In a region with a history of rulers who strengthened their armies to keep a grip on power, Muammar Qaddafi has been doing the opposite.
Qaddafi spent an average 1.2 percent of gross domestic product on the military in the three years through 2008, the lowest in the Middle East and North Africa and also less than Sweden or Denmark, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute or Sipri, which tracks defense spending. Before it was split by an uprising that started last month, Libya’s army had 50,000 men, half of them draftees, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The cap on army powers helped ensure Qaddafi, who gained power in a 1969 coup, didn’t lose it the same way. It also leaves Libya’s army lacking the capacity to contain civil strife and oversee a transition, as its counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia have done, or to secure production from Africa’s largest oil reserves. Military weakness also makes it harder for the U.S. and allies, who are backing the anti-Qaddafi rebels, to find interlocutors.
“Qaddafi tried to keep the military weak so they could not topple him, as he toppled King Idris,” said Paul Sullivan, a North Africa expert at the Washington-based National Defense University. The result is “a poorly trained military run by poorly trained leadership that are on the ropes, not exactly personally stable, and with a lot of extra weapons floating around.”
Since anti-government protests escalated into violence two weeks ago, rebels have taken control of much of Libya and several army units defected. Crude prices have jumped more than 15 percent, hitting a 2 1/2-year high. Libyan production dropped more than half as companies such as Eni SpA and Total SA cut output, and the conflict threatened exports as workers fled.
In Benghazi, the second-biggest city, soldiers were directing traffic and stopping cars for armed Qaddafi supporters last week. On the opposition-held eastern coastal road, which passes by the tanker terminals of Ras Lanouf and el-Brega, troops flashed victory signs and passed out candies and juice.
Other units have stayed loyal, including air crews who have bombed ammunition stores to prevent weapons from getting into rebel hands.
‘Why the Splinters?’
“Why the splinters? Why the defections?” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle East politics at the London School of Economics. “It tells you that there is no cohesive institution.”
The lack of cohesion contrasts with the army’s role in Egypt and Tunisia. In both countries, the military acted as a catalyst for the removal of leaders, a key demand of opposition movements, while discouraging continued protests aimed at more far-reaching democratic change.
Egypt’s military took over from Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, promising elections and a new constitution. Tunisian army chief Rashid Ammar pledged to “protect the revolution.” The armies took over functions from police discredited by their links to former rulers, with soldiers guarding key buildings from ministries in Tunis to the state broadcaster in Cairo.
Libya’s military spending plunged as relations with the West improved in the past decade, according to data from Sipri and the U.S. State Department’s World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers report.
Rapprochement With West
In 2008, spending was $833 million, according to the State Department. It was down from $2 billion in 1998 and $6.85 billion in 1986, the year Libya was bombed by the U.S. in retaliation for an attack in a Berlin disco. United Nations sanctions on Libya were lifted in 1999 and the rapprochement gathered speed after 2003, when Qaddafi said he renounced terrorism and nuclear technology.
Sipri estimates average defense outlays at 4.4 percent of GDP in the three years through 1999, dropping to 1.2 percent in the period through 2008. The latter figure compares with 2.5 percent in Egypt and 8.6 percent in Saudi Arabia.
U.S. diplomats said Libya’s “aging air force” was on “full display” when a plane crashed at the Libyan Aviation Exhibition in October 2009, according to a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli that month, released by Wikileaks.org. It said the incident showed the “weaknesses of Libya’s military air fleet.”
Tribes, Sons, Mercenaries
Tribal divisions within Libya’s army may have accelerated its fragmentation. Many soldiers come from tribes such as the Warfalla and Magariha whose loyalty to Qaddafi is questionable, while the air force, dominated by Qaddafi’s native Qadhafa tribe, remains more loyal, according to Sullivan.
Qaddafi focused resources on equipment and facilities, instead of personnel and training, the IISS said. Egypt has 1 million fighters and reservists, or about 12.5 people under arms per 1,000 of population compared with 7.8 in Libya, according to the IISS study.
Money withheld from the traditional military was put into special forces led by Qaddafi’s sons Saif al-Islam, Motassim and Khamees, said Mohammed El-Katiri, an analyst at the New York-based Eurasia Group, which measures political risk. Payoffs also went to mercenaries and tribes, though the lack of transparency makes it impossible to say how much was spent, he said.
The Libyan leader “doesn’t have confidence in his own army and police,” Nouri el-Mismari, Qaddafi’s former protocol chief, said at a press conference in Paris today. “That’s why he hired the mercenaries.”
Between 2005 and 2008, Libya signed about $1 billion in arms transfer agreements with Western European countries, as well as $300 million with Russia, according to the Congressional Research Service, a division of the Library of Congress.
When Qaddafi visited Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris in December 2007, an aide to the French president said talks included potential arms sales worth 4.5 billion euros ($6.2 billion).
They included 14 Rafale fighter jets, which are built by Dassault Aviation SA, as well as helicopters, ships, combat vehicles and artillery, the official said.
Talks on the sale of Rafale fighter jets never resulted in a sale, said Mathieu Durand, a spokesman for Dassault. In 2009, Libya received 100 Milan anti-tank missiles, made by a unit of European Aeronautic, Defense & Space Co. and worth 168 million euros, according to Sipri.
Who to Help?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has held talks with European counterparts on imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, and said this week that the U.S. is willing to support anti-Qaddafi forces.
Rebels fighting against Qaddafi’s government are discussing whether to ask for United Nations airstrikes, the New York Times reported, citing unidentified people with knowledge of the deliberations. The rebel council isn’t seeking “foreign intervention,” the newspaper said.
The best option for countries seeking to oust Qaddafi may be to emulate his strategy of backing individuals not institutions, said Barak Seener, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London.
That would involve an effort “to engage with specific military and tribal leaders that are openly opposed to Qaddafi by offering them financial incentives, weapons and logistical support,” he said. “The same way that Qaddafi did to secure their support throughout the decades.”