An Alternative for Drone Critics? – Rounding Up a Posse in Libya

An interesting and lightly covered issue this week is the new U.S. effort to build a militia in Libya to pursue jihadi militants.  Reuters reports that:

U.S. officials in Libya have begun to look for recruits for a commando force which they plan to train to fight militants, a former commander of Libyan rebels who toppled Muammar Gaddafi said on Tuesday.

Building, training and advising militias is a long time practice for most all governments that want to counter a far off enemy without deploying significant force.  Sometimes it goes well, as in the Mujahideen in the 1980′s. Other times, it doesn’t go so well, like when elements of the Mujahideen became al Qaeda in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s.  Proxy forces were used often during the Cold War by both sides with success cases and not-so-successful cases found throughout Asia, Africa and particularly Latin America.

A team of about 10 Americans from the embassy in Tripoli visited a paramilitary base in the eastern city of Benghazi 10 days ago to interview and get to know potential recruits, according to militia commander Fathi al-Obeidi.

the article continues noting…

Obeidi said the interviewers also took note of the types of uniforms the men were wearing and asked about their opinion on security in Libya.

He said that the team of American officials included current U.S. charge d’affaires Laurence Pope and the future head trainer of the Libyan special forces team.

“I’ve been asked to help pick about 400 of these young men between the ages of 19 and 25 to train for this force,” he said. “They could be trained either in Libya or abroad.”

The force may be required to fight jihadi militants like those accused in the September 11 assault on the consulate.

So, drone critics argue that drone targeting of our adversaries is wrong because it forgoes due process (law enforcement approach) and kills innocent people.  I’ve countered noting that all counterterrorism options create civilian casualties and law enforcement approaches are rarely feasible in the places where terrorists hide – weak and failed states of which Libya is one of many such locations.  I’m ok with building militias as long as the U.S. is willing to make a long-run management commitment to achieve its short-run objectives.  Arming and training militias is not a temporary activity.

Is building, arming and training militias acceptable to those that oppose the use of drones? I ask drone critics, if its not drones for engaging militants, then it will be something else – militias for example – that pursue our adversaries.  I’m assuming most drone critics would say we should give foreign aid, promote democracy and don’t back dictators, all noble endeavors, to defeat terrorists.  But do these actions actually deter or dismantle our terrorist adversaries?

I don’t see any evidence to support a buy-the-world-a-coke strategy in the near term.  While freedom and civil liberties correlate with lower levels of terrorism, achieving these principles across all current and potential terrorist safe havens sometime in the next 50 years will not deter terrorists plotting to kill Americans today.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t push for democracy and freedom, I absolutely think we should, but I don’t think for a second that democracy and freedom will do anything to thwart our terrorist adversaries today.


  1. I understand that this is not your focus, but considering it from a Libyan perspective: one of the reasons Libya faces such problems right now is the lack of competent national armed forces. This makes it near to impossible to develop a government with authority or a functioning judiciary. The desire for democracy is strong in Libya, but those who want it are at the mercy of those who do not because those who do not are willing to use arms to derail the process. Former prime minister Mahmud Jibril stated last week that NATO left too quickly. The last year and a half have seen numerous jury rigged international attempts/offers to train a Libyan military, but this is the first since the revolution that will be conducted in Libya and in conjunction with military leadership. Unlike other training programs, which appeared to be more like catchall designed to get thuwar out of the country than properly training them, this program looks like a serious investment by the U.S., the Libyan government, and the Libyans who qualify for inclusion. I think, if developed alongside civil society initiatives, it could be exactly what Libya needs to help it stabilize itself and won’t come back to bite the U.S. and Libya in the butt.

    Do democracy and freedom thwart the terrorist adversaries of the U.S. and, for that matter, Libya as well? I do believe so, but at this time only on a limited basis. After the revolution, former LIFG members in Derna, Libya consciously switched operating procedure to electoral politics, publicly stating this in interviews with western media. However, at the same time, there remains a body of extremists who reject democratic process and are willing to take up arms to derail it. A dialogue must be opened with them and at the same time those who plan and/or execute violent campaigns must be apprehended and prosecuted as an example to other would be enemies of the state.

  2. Just to drive your point further, I think your comment here about the drones option being “the least bad” is worth reiterating. Clearly, pursuing our adversaries through any counterterrorism measure will inevitably and regrettably result in the loss of innocent civilians. However, our responsibility is to try to opt for “the least bad”as we actively engage in making ourselves safer today. So supporting the more complicated militia building option does seem logically inconsistent for those who oppose the use of drones.
    Promotion of civil liberties and freedom is a commendable, long- term goal but it can’t be offered as an immdiate counter measure when dealing with terrorist activity now.

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