TRIPOLI, Libya — After committing $8 million to help build a counterterrorism force in Libya, the United States now faces a difficult choice: work through a weak government that has so far proved unable to build a national army and police force from the thousands of former rebels who have operated as militias since Moammar Gadhafi’s downfall — or work with the militias themselves.
The deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi underscored what many here say is a growing extremist problem amid Libya’s lawlessness. Most Libyan lawmakers are welcoming an Obama administration decision — made shortly before the Benghazi attack — to help Libya establish a special counterterrorism force.
But unlike Pakistan and Yemen, where U.S. Special Forces have helped train elite counterterrorism units, Libya presents no obvious security partner.
The Libyan government remains largely ineffective, with its military and police force still in the embryonic stage of development. Many militia members are armed, disciplined and ready to work. But Libyan officials and analysts say their participation in such a force could undermine the very goal of establishing a strong and unified post-war Libya.
Last week, a U.S. Embassy delegation, led by CIA operatives, traveled to Benghazi to meet and recruit fighters directly from the Libyan Shield, a powerful umbrella organization of militias, according to Fathi al-Obeidi, a commander of the group.
The Libyan Shield provided the rescue force that assisted the U.S. mission in Benghazi on the night of the attack, and Obeidi said his fighters represent the most viable local option for a special unit.
The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli could not be reached for comment, and Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman, said U.S. officials were still in the preliminary stages of the program and had not yet determined the size or composition of the force.
It was also unclear whether the visit described by Obeidi was part of the $8 million Defense Department initiative or a separate project.
But interviews with Obeidi and other militia commanders, as well as elected officials and the commander of Libya’s armed forces — each of whom offered a different interpretation of where power lies in the country — underscored the complex reality U.S. officials will have to navigate if the program moves forward.
Analysts said the task of choosing a viable security partner from among disparate and competing factions in Libya’s current security vacuum is loaded with potential pitfalls.
“There are enormous risks,” said Geoff Porter, a risk and security analyst who specializes in North Africa.
One danger of working with quasi-state actors such as Libya’s militias is it’s difficult to hold their members accountable if they commit violent crimes or engage in human rights abuses, Porter said.
In a more stable political environment, a security unit that goes rogue could be prosecuted, he said. But Libya has yet to see a seated cabinet, a justice system or the establishment of an army. And if U.S. funding builds a special unit whose capabilities exceed those of other state and quasi-state actors, its members would have little incentive to join a national force later on, Porter said.