Libya: Paid Off And Played Off


March 7, 2018: The UN sponsored peace plan is being modified by what is actually happening in Libya. The UN backed GNA (Government of National Accord in Tripoli) has become less able to accomplish anything than the technically outlaw (according to the UN) HoR (House of Representatives government in Tobruk) which now controls or contests control in most of the country. In reaction to that the UN has established a presence in HoR territory and regular contact with HoR officials. With this comes recognition of the LNA (Libyan National Army) and support for recognizing the LNA as the sole legitimate armed force in the country.

The current UN plan is that that elections will be held in 2018 and that the HoR is recognized as the major political player in the country. In late 2017 the HNEC (High National Elections Commission in Libya) began registering voters and by early 2018 had determined that there were about 1.8 million potential voters and had shown that it was possible to register nearly all of them by mid-2018. Most local leaders agree that elections should be held this year and that there should be no foreign military intervention. The Libyans do welcome foreign investment and the improved security situation has more nations (like Germany) announcing that they will soon reopen their embassies in Tripoli.

The country is still chaotic because of the hundreds of militias and private armies. Many of these are unifying behind what is left of the GNA in Tripoli in an effort to survive. While many Western nations consider the LNA, or at least some of its commanders, to be war criminals the fact is that pro-GNA faction leaders are no better and often a lot worse. The Arab nations that have long supported the LNA and its creator Khalifa Hiftar. This was in recognition of the fact that Libya was never a united entity and the government overthrown in 2011 was a dictatorship in which factions were paid off and played off against each other. This worked for half a century and is a common form of government in North Africa and the Middle East.

Libya is something of a special case because, until oil was discovered, what is now Libya was a big nothing as far a population went. The only land that could sustain a population was along the coast and 90 percent of the country is uninhabited desert. Even with the oil (reserves of over 70 billion barrels) the population was only six million while the six neighbors (Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia) have some 200 million people and land borders with Libya that total 4,500 kilometers.

Since 2011 the old Kaddafi dictatorship has not been replaced by anything as effective at unifying and pacifying the country. Kaddafi had replaced a functioning monarchy in 1969 with a functioning dictatorship that finally failed in 2011. Despite the lure of all that oil wealth, none of the neighbors are willing or able to go in and restore order and take oil in payment. None of the neighbors (except, to a limited extent, Egypt) is willing to send in military forces to restore order. Some Western nations have contributed small numbers of special operations forces (for limited operations) and air support. But basically Libya is a black hole in the political map and a free-fire zone for all sorts of Islamic terrorists and warlords. Algeria and Tunisia have managed to keep the Islamic terrorists out while to the south Libya depends on French help to keep the Islamic terrorist activity in the Sahel (Niger and Chad) from getting in.

Southern Discomfort

In the south (Sabha, 770 kilometers south of Tripoli) fighting, apparently between Tabu and Zaghawah tribesmen broke out again in late January and has escalated since then as the GNA organized a special force to confront the LNA units that have long been active down there. By early February there was a lot of shooting but no reports of casualties. In fact the casualties were light, as they usually are during these tribal feuds. The GNA accuses the LNA of hiring foreign mercenaries to deal with the tribal feuding. The reality is that the LNA commander hired fighters who would follow orders since most of the armed groups native to the area are unpredictable because of factionalism and tribal politics.

Tribal violence down there is usually over who controls smuggling routes and has been flaring up regularly since the 2011 revolution. Most of this violence has been in or near the town of Sabha, which is astride the main road going to the Niger border. It is the biggest city in the largely desert south. The fighting is a continuation of ancient animosities between tribes divided by ethnicity as well as loyalty to the deceased dictator Kaddafi, who used tribal loyalties to maintain power and favored certain tribes. Some of the pro-Kaddafi Tuareg tribes kept fighting after Kaddafi died in 2011. The violence is not so much about putting Kaddafi followers back into power or supporting any Islamic terrorists, but holding on to Kaddafi era privileges and avoiding punishment for crimes committed to support Kaddafi’s rule. After 2011 violence continued on the southern border in part because the pro-rebel Tabu (or “Tebu”) tribesmen were put in charge of border (with Sudan, Chad and Niger) security. There they constantly skirmished with the Tuareg tribes over control of the smuggling business. Another element of this rivalry was that the Tabu are black African while the pro-Kaddafi tribes are Arab. Kaddafi tended to support Arab domination over black Africans, something many Arabs still prefer. However, in some cases Kaddafi favored black tribes in the north, and used them to keep the population in line. By 2015 the Tabu were still technically in charge of the border but mostly concerned with their control over smuggling (of fuel, drugs and people). The Tabu and Tuareg leaders have frequently worked out agreements on dividing smuggling business but discipline in the tribes is not all that tight and fights keep breaking out. The GNA is publicizing its effort to confront the LNA down there and when the GNA forces are defeated the politicians in Tripoli will blame it on foreign interference and demand UN intervention. That won’t work either. The GNA is running out of options because it has already run out of popular support.

The LNA has demonstrated it is more effective at dealing with tribal unrest (usually via negotiations, which a favored Hiftar approach) and Islamic terrorists, outlaw warlords and bad actors in general (usually with well led and disciplined soldiers and militia fighters). The LNA has been fighting the southern outlaws for over two years and been making progress. It is slow going because the LNA has limited resources and seeks to make a permanent difference after it pacifies an area. Because of there are still pockets of unrest in the eastern coastal areas that are HoR territory. In the west allied LNA forces are closing in on Tripoli and Misarata, the major western coastal cities. This is where a lot of the people smuggling still thrives because local forces can be bribed while the LNA forces cannot. The ability to suppress the people smuggling gangs is very popular with European nations and make Hiftar and the LNA are more acceptable alternative to the GNA in Libya.

Oil Is Life

There have been some oil pipeline shutdowns recently as local militias use force to extort money out of whoever is running the oil operations. In late February this reduced production by a third compared to late January. That situation appears to have been resolved, for the moment. Despite the chaos since 2012 the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and Libyan Central Bank (LCB) were generally left alone to deal with essential matters like importing food and other necessities that Libya does not produce itself. The NOC managed to increase production for 2017 to record (since 2011) levels; about a million BPD (barrels per day, including natural gas equivalents). By early 2018 that was up to 1.1 million BDP. That was progress because production was 250,000 BPD in mid-2016 and 800,000 BPD by April 2017. Now production growth is stalled because of the lack of foreign firms willing to work in Libya to repair and expand Libyan oil facilities. The chaos created by all the militias and lack of a reliable central government means foreign firms rate Libya as one of the least reliable places to operate and opt for working in other areas, even though the profits are lower. Risk is a big deal in the oil industry because huge amounts (often billions of dollars) are often required to get new (or refurbished) oil facilities producing.

There are still occasional disruptions because of all the independent minded factions near the oil facilities. Despite that the NOC still hopes to reach 1.25-1.5 million BPD by the end of 2018 and 2.1 million BPD by the early 2020s. This is far in excess of pre-2011 levels (1.6 million BPD) but is necessary because of the need to finance reconstruction and adapt to the fact that the world price for oil keeps falling, despite OPEC (the Arab dominated oil cartel) efforts to reduce overall production and drive up the price. The problem is that the United States and Canada are producing a lot more due to new technologies (like fracking) that open up huge new sources that were long known but not reachable. A more immediate problem is the continuing government corruption in Libya which is increasingly hurting employees of the National Oil Company. Reducing corruption is a high priority because foreign firms are more likely to invest and send their own tech personnel in to help maintain and expand production is there is less corruption and better security.

The growing incidents of foreigners being kidnapped in and around the southern oil production facilities is a potential disaster because the foreign technical help is essential. The LNA can deal with this once they pacify an area but the LNA needs more resources (equipment, weapons, cash and technical advisors). Arab nations already provide some of this covertly but could do a lot more with UN approval. Many Western nations fear Hiftar might turn into another Kaddafi and return Libya to dictatorial rule. That is always a possibility but Hiftar was a Libyan Army officer who turned against Kaddafi in the 1980s and received asylum in the United States. He lived in America and became a naturalized citizen. In 2011 he returned to Libya and joined the rebels. Seven years later Hiftar has a track record in Libya and the UN has concluded he is what he is and there are no better alternatives. Arab states are even more enthusiastic. Hiftar is a smart guy who never forgot where he came from and has lots of friends in the West. If he can bring peace to Libya even his detractors are willing to try that for a while. The UN needs enough peace in Libya if it wants to carry out the planned national elections by the end of the year. If those elections are held and Hiftar wins the popular vote then the UN will have to support the will of the people.

Getting Clean

Libya has been making some earnest efforts to reform its economy and government to cope with the long-term loss of oil income but actually changing the culture of corruption is proving difficult. One of the major problems is the government inability to clean up its own massive internal corruption. Despite positive press releases from the government, outside observers cannot see any real progress. In 2017 Libya ranked 175 out of 180 nations in a worldwide survey of corruption. In 2016 Libya was 170 out of 176 countries. Progress, or lack thereof, can be seen in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index where countries are measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Syria/14, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85. The current Libya score is 17 (up from 14 in 2016) compared to 33 (34) for Algeria, 32 (34) for Egypt, 31 (32) for Mali, 40 (37) for Morocco, 42 (41) for Tunisia, 20 (20) for Chad, 33 (35) for Niger, 71 (66) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 62 (64) for Israel, 61 (60) for Botswana, 75 (74) for the United States, 27 (28) for Nigeria, 25 (26) for Cameroon, 39 (36) for Benin, 40 (43) for Ghana, 43 (45) for South Africa, 21 (21) for Congo, 45 (45) for Senegal, 40 (40) for India, 73 (72) for Japan, 37 (37) for Indonesia, 54 (53) for South Korea, 18 (17) for Iraq, 40 (41) for Turkey, 49 (46) for Saudi Arabia, 28 (28) for Lebanon, 30 (29) for Iran, 15 (15) for Afghanistan, 32 (32) for Pakistan, 29 (29) for Russia and 41 (40) for China. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general. Libya’s corruption score has gotten worse since 2012, when it was 21.

March 6, 2018: In the southwest the Sharara oil field, capable of producing 300,000 barrels per day, has resumed operations after a 24 hour shutdown. The local Tuareg tribes have been fighting the Tebu tribes for control of oil facilities in the area since early 2014 and that has kept the situation somewhat chaotic.

March 5, 2018: The GNA announced the formation of a special unit to be sent south to fight LNA forces in Sabha (south of Tripoli). The force will consist of 350 troops, 25 combat vehicles and nine artillery weapons.

March 4, 2018: In Zintan ((a largely Berber city south of Tripoli)) a local gang shut down the oil pipeline from Sharara and demanded a large cash payment to allow the pipeline to resume operation.

March 3, 2018: The UN has agreed to resume operations in Benghazi and recognize Khalifa Hiftar as the head of the LNA. The UN had pulled out of Benghazi in 2014.

February 23, 2018: LNA forces are setting up more checkpoints on roads into Tripoli. Controlling access to Tripoli means dealing with the several large criminal gangs based outside Tripoli near these roads. The GNA has been sending its only reliable force, the Presidential Guard, out to deal this these gangs but the GNA force has not got enough troops to guard the roads on a permanent basis.

February 21, 2018: Southwest of Tripoli five LNA troops were killed by a car bomb.

February 15, 2018: In Egypt, near the Libyan border Egyptian F-16s attacked and destroyed ten 4x4 vehicles from Libya that were trying to move weapons and ammunition into Egypt. The F-16s can operate at night and that has made it possible for more of these attacks to take place. Some of these convoys get in but a growing number are detected and destroyed. The smugglers raise their prices and if they still have customers the convoys keep coming. The F-16s also hit Islamic terrorist targets in the Western Desert between the Libyan border and the Nile River Valley. Islamic terror groups, especially ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) have been trying to establish new bases. That has proved difficult in Libya so now the Western Desert is where another attempt is being made. As long as the LNA can keep their side of the border ISIL free the Egyptians have a better chance of success in the Western Desert.

February 9, 2018: In the east (Benghazi) a bomb went off in a mosque, killing three and wounding over 80. The bomb had been planted and no one took credit. This may have been about local (or mosque) politics.


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