The Complex

The Fight Against Libyan Extremists Goes Through... Bulgaria?

Yes, the Pentagon is considering the deployment of U.S. forces to the eastern European country to train Libyan troops, possibly as soon as next year. Adm. William McRaven, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, acknowledged the possibility Saturday while speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, Calif.

The discussions come as Libya faces a wave of attacks by armed militias that killed dozens of civilians this weekend. They have caused instability across the country since the 2011 death of longtime Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. The North African nation also is home to a violent extremist element that gained a new level of infamy after the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in the city of Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Chris Stevens and three other people.

McRaven's comments don't necessarily mean it will be special operators filling the mission, however. Pentagon officials told Foreign Policy on Monday that the Libyans want to train a force of 5,000 to 8,000 security personnel. The U.S. also could train a smaller Libyan counter-terrorism force, but the bulk of the effort -- and U.S. troops -- would be needed to teach basic military skills like weapons handling and patrolling.

"It's an open discussion right now on what this could look like," Air Force Maj. Rob Firman, a Pentagon spokesman, told Foreign Policy. "Theoretically, we could be talking about training small groups at a time."

Why Bulgaria? Pentagon officials did not supply a full rationale Monday, but the nation has been a member of NATO since 2004, and agreed in 2006 to have a presence of up to 2,500 U.S. troops at a time. Last year, they asked for a permanent presence of U.S. forces, according to local media reports. The training of Libyans is likely to occur at Novo Selo Training Area, a sprawling facility that U.S. forces have used regularly for years alongside friendly military forces from the Balkans. A Pentagon official said the Bulgarians are "very open" to the idea, and that the ranges there are "sort of tailor-made" for the mission.

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan first asked U.S. officials and other members of NATO to assist in training the country's military at the G8 Summit in June, Pentagon officials said. NATO and member nations the U.S., Italy and Great Britain all have agreed to help, but the specifics on how the training will occur has not yet been hashed out.

Novo Selo is one of at least four joint U.S.-Bulgarian military training facilities in Bulgaria established by the 2006 agreement the country reached with Washington.  The nation's militaries train together regularly. In one recent example, U.S. Marines and sailors conducted a two-week operation with Bulgarian soldiers at Novo Selo beginning Oct. 28, sharpening skills on everything from search tactics to raid operations. The U.S. forces were with the Black Sea Rotational Force, a Marine unit that deploys annually to work with friendly militaries in Romania, the Republic of Georgia and other countries in the region.

Pentagon officials said the U.S. is still sorting through how it can vet the Libyan forces it trains. It would be problematic, for example, if they have a history of human rights violations in their own nation, a Pentagon official told Foreign Policy. Still, senior officials seem to be aware they would be striking a balance by training Libyan forces without having a large presence of U.S. forces in northern Africa.

"There is probably some risk that some of the people we will be training with do not have the most clean record," McRaven said Saturday, according to the New York Times. "At the end of the day, it is the best solution we can find to train them to deal with their own problems."

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

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