War Against ISIS Poised To Expand Into Libya?
President Obama is being pressed by advisers to expand the war against ISIS to yet another front, and this time it’s a front far away from either Iraq or Syria:
WASHINGTON — President Obama is being pressed by some of his top national security aides to approve the use of American military power inLibya to open up another front against the Islamic State.
But Mr. Obama, wary of embarking on an intervention in another strife-torn country, has told his aides to redouble their efforts to help form a unity government in Libya at the same time the Pentagon refines its options, which include airstrikes, commando raids or advising vetted Libyan militias on the ground, as Special Operations forces are doing now in eastern Syria. The use of large numbers of American ground troops is not being considered.
The debate, which played out in a meeting Mr. Obama had with his advisers last week, has not yet been resolved, nor have the size or contours of any possible American military involvement been determined.
“The White House just has to decide,” said one senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “The case has been laid out by virtually every department.”
The number of Islamic State fighters in Libya, Pentagon officials said this week, has grown to between 5,000 and 6,500 — more than double the estimate government analysts disclosed last fall. Rather than travel to Iraq or Syria, many new Islamic State recruits from across North Africa have remained in Libya, in militant strongholds along more than 150 miles of Mediterranean coastline near Surt, these officials said.
The top leadership of the Islamic State in Syria has sent half a dozen top lieutenants to Libya to help organize what Western officials consider the most dangerous of the group’s eight global affiliates. In recent months, United States and British Special Operations teams have increased clandestine reconnaissance missions in Libya to identify the militant leaders and map out their networks for possible strikes.
Military planners are still awaiting orders on whether American involvement would include striking senior leaders, attacking a broader set of targets, or deploying teams of commandos to work with Libyan fighters who promise to support a new Libyan government. Any military action would be coordinated with European allies, officials said.
Teams of American Special Operations forces have over the past year been trying to court Libyan allies who might join a new government in a fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. But commanders say they are dealing with a patchwork of Libyan militias that remain unreliable, unaccountable, poorly organized and divided by region and tribe.
“How long will the United States and the Europeans wait until they say, we have to work with whatever militias we can on the ground?” said Frederic Wehrey, a Libya specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who frequently visits the country.
When Mr. Obama assembled his national security advisers last Thursday to discuss escalating the fight against the Islamic State, he asked them to prepare whatever military measures were necessary to combat the militants in Libya while not undercutting the international effort to help form a national unity government.
For Mr. Obama the challenge is to avoid embarking on yet another major counterterrorism campaign in his last year in office while also moving decisively to prevent the rise of a new arm of the Islamic State that if left unchecked analysts say could attack the West, including Americans or American interests.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter summed up the balancing act between nurturing the fragile and fitful political process and gearing up for what would most likely be a Special Operations war this way last week: “We’re looking to help them get control over their own country.”
But, he added, “We don’t want to be on a glide slope to a situation like Syria and Iraq. That’s the reason why we’re watching it that closely. That’s the reason why we develop options for what we might do in the future.”
A dozen American and European military, intelligence and counterterrorism officials said in interviews that they had little doubt that the Islamic State in Libya posed an ominous threat.
“You could see a very large holding, an area that is effectively governed by ISIS in Libya, and Libya’s proximity to serve as a gateway into southern Europe,” Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said this week in calling for military strikes against Islamic State leaders.
Secretary of State John Kerry said in Rome this week that the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State must intensify its efforts to thwart thttp://www.cnn.com/2014/11/18/world/isis-libya/he group from gaining a “stranglehold” in oil-rich Libya, mainly by backing the creation of a national unity government there. “The last thing in the world you want is a false caliphate with access to billions of dollars of oil revenue,” Mr. Kerry said.
Forming a unity government would most likely lay the groundwork for the West to provide badly needed security assistance to the new Libyan leadership. Options under discussion include sending Italian and other European troops to Libya to establish a local stabilization force and reviving a Pentagon plan to train Libyan counterterrorism troops.
There is no functioning government now in Libya, where a NATO bombing campaign helped overthrow Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi nearly five years ago. Warring factions are far more focused on fighting one another than on battling the Islamic State, and Libya’s neighbors are all too weak or unstable to lead or even host a military intervention.
Lawmakers in Libya’s internationally recognized Parliament last week overwhelmingly rejected a proposed United Nations-backed unity cabinet, dealing a blow to diplomatic efforts to swiftly reconcile the country’s splintered factions.
Senior administration officials say the parallel tracks of supporting the political process in Libya while fighting the Islamic State are “mutually reinforcing.” But at some point, current and former administration officials said, the United States may have to act unilaterally or with allies if faced with a credible threat from the Libyan franchise.
“Weighing our actions based on how it impacts the Libyan political environment is an almost impossible juggling act,” said Juan Carlos Zarate, a former top counterterrorism official under President George W. Bush. “We may not have a choice if ISIS continues to control greater swaths of territory and assemble more terrorists.”
The fact that the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS is now finding itself being force to turn attention to Libya is not entirely surprising. In the roughly year and a half since ISIS burst on the scene and declared the formation of the so-called “Islamic State” in the territory it has captured in Iraq and Syria, militants and Jihadists in many countries around the Middle East and Northern Africa have pledged their allegiance to ISIS in one way or another. This has included groups in areas as diverse as Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and, of course Libya. While most of these groups have tenuous ties to ISIS itself at best, in many cases ISIS itself has followed up by sending representatives to many of these groups and making the ties more formal and, in some cases, establishments more a more formal presence in the territory controlled by the group(s) in question. This has apparently been the case to some degree in Afghanistan, and it appears to be at least part of the reason that the United States has slowed the withdrawal of American troops yet again despite previous plans to have all American troops out of that country by the end of this year.
Nowhere has ISIS expansion been happening at a faster pace, though, than in Libya. Thanks in large part to the fact that the central government that replaced the Gaddafi regime is weak to non-existent and has largely ceded control of vast swaths of the country outside of the area surrounding the cities on the nation’s Mediterranean coastline, there seems to be plenty of space in that nation for militant groups to establish a foothold and centers of power that have remained largely unchallenged for years now. Unsurprisingly, ISIS has taken advantage of that power vacuum to establish a foothold in the nation to the point that there has been some speculation that ISIS leadership may consider Libya to be a “backup” power center that they could escape to should the coalition’s war against the group in Iraq and Syria start to prove successful enough that it is actually threatening their hold on power. What this means, of course, is that defeating ISIS in the Levant, which is something that is by no means certain and still seemingly a long way off even if it is an attainable goal, may not be the end of the game. Indeed, the fact that ISIS has apparently already taken hold in parts of Libya suggests that it could become an even more potent force given that it gives the group a base of sorts from which it can strike Europe as well as use the chaos in nations surrounding Libya to expand its power and influence into Northern and Central Africa even while continuing to hold on to its base in Syria and Iraq.
None of this should come as a surprise, of course. Just as toppling Saddam Hussein and fighting the insurgency that followed helped to create the chaos that led to the rise of ISIS to begin with,deposing the long-standing Gaddafi dictatorship helped to create the conditions that have allowed a wide variety of terrorist and Jihaist organizations to thrive in the ungoverned, and ungovernable, areas of Libya. We found that out the hard way in September 2012 when some of those militants staged an attack on the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, a city that remains largely under the control of militants, an attack that resulted in the first death of an American Ambassador in hostile conditions in more than thirty years. Now, we’re finding that the chaos we helped create in Libya has attracted ISIS, and is helping it establish a foothold in a nation that could give it the ability to expand even further than it already has.
At this point, the expansion of the anti-ISIS effort into Libya is only something that the President is being asked to “consider,” but the fact that this story is appearing in The New York Times should be seen as a signal that this is likely where we’re headed in the coming months. In the past, we’ve seen similar reports of President Obama being “advised” to expand the war against ISIS in one way or another drop in the Times or Washington Post only to find the President standing at a podium weeks later that to announce that this is, in fact, what he will be doing. It’s happened at virtually every step along the road of the slow escalation that the Obama Administration has engaged in during this conflict, and it’s likely intended by whomever is leaking these reports to both prepare the public for the inevitable and push their case inside the Administration. The fact that this expansion of a war that Congress still has not debated or approved would happen without any Congressional debate or approval seems to be lost on everyone, as is the fact that, slowly but surely, this President has engaged in a policy of expansion of this conflict that will make it impossible for whomever the next President might be to to either change or course or extract the U.S, from what seems to be an increasingly fruitless endeavor.
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