For the Sake of Tunisia, Don't Escalate the Armed Conflict in Libya

TUNIS -- There are many compelling reasons why the United States and Europe -- for the sake of Libya itself -- should resist the momentum that seems to be building towards some kind of Western-led, military escalation in the Southern Mediterranean.

Libya is currently engaged in a concerted process to bring about national reconciliation and restore national governance -- admittedly a tall order five years after NATO helped oust the country's longtime dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.

Intervention at this sensitive moment, even if it focused on a systematic campaign against ISIS, would probably irreparably fracture the peace-building process by injecting more violence into an already violent situation and encouraging Islamists and nationalists to resist the introduction of external hard power in their own rough balance of forces.

Moreover, despite the recently revealed Pentagon plan to "cripple" ISIS in the country by scaling up American attacks on the group, roughly similar expectations promising a total victory over insurgents have all too often brought about reverse outcomes: In particular, greater violence and socio-economic collapse that pushes more people into the arms of extremists while incubating ever more determined iterations of armed movements.

One particularly compelling argument, however, for not intervening in Libya lies just next-door in Tunisia.

Almost exactly one year ago, this country was rudely awakened to the extent of its neighbor's breakdown when ISIS-linked terrorists, trained in Libya, killed dozens of Tunisians and foreigners at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis.

That attack was then followed up with another Libya-originated operation in the resort city of Sousse in June. Thirty-nine people were killed and the vital tourism sector ground to a halt.

Over the past two weeks, ISIS has ratcheted up pressure on Tunisia even further, complementing a four year long, Al-Qaeda-led insurgency in the Gassrine region of Western Tunisia with attacks on the city of Ben Gardane that sits astride the porous, south-eastern border with Libya.

Here again, the 100-plus attackers, mostly Tunisian and from the area of Ben Gardane itself, were reportedly indoctrinated, trained and equipped at ISIS bases just across the border in Libya. Their mission was either a series of probing attacks or, as some Tunisian government officials have said, the establishment of an ISIS "emirate" in the area.

Although Tunisian leaders and Western diplomats I met with recently have publicly proclaimed that Tunisia is strong enough to foil either of these objectives, privately both sides express grave concern that the country could fracture along regional lines if repeatedly or boldly challenged in the coming weeks and months by ISIS or others.

The reason for this fear is that the country is grossly unprepared to defend itself.

Its army remains small, under-trained and under-equipped. The far larger police and National Guard forces are widely viewed as abusive of the civilian population, inefficient and rife with corruption (especially when it comes to the kind of cross-border smuggling from which ISIS also benefits).

And instead of a robust de-radicalization program, the security sector is instead imprisoning people at a faster rate than ever before, sometimes arbitrarily and all too often in a manner that only encourages greater radicalization.

At the same time, the World Bank expects Tunisia's official GDP growth for 2015 to be near zero. The tourism sector has essentially collapsed, unemployment is rising, especially among youths who were behind recent protests in Gassrine, and the country faces severe currency and budgetary pressures over the next year, despite a hurried series of loans engineered by the US and Europe.

Amid all of this, a Western-led, military escalation in Libya now would only aggravate these already troubling indicators, not least because it would likely push ISIS (and more Libyan refugees) farther westward towards the heart of Tunisia.

In this scenario, any attacking coalition would be forced to decide if expanding its area of operations farther afield would be possible, much less desirable.

No matter the decision though, the further destabilization of Tunisia as a result of the initial intervention would greatly exacerbate the refugee situation for Europe by adding yet another Mediterranean state to the list of failed or failing countries at its door.

The US and its allies would also find its own attempts to monitor and stabilize North Africa to be a vastly more complicated affair than it already is since new territory would be opened up for any number of insurgent or criminal groups.

Neighboring Algeria, too, would face mounting problems on top of its own unprecedented trifecta of threats represented by falling energy prices, elite infighting and the already dangerous level of regional disintegration.

But most of all, the further destabilization of Tunisia would be catastrophic for Tunisians themselves.

Instead of standing as a Nobel Prize winning country and the only successful democratic transition to come out of the 2011 Arab revolts, Tunisian citizens would face the very real prospect of their families, friends and compatriots joining the ranks of so many tens of millions of Arab citizens whose countries lie in ruin and for whom constant violence and socio-economic hopelessness are now the norm.

This is not to say that a major intervention in Libya should be totally ruled out in the future.

In order to avoid the pitfalls that seem likely, any such move at a bare minimum should be preceded by three crucial actions.

First, the Libyan reconciliation process should be fully supported with readily available political, economic and diplomatic tools until a reasonably stable and sustainable transitional government is reached.

Second, the Syria war has to be substantially de-escalated and a robust peace process put in place. Without this, the vortex that Syria has become - both sucking in and generating violent extremists who then destabilize the whole region and beyond - will continue to serve as a lifeline for the expansion of ISIS's footprint and as a strategic depth that diverts finite resources (and political capital) from its enemies.

But perhaps more importantly, ahead of any intervention, Tunisia must be able to adequately defend itself and prevent any westward push by ISIS. This would mean finally providing Tunisian democrats with enough hard power so that they can reform the security sector and the grossly inefficient and unfair economic order - all in order to get both on a fighting basis.

Indeed, the harsh reality is that unless the deeply rooted, parallel state here is rapidly pushed to the margins, meaning the top tier of the corruption matrix that exists between some in the security sector, some economic elites and the traditional mafia, Tunisia will likely not be able to resuscitate its economy and it won't be able to defend itself from a determined enemy with ample territory to find sanctuary.

More cash, weapons and training then, from the US and Europe, will only end up being wasted, as has been the case in similar circumstances around the world where parallel states are allowed to maintain a symbiotic relationship with the economic dislocation and security breakdown that they actually helped to foster in the first place.

The path forward is for the elected representatives of Tunisia to join with the external backers of the country, especially the UN, the EU and the US, to collectively design and implement policies that can realize the bold reforms in the economy and the security sector that are desperately needed.

Unfortunately, given the power of the parallel state, this may necessitate ceding some national sovereignty: One proposal would be to create a hybrid Tunisian-UN tribunal that would rapidly investigate and try cases of grand theft corruption among security officials and businesspersons.

While many Tunisians would probably be rightfully skeptical of such an approach, the country is already involved in a far less transparent process of starting to cede some of its sovereignty to international actors who are initiating a more robust "engagement" with the Tunisian military and, at the same time, exacting various legal changes via loan guarantees.

The country also faces the prospect of losing sovereignty over large swathes of its territory to groups like ISIS should they prove successful in their inevitable next attempts to punch through the border.

Given all of this, Tunisia and its international allies should act immediately to preempt these trends and dispense with policies that don't have enough moxie to get the job done - before Tunisia's integrity and way of life buckles under the pressures that are tearing the Middle East and North Africa apart.