

Now, a re­tired gen­er­al named Khal­ifa Haf­tar has launched a full-on cam­paign against Is­lam­ist mi­li­tias and what’s left of the Liby­an gov­ern­ment, and a par­lia­ment­ary elec­tion last week drew a weak turnout that re­flec­ted Liby­ans’ lack of con­fid­ence in a tattered polit­ic­al sys­tem. In one dis­trict in Benghazi, Is­lam­ist mil­it­ants fired on a loc­al se­cur­ity headquar­ters on elec­tion day, killing four and wound­ing at least 30. Haf­tar’s prom­ises to rid the coun­try of “Is­lam­ist ter­ror­ists” (in his words) have won him sup­port among Liby­ans who are ex­hausted with the vi­ol­ence and un­cer­tainty that has plagued the coun­try for years.

Des­pite the de­teri­or­at­ing situ­ation, the U.S. has in­dic­ated that it’s un­likely to get in­volved in Libya again any­time soon. “There is an ac­know­ledge­ment that there is only so much we can do,” a U.S. of­fi­cial told Re­u­ters. The farthest the U.S. has been will­ing to go so far is to send spe­cial en­voys to Libya to try to bring to­geth­er war­ring fac­tions, a move that is un­likely to make a dent on its own. A $600 mil­lion in­ter­na­tion­al pro­gram to train a Liby­an “Gen­er­al Pur­pose Force” that was an­nounced last year has yet to get off the ground. The lim­ited scope of an­nounced Amer­ic­an in­volve­ment in Ir­aq and Syr­ia makes clear the lack of ap­pet­ite for fur­ther en­gage­ment in the re­gion. In all like­li­hood, Libya is on its own as it struggles to cre­ate a co­hes­ive gov­ern­ment once again.

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