Libya’s toughest test may be building an army

The New York Times reports: The marching can hardly be called crisp as the new Libyan National Army takes form in daily drills at an abandoned air force base here.

The soldiers do not yet march in step or even keep their formations straight. Some answer their cellphones when they should be taking orders. Some smoke in the middle of exercises. Others push and shove as personal disputes break out over one thing or another.

“You are not going to see a good, really good military,” Gen. Abdul Majid Fakih, an instructor at the military academy under Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi who later defected, said as he supervised the training. “We are just beginning to build.”

Libya has never had a truly professional national army — a cornerstone in the building of a modern state — one that was not the personal tool of a king or dictator and purposely kept weak and divided to avert coups. And the effort at building one by the struggling new interim government may be its most difficult and important task.

Only a respected army will be able to persuade or force the various competing and heavily armed militias around the country to disarm and join together under a unified leadership. The challenge was underscored over the weekend when a militia from the town of Zintan captured Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, Colonel Qaddafi’s son and onetime heir apparent, without any help from the army, and then refused to turn him over to the central government.

The army is trying to build respect by holding parades around the country, complete with parachute jumps and fly-bys by Soviet-era MIG fighter jets and Mi-8 helicopters. But even the officers of the new force say they face challenges in building national veneration around the military, as well as in breaking old habits of officer cronyism and allegiance to one strongman or another.

The new army, which numbers a few thousand and includes many soldiers who deserted Colonel Qaddafi’s military, needs barracks, uniforms, vehicles, boots, radios, even flashlights, officers say. Rather than having a central unified command, it is being formed by distinct committees in different cities, following the model of the diverse bunch of militias that fought the war against the dictatorship. And perhaps most troubling, the militias across the country are already refusing to take its orders.

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