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Inside the plan to send American diplomats back to Libya

The Biden administration sees a US diplomatic presence in Libya as critical to helping counter Russia’s growing footprint in Africa as well as supporting a UN-led push for elections.
An Aerial view Taken by drone of Tripoli, Libya old City . You can see marcus aurelius arch, Cornthia Hotel, Dat Al-Emad, Burj Al-Fatah, Burj Abu-laila & JW Marriot Hotel

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has notified Congress of its plan to restore the US diplomatic presence in Libya, a decade after unrest in the North African country forced American diplomats to evacuate the US Embassy in Tripoli. 

The State Department submitted a formal notification to lawmakers this month, a senior State Department official told Al-Monitor, kicking off what the department expects will be a one-to-two-year process to establish “an interim diplomatic facility” in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. 

The United States has been without an embassy in Libya since its personnel withdrew under heavy military escort in 2014 amid the budding civil war. American diplomats relocated to Malta and later Tunisia, where they now form a remote mission known as the Libya External Office. 

The Biden administration's budget request for fiscal year 2025 seeks $57.2 million to fund a more robust diplomatic presence in Libya, including property costs, travel, equipment and security at its facility located in the western suburbs of Tripoli.

The US facility won't be a formal embassy, at least not for the foreseeable future. The Tunis-based diplomats assigned to Libya will instead use it to make more frequent and longer trips to the country. 

“There’s no substitute for persistent on-the-ground engagement with Libyan actors,” a senior State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the arrangements. 

“We've taken the time to really undertake the diligent planning for this important milestone,” the senior official said. “It's a very complicated undertaking to resume operations in a suspended post.”

United States an outlier 

Libya plunged into chaos with the NATO-backed uprising that overthrew and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Full-blown civil war erupted several years later between the Tripoli-based internationally recognized Government of National Accord and Gen. Khalifa Hifter’s self-styled Libyan National Army in the east, each of which were backed by foreign powers that flooded the country with arms and mercenaries. 

Since brokering a cease-fire between the warring sides in October 2020, the United Nations has tried repeatedly to hold nationwide elections. The polls were originally planned for December 2021 but called off at the last minute amid disputes over who was eligible to run. 

Despite the political impasse, improved security conditions have led several US partners to reopen their embassies in recent years, including Italy in 2017, France in 2021 and the United Kingdom in 2022. 

But for the United States, raising its flag in Libya risks becoming a partisan issue. The September 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans brought increased scrutiny of US diplomatic outposts and spawned one of the costliest and most partisan congressional investigations in history. 

Today, most of the Republicans lawmakers who were members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, such as Trey Gowdy and Mike Pompeo, are out of office. But Benghazi still colors the views of some House Republicans, said another US official familiar with the current discussions over a renewed diplomatic presence. Their engagement with the State Department on Libya is “almost always antagonistic and oppositional,” the official said. 

The State Department stresses that its embassy operation plan, which is two years in the making, has "clearly defined safeguards" to ensure diplomatic work is conducted "safely and effectively." 

“We're mindful of the history,” the senior State Department official said. “We in no way have rushed this.” 

The department has briefed and closely coordinated with relevant congressional committees on the logistical and security arrangements at Palm City, a gated luxury community in Tripoli’s Janzour neighborhood where the United States is currently renting property. The sprawling complex also hosts a mix of oil and gas companies, nongovernmental organizations and other foreign missions, including those of the European Union and the United Nations. 

The location’s proximity to the Mediterranean shoreline enables fast evacuations by sea. As Hifter’s forces advanced on Tripoli in 2019, the US military hastily withdrew a small contingent of US forces from Palm City on hovercraft. 

Countering Russia’s inroads

The State Department cites a range of “fundamental interests” that warrant a restored US diplomatic presence in Libya, including supporting the United Nations' push for elections, promoting US trade and investment opportunities and preventing Libya from becoming enmeshed in rising instability across the Sahel region.

But chief among the reasons for a US return is Russia’s expanding foothold on NATO’s southern flank. As the United States conducted diplomacy from the sidelines, Wagner Group mercenaries over the years helped cement Russian influence in Libya.

Since Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mysterious death in a plane crash in August, the Russian government has reportedly brought remnants of the paramilitary group under its direct supervision. A February report from the London-based Royal United Services Institute said Russia's military intelligence service, the GRU, has “taken the Wagner Group’s functions in house."

“In this moment after Prigozhin’s death, there's a kind of ongoing evolution in how Russia is undertaking its activities across the African continent,” the senior State Department official said. “It stands to reason that as most other countries including major powers establish their diplomatic presence in Tripoli, the United States should do the same." 

The remote diplomacy has made it harder for US officials to monitor events on the ground and build necessary relationships with local actors. In his capacity as special envoy to Libya, former ambassador Richard Norland travels regularly between Washington and Tripoli. The United States, however, is currently without an ambassador to the war-ravaged country while career diplomat Jennifer Gavito awaits Senate confirmation to take up the vacant post in Tunis. 

Moscow has sought to fill the diplomatic vacuum. Its ambassador to Libya, Aydar Aganin, is a fluent Arabic speaker who used to work for the Russia Today news service and is described by other diplomats as “very active.”

“The Russians are desperate to impose legitimacy on their presence in Libya,” said a Libyan official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He’s using ‘we’re here and the Americans are not’ as a kind of sales pitch.” 

The Russians "seem to be shoring up their presence," said Stephanie Williams, a former US diplomat who also served in senior UN roles in the country, including as special adviser to the UN secretary general on Libya from 2021 to 2022.

"Libya has never been high on the priority list for Washington," Williams said. "The US has not been there for many, many years, but you have to start somewhere. The best place to start is with an embassy on the ground.”