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Don't Look Now But Libya Is Falling Apart

Amid renewed fighting in Gaza, a militant land grab in Iraq, a pseudo-war between Russia and Ukraine, an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Libya is coming apart at the seams too. Not that many seem to notice.

The militias who deposed Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011 are now battling for control of the country and its plentiful oil reserves. Some groups, like the militias in Zintan, are more moderate, while those in Misrata are reportedly aligned with the Islamists.

The government has no army with which to suppress them, and is relying on its own militias. The United States has proposed several plans to train Libyan security forces. But those efforts have collapsed due to the country's inability to pay for such training and develop the bureaucracy necessary to manage it. Other countries, including Morocco, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Italy, are also reportedly training Libyan forces.

Amid all this, fighting has only grown more intense over the summer, raising questions about whether Libya is on the fast track to civil war -- or already in one.

On Monday, planes of initially unknown origin conducted airstrikes on Islamist targets in Tripoli. Then, in the early hours of Tuesday, unidentified militants shelled an affluent section of Tripoli with Grad rockets, killing three. And, yes, that's the same kind of artillery Russia has been accused of firing across the Ukrainian border.

Who fired the Grad rockets remains a mystery, but eventually Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a onetime Qaddafi loyalist turned revolutionary and now a hardened anti-Islamist fighter, took credit for the airstrikes. Haftar said it's part of his broader campaign for control of the city and airport, though there's still some question as to whether Libyan planes could have been in any shape to conduct the strikes.

In May, Haftar's forces launched what they dubbed "Operation Dignity," a concentrated campaign against Islamist militias in Benghazi. Soon after, Haftar also dissolved the Libyan General National Congress, ousting the government's many Islamist lawmakers. His campaign against the militias has experienced mixed success, and has also contributed to instability and violence.

In response, Islamist forces embarked on "Operation Dawn," an attempt to secure control of Tripoli's airport.

The Libyan government has little to no control of the capital city of Tripoli, and is currently working out of the eastern city of Tobruk. Libya held an election on June 25 for a new body called the Council of Representatives, which is charged with drafting a permanent constitution and holding presidential elections within 18 months. In the election, secular politicians secured a decisive majority over Islamists.

On Wednesday, there was a rare spot of good news. Libyan officials said they will again export oil, something that hasn't happened since July 2013, when militants tried to take over the country's oil-shipping infrastructure. U.S. forces managed to quash any oil sale by stopping a tanker, and the rebels agreed last month to reopen the terminal along with another port at Ras Lanuf.   

The plan was for an Italian oil tanker to depart from the Es Sider terminal, its belly full of some 600,000 barrels of oil headed for the Italian port of Trieste, the Wall Street Journal reported. Drilling has also resumed at Sharara, Libya's biggest oil field. That resumption, along with the reopened ports, would boost Libyan oil production to some 560,000 barrels a day, about four times the level in May, according to the newspaper. The good news could hearten foreign buyers skittish about doing business with Libya.

Then, on Thursday, Tunisia and Egypt canceled most flights into and out of Libya. Tunisian authorities didn't say why, but Egyptian officials said it was for security reasons, especially given the extant uncertainty over who conducted the complex airstrikes on Tripoli earlier this week. As Reuters reported, flights from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya had been operating on an almost daily basis.

In public statements, the U.S. government has encouraged the Libyan government's democracy-building efforts. Just last week, the United States, France, Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement commending the Libyan Council of Representatives for taking an "important step towards putting Libya's democratic transition back on track and helping restore law and order to the country," and called on the council to be "inclusive and fully representative in its work going forward."

Meanwhile, the United States has also been careful not to draw conclusions or premature comparisons between the situation in Libya and other theaters of conflict. When asked in a press briefing last week what lessons the Obama administration has learned from Libya that it is applying to Iraq, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the situations are not analogous, emphasizing that Iraqis asked for U.S. assistance in their fight against Islamic State forces, as opposed to the situation in Libya, where the United States provided assistance through NATO in the 2011 ouster of Qaddafi.

When pressed on the scale of U.S. involvement in Libya, Harf said that the United States "took a pretty lead role in NATO in the Libya operation, and I think Colonel Qadhafi would certainly agree that we took a pretty lead role there, considering how he ended up."

MAHMUD TURKIA

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State's Contracting in Ebola-Plagued Countries Under Scrutiny

This story has been updated.

Whether the United States is convening an unprecedented summit with heads of state, responding to a terrifying Ebola epidemic, or working with governments to battle Boko Haram, its diplomatic relationships with African countries have perhaps never been more central to its foreign policy. That makes the latest audit published by the Office of the Inspector General (IG) of the State Department particularly worrisome.

Released this week, the new audit follows up on concerns raised in previous IG reports on shoddy contracting and grant oversight. It uncovers a number of troubling expenditures and questionable contracting practices in the Bureau of African Affairs, which awarded $359 million in contracts and $70 million in grants domestically from 2010 to 2012. The IG examined eight contracts deemed "high-risk and medium-risk," and eight "high-dollar-value grants" administered by the bureau.

Some highlights: In Ebola-devastated Sierra Leone, the African Affairs Bureau spent $83,295.20 on a generator and two fuel tanks that didn't meet the contract's specifications. In the same contract, the U.S. embassy in Sierra Leone used $1.5 million worth of government-purchased equipment "for purposes other than for which the equipment was intended" -- i.e., for "servic[ing] Embassy personnel's personal vehicles as well as to perform maintenance on Embassy equipment." In fairness, the State Department accepted most of the IG's recommendations -- 21 of 22 -- to fix problems revealed ("pending further action") in the report.

But a potentially big one remains -- the African Affairs Bureau's use of allegedly poorly qualified, under equipped officials to oversee the contracts themselves -- people known as "site contractors." According to bureau officials, they can be either U.S. government employees or contractors. "[T]he difference between a site coordinator and a" government technical monitor, or GTM, "is that site coordinators do not accept goods or services or approve invoices whereas GTMs do," the audit explains. Coordinators can make recommendations to contracting officers, who then make the final call and sign off on invoices.

"None of the site coordinators had the combination of sufficient training or experience to perform GTM-like responsibilities," the IG reports. The report also notes that the contracting officer overseeing two contracts in Mauritania failed to delegate the administration and oversight of the contracts to an official with the proper, high-level certification. Instead, management of the contracts was handed off to a non-certified site coordinator.

"According to the site coordinator, she did not have any prior training on contracts or contract oversight," the report states. " In addition, the site coordinator stated that the [contracting officer] did not provide her with a copy of the contract, the contract modifications, or any other relevant information for 4 months." And because the coordinator wasn't sufficiently trained, "she did not fully understand her role and responsibilities, and was not aware of how to oversee the contractor's performance."

And there's another glaring problem. According to the IG, State doesn't have any policies outlining site coordinators' roles, responsibilities, training, certification requirements, "or limitations." Because State doesn't officially recognize them, the African Affairs Bureau's use of them instead of government monitors allows it to circumvent federal contracting requirements.

The African Affairs Bureau, for its part, says it relied on coordinators because it was short-staffed and has high turnover, leaving it with inexperienced staff to conduct oversight. They also say that these coordinators can travel places where U.S. government officials can't. But the IG found that coordinators are used in countries such as Mauritania and LIberia, both places that government officials are cleared to travel. 

The IG wants State to fix its contract-oversight processes and "discontinue" the use of site coordinators where possible. Although the African Affairs Bureau will "adjust its use of site coordinators" and clarify their responsibilities -- namely, to make sure that these people aren't undertaking specific governmental duties -- it intends to continue using them.

"I've never heard about these site coordinators before, but the concept of using unqualified personnel to oversee contracts is pretty serious. It's going to lead to fraud, waste, and abuse," said Neil Gordon of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.

The other big takeaway, he adds, is that some or most of the coordinators apparently are contractors. "This raises conflict of interest concerns and the possibility of contractors performing inherently governmental functions, which is illegal," he added. In fact, as a previous IG audit found, third-party contractors were used as site coordinators and "performed inherently governmental functions." Depending on how pervasive this practice is, this is a question that's bound to trigger future contracting headaches in the region.

On background, the State Department says that it does not recognize a special category of function called "site coordinators," and adds that improperly using a contractor for inherently governmental duties would be a policy violation, rather than a violation of the law.

The State Department also has existing guidance requiring consideration of conflict of interest issues in establishing contract administration, and guidance requiring an analysis of functions to determine if they are inherently governmental prior to being contracted.

CARL DE SOUZA / Staff