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Obama Re-enters the Libya War

On August 1, the US Air Force conducted targeted bombings of Sirte, Libya, flying out of the Naval Air Station at Sigonella, Sicily. President Obama personally announced the beginning of the bombing campaign, which was requested by the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), the United Nations-backed regime, which was installed in Tripoli earlier this year, but which is virtually powerless and dependent on the support of rival militias. President Obama claimed authority to order the bombings without prior Congressional authorization, under the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters that the bombing campaign was open-ended:  “We don’t have an end point at this particular moment in time.”

President Obama’s decision to approve the bombing campaign came at the recommendation of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford. They made the recommendation based on the assessment that, while the Islamic State (ISIL) had been weakened in Libya, the ground offensive, led by the Misrata militia Libyan Dawn and the Petroleum Facilities Guards, to drive ISIL totally out of Sirte, had grounded to a halt.

Global Risk Insights, a London-based risk assessments firm, noted that the invitation to the US to launch the bombing campaign would be widely unpopular, and this was a sign of growing strength and confidence on the part of the GNA, that they were willing to make such a decision, regardless of the backlash. President Obama was persuaded of the need to conduct the open-ended bombing operations against ISIL, partly on the grounds that there was a growing risk of a new wave of refugees flooding into Southern Europe, if ISIL were able to establish a strong operational base in North Africa.

Pentagon officials made clear that the bombing runs will be “regular, but infrequent,” and are the most visible feature of a broader US engagement in Libya that is largely covert. The US, in league with Egypt, is continuing to provide military support to General Khalifa Haftar, who is conducting a war against militias in eastern Libya, which have been linked to the September 11, 2012 attack on the US compound in Benghazi, in which US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other American officials were killed.

The current US policy towards Libya is based on the overtly optimistic assessment that, while the GNA is today virtually powerless, with outside support it can gradually build a national military out of the warring militias over the next several years, and ultimately establish a central government over a loosely confederated Libya. In the near-term, the complete defeat of the Islamic State is crucial to that long-term objective. 

The Obama administration and Pentagon planners acknowledge that the policy will take a decade or more to realize, and they are hoping that some lessons learned from the long war experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria can be applied successfully to the Libyan situation, which has been chaotic since the US-backed overthrow of Qaddafi nearly five years ago. But they cite the recent release from house arrest of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the once-powerful son of the deposed dictator, as evidence that Libya has not degenerated into revenge killings. The US hopes that negotiations among rival tribal groupings can lead to a gradual broadening of the areas under GNA control—without the need for foreign ground troops. The US will not repeat the fatal error it made in Iraq, of dismantling the entire Baathist governing apparatus, as well as the armed forces.

Achieving any measure of stability in Libya, whether or not ISIL is decisively defeated and driven out of the country, is a very tall order. ISIL has recruited from the veterans of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), including from Afghan mujahideen veterans who next fought in Syria against Bashar al-Assad’s government, before returning home to Libya.  They were joined by Tunisians who were also affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

There is growing concern that, if the US bombing operations do lead to the defeat of ISIL in Sirte, the fighters will regroup across the border in Tunisia and continue to destabilize the region. There have been recent border clashes between the Tunisian Army and ISIL fighters at Ben Guerdane, just inside Tunisia.

In eastern Libya, despite the US and Egyptian covert support for General Haftar’s self-described Libyan National Army, the situation has by no means been stabilized. After bombing raids against Benghazi, a series of car bombings took place in the Guwarsha and Ganfouda neighborhoods of the city.

When the GNA was first installed earlier this year, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj issued Decree No. 1, declaring that all of the militias would be under civilian government command. However, both the Libyan National Army of General Haftar and the Petroleum Facilities Guards led by Ibrahim Jadhran were exempted from that order, making it almost meaningless. The Misrata militias under Salah Badi have aligned with the GNA, but the al-Sarraj government is more a captive to than the master of that arrangement. In the Tripoli area, there continue to be periodic conflicts between the Haitham Tajouri militia and the forces under former LIFG leader Abdelhakim Belhaj. Recently, militias entered the Ain Zara Prison south of Tripoli and murdered 12 prisoners who had been pardoned by the GNA before they could be released.

As uncertain and dangerous as the Libya situation remains, some US intelligence officials are becoming even more worried about the ISIL expansion in the Sinai Desert in Egypt, than they are about ISIL’s resilience in Libya and other parts of the Maghreb.

With limited resources, and with uncertainty about the policies of the next US administration, the Obama administration’s efforts are being driven by near-term tactical developments—despite the lofty and perhaps overly-optimistic formulations presented by the US President and his inner circle. As one critic warned, “Obama is all about personal legacy at this time, and that can lead to some grave errors in judgment.”

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