The Obama administration quietly won Congress’s approval last month to shift about $8 million from Pentagon operations and counterterrorism aid budgeted for Pakistan to begin building an elite Libyan force over the next year that could ultimately number about 500 troops. American Special Operations forces could conduct much of the training, as they have with counterterrorism forces in Pakistan and Yemen, American officials said.
The effort to establish the new unit was already under way before the assault that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at the United States Mission in Benghazi, Libya. But the plan has taken on new urgency as the new government in Tripoli tries to assert control over the country’s militant factions.
According to an unclassified internal State Department memo sent to Congress on Sept. 4, the plan’s goal is to enhance “Libya’s ability to combat and defend against threats from Al Qaeda and its affiliates.” A companion Pentagon document envisions that the Libyan commando force will “counter and defeat terrorist and violent extremist organizations.” Right now, Libya has no such capability, American officials said.
A final decision on the program has not been made, and many details, like the size, composition and mission of the force, are still to be determined. But American government officials say they have discussed the plan’s broad outlines with senior Libyan military and civilian officials as part of a broader package of American security assistance.
“The proposal reflects the security environment and the uncertainty coming out of the government transition in Libya,” said a senior Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the program has not been officially announced. “The multimilitia fabric that’s providing security there needs to be brought into a more integrated national security system.”
A spokesman for Libya’s new president, Mohamed Magariaf, did not respond to detailed inquiries by e-mail, and other Libyan military officials did not return phone calls. Its transitional government continues to be in a state of flux as a newly chosen prime minister prepares to appoint defense and interior ministers.
Libyan commentators have expressed hope that a Western power would help train the country’s fledgling national army, so the proposal might be well received. But it still faces many challenges, including how to get the powerful militias to buy into it while taming their influence, and vetting a force to weed out Islamic extremists.
“Over all, it’s a sound strategy, but my concern is that in the vetting they make sure this doesn’t become a Trojan horse for the militias to come in,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who visited Libya recently and wrote a paper last month on security in the country, “The Struggle for Security in Eastern Libya.”
Mr. Wehrey cautioned that many Libyan officers and soldiers would also need training in English to help them understand various manuals. Other officials warned that any program must be transparent to the Libyan people to avoid starting rumors of ulterior American motives for wanting to train the new commandos. Also, trainers would have to build the professionalism in the officer corps that was lacking under the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Mr. Wehrey said.
The internal State Department budget document to Congress states that the program will also be “encouraging increased professionalism and respect for human rights.” It also proposes using some of the money to buy unspecified equipment for the commandos.
The document also describes an additional $4 million to help Libya improve control of its borders. After the revolution, vast arsenals of the Qaddafi-era army were looted, and Western officials are particularly worried that thousands of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles were spirited out of the country, possibly into the hands of extremist groups.
The proposed Libyan commando force springs from an unusual partnership between the State Department and the Pentagon. Just last year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the defense secretary at the time, Robert M. Gates, agreed to pool resources from their departments in a fund approved by Congress to respond more quickly to emerging threats from Al Qaeda and other militants in places like Libya, Nigeria and Bangladesh.
The program, the Global Security Contingency Fund, is small as government projects go with a budget of up to $250 million a year, mostly from the Pentagon, but it is meant to address many of the government’s counterterrorism and broader security challenges over several years.
American officials have had an eye on helping Libya since the NATO-led operation toppled Colonel Qaddafi’s government last year, and new civilian leaders began trying to bring order to the country.
In the first visit by an American defense secretary to Libya, Leon E. Panetta pledged last December that the United States “stands ready to offer security assistance cooperation once the government identifies its needs.” Mr. Panetta did not discuss the commando force during the visit, a Pentagon spokesman said.
Under Colonel Qaddafi, the Libyan Army had special forces units, but they were not particularly well trained or trusted by the government, American officials said. Members of the special forces in the east were among the first to defect, and American officials now envision a new, properly trained commando force as the core around which to rebuild the Libyan military.
The $8 million is considered seed money to begin building and equipping the commando force. One American official who formerly served in Libya said the initial vetting would probably be conducted by American and Libyan officials, and would include screening for physical skills, mental aptitude and ties to extremist groups that were hostile to the Libyan government.
American trainers would likely focus on basic skills, like marksmanship and small-arms tactics, and then move on to more advanced counterterrorism, reconnaissance and hostage-rescue skills.
“It’s basically a quick-reaction force at first,” said the official, who was not authorized to comment publicly on the planning.
Officials in Washington said they were expecting a final decision on the plan by the end of the year, with trainers fielding the initial units within 12 months.
The fluid, shifting security landscape is driving both American and Libyan officials to speed up the planning.
“The bad guys are making plans and organizing,” said the American official who formerly served in Libya. “It’s a footrace between the extremist groups and the Libyan government that’s trying to get organized.”
Suliman Ali Zway contributed reporting from Tripoli, Libya.
Original article on The New York Times