Rifts have emerged between U.S. military leaders and the Obama White House on Washington’s future role in Libya, with the generals questioning the White House’s argument that the recent success against Islamic State shows Libya can go it alone in the fight against terrorism, without direct U.S. assistance.
Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the White House’s pick to lead U.S. Africa Command, called for increased American military action in Libya to ensure the Islamic State, or ISIS or ISIL, does not reconstitute itself in the country as pressure ramps up against its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
Gen. Waldhauser told a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing Tuesday that U.S. military planners were drafting up battle plans for airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Libya, Reuters reported. The fledgling unity government in Tripoli has enjoyed surprising success in recent weeks in a campaign against the Islamic State’s stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte.
But rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Libya, which require White House approval for any offensive operations in the country, have hamstrung American military planners in the region, according to the report.
Aside from clandestine drone strikes launched from NATO bases in southern Europe and small rotations of U.S. special operations teams working with local militias in Libya, the Pentagon has not conducted any large-scale military mission in the country since the cancellation of a failed train-and-advise operation late last year.
Asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, whether the White House should give U.S. commanders more leeway in going after the Islamic State in Libya, the four-star general responded: “It would be wise. It would certainly contribute to what we’re trying to do inside Libya.”
Gen. Waldhauser was not the first American combatant commander to call for an increased military role for U.S. forces in Libya. U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing earlier this year that he supported restarting the U.S.-led training mission in the country.
In May, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford told reporters that an agreement with Libya’s Government of National Accord, the U.N.-recognized governing body in the country, to open the door for new U.S. operations in the country was weeks from being ratified. At the time, Gen. Dunford said the situation in Libya had deteriorated to the point where Washington and the international community had little choice but to act.
“They want assistance, [and] you know that a number of countries, including the United States, are prepared to do that,” Gen. Dunford said in May. The only thing preventing U.S. officials from going forward was determining whether or not local forces could coalesce around the nascent Libyan government, he noted.
The Libyans’ success in Sirte has changed the calculus. U.S. officials expect the city to fall to government forces within days, Col. Chris Garver, the top U.S. military spokesman for anti-Islamic State operations, said.
Opportunity for action
Gen. Waldhauser said Tuesday the surprising success of Libyan forces against Islamic State has created an opportunity for American forces to conduct operations in Libya, which Islamic State views as a fallback should it lose more ground in Iraq and Syria.
But the White House, wary of pursuing a new military engagement in the region so close to the end of President Obama’s final term in office, has adopted a wait-and-see approach. Some administration officials even argue that the events in Sirte are proof U.S. military intervention isn’t needed.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the Pentagon would be willing to conduct additional airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Libya, telling reporters on Tuesday the department has never shied away from such operations in the past.
“We’ve been willing to take strikes in the past in Libya targeting ISIL leadership,” he said. “We are prepared to do so again in the future. But this is a situation where the government … is showing progress [and] military forces aligned with the government are showing progress.”
While pockets of the city remain contested, images of Libyan militiamen, mostly from the western city of Misurata, celebrating in the streets of Sirte began circulating through social media as forces reportedly closed to within yards of the Islamic State-held city center as militants fled their positions throughout the city.
“The most encouraging thing we see right now are the actual actions on the ground … and the progress [Libya] has been making on their own to take out ISIL,” Mr. Cook said.
However, Mr. Cook continued to balk at the idea that a more aggressive U.S. military approach isn’t needed.
“Only in consultation with the [Libyan government] and the partners in the region will we have a better sense of what [the] security needs are going forward and what role, if any, [the U.S.] would need to play,” he added.
“An ideal situation [would be] for the U.S. military not to be involved,” he added. “We understand that that’s not necessarily how this is going to play out.”
Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Seraj made similar suggestions on a possible role for U.S. troops in the country as local forces closed in on Sirte earlier this month. Senior White House officials, however, are adamant that expanded U.S. military engagement is a bridge too far.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who was vehemently opposed to the U.S. role in the 2011 NATO campaign that helped oust longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi, said Monday that the situation in the country illustrates the drawbacks of direct military intervention.
“My question was, ‘OK, tell me what happens. He’s gone. What happens? Doesn’t the country disintegrate? What happens then?” Mr. Biden said in an interview with Charlie Rose, recalling the internal debate on whether to support the NATO bombardment.
“Doesn’t it become … a petri dish for the growth of extremism? And it has,” Mr. Biden said.
Gen. Waldhauser warned Tuesday that local forces in Libya still had a long way to go to prove their viability to American military commanders.
“The unpredictable nature of paramilitary group patronage will most likely remain a significant obstacle to [the government’s] efforts to establish sovereignty,” he said.