WASHINGTON — The United States plans to help Libya build a commando force to fight extremists like those that staged the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, officials said Oct. 16.
President Barack Obama’s administration is seeking congressional approval for $6.2 million in Pentagon funds and $1.6 million from the State Department’s budget for the initiative, according to documents from each department.
Plans to train a Libyan security force were already in the works before dozens of heavily-armed militants laid siege to the American mission in Benghazi last month, killing the ambassador and three U.S. staff.
“It was marching down the path to being approved prior to the Benghazi attack. It was already before Congress,” a defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.
The initiative is designed to “train and equip Libya Special Operations Forces to counter and defeat terrorist and violent extremist organizations,” said an Aug. 24 Pentagon document. The funds are being shifted from other projects in the Defense and State department budgets, officials said.
The planned Libya commando force would receive training “to conduct special operations missions, including counterterrorism operations to fight al-Qaida and its affiliates,” according to a State Department document.
The Sept. 11 attack on the Benghazi mission has turned into a major issue in the U.S. election campaign, weighing heavily over a make-or-break debate between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney on Oct. 16.
The Obama administration is accused of failing to ensure adequate security for the consulate and misleading the American public by only belatedly admitting that the assault was a terror attack by al-Qaida-linked extremists.
On the eve of the Oct. 16 presidential debate, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped Obama out by accepting the blame for any shortcomings in the handling of the attack, saying: “I take responsibility.”
The State Department has launched an investigation into possible security failures in Benghazi.
Since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime last year, Libya’s fragile interim government has struggled to maintain security amid tribal conflicts and an array of militias, including those with ties to Islamist groups.
Details of the plan to bolster Libya’s security forces still have to be worked out between officials in Washington and Tripoli. If approved by lawmakers, the project would mark the first use of a new Global Security Contingency Fund — the brainchild of former Pentagon chief Robert Gates and Clinton — intended to provide a way for their departments to take joint action quickly in response to crises.
The defense official confirmed a New York Times report that the Libyan special forces would consist of about 500 troops. The State Department has also proposed to shift $4 million from a fund for Pakistan’s counter-insurgency campaign to bolster border security for Libya.
According to the Pentagon document, the proposed funding for the Libya commando force was part of a larger plan for counterterrorism assistance to the Philippines, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.