September 27, 2011

U.S. Spending More to Help Libyans Secure Weapons Stockpiles

The United States plans to spend an additional $10 million on its efforts to help Libya’s interim government destroy the shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles looted from Muammar el-Qaddafi’s weapons stockpiles and secure his remaining weapons depots, assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs Andrew Shapiro said on Tuesday.

The bloody months of fighting and NATO strikes in Libya left much of the country’s ammunition storage areas unsecured and open to looting. Since the outbreak of fighting, U.S. officials have been concerned about the proliferation of weapons—especially Qaddafi’s cache of shoulder-fired missile launchers—and worried that small arms, ammunition, and explosives could be smuggled out of the country and fall into the hands of those planning terrorist attacks. Before the uprising, there were an estimated 20,000 man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS, in the country; many are currently unaccounted for.

The Obama administration is making it a “top effort” to help the rebels deal with this threat, Shapiro said at a roundtable hosted by the Center for a New American Security.

“We’ve identified at least $10 million that we’re going to spend on this. We’re probably going to spend more,” he said. “So we’re making this a top effort, given the threat that can be posed by loose weapons and missiles coming out of Libya.”

This is in addition to the $3 million the Obama administration has already obligated to two European mine-clearing groups that were working in Libya before the uprising—the Mines Advisory Group based in Britain and the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action—to collect, destroy, and reestablish control of Libyan surface-to-air missiles, small arms, and light weapons and reestablish security at these storage sites.

After the rebel council sent Washington a formal request for assistance in stockpile management and addressing the threats posed by these MANPADS earlier this month, the U.S. has been ramping up the number of weapons experts dispatched to the country. Currently, the U.S. has six weapons experts on the ground, including the leader of the interagency MANPADS Task Force, and five government contractor specialists—generally with military backgrounds and specialization in explosive ordnance disposal—to embed with teams from the rebels' Transitional National Council to secure the MANPADS and the depots. More are expected to follow.“

The goal at this point is to form at least a total of 10 joint teams with the TNC [to help in] sweeping the country, to join those already surveying weapons and ammunition storage sites, and recovering and disabling MANPADS,” a State Department official told National Journal, declining to comment on the record regarding ongoing policy discussions.

Still, Shapiro said, “at the end of the day, the number of sites is large enough that we can’t do it alone.”Shapiro said that the U.S. is engaging with its European partners on this effort. Britain just made an announcement it will send some personnel and devote funding as well, he said.

“Ultimately it’s going to have to be the government of Libya’s responsibility to maintain control of these things,” he said.   “So we’re working to train them in stockpile management to be able to secure these weapons so that they’re not being raided from these sites. That’s going to be a months-long effort ... we’re going to continue until the new government of Libya is able to manage the stockpiles on their own.”