A Surer Footing for a Light Footprint Strategy in Libya
By: Anthony Bell
Five years after the revolution in Libya erupted against the Muammar el-Qaddafi regime in February 2011, the United States is once again contemplating a military intervention in the North African country. Senior Obama administration officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford Jr., have indicated in recent weeks that the United States is close to taking action against the Islamic State in Libya. The group has taken advantage of the political chaos and instability wrought by Libya’s civil war to establish its most significant foothold outside of Iraq and Syria. While the White House is said to be reviewing a number of different options, it has unsurprisingly ruled out a large-scale commitment of U.S. ground forces. This aligns with President Obama’s preference to pursue counterterrorism operations with a light footprint approach blending local forces on the ground and discrete direct action when necessary. Given the U.S. interests at stake in Libya, a light footprint is a sound strategic starting point. Libya’s deeply fragmented political and security landscape, however, will pose significant obstacles and may require a more flexible set of counterterrorism tools to give a light footprint strategy a more sure footing.
The need for U.S. action against the Islamic State in Libya is stark. The Islamic State (IS) first emerged in Libya in late 2014 by gaining small numbers of adherents from the country’s patchwork of Islamist militant organizations. Since then, the Islamic State has managed to establish cells across the country and gain direct control over a large but sparsely populated parcel of territory in central Libya around the coastal city of Sirte. The Islamic State in Libya may now have as many as 6,000 fighters in its ranks and is reportedly attracting an increasingly large cohort of foreign fighters who are either unable or unwilling to make the journey to the battlefields in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State is digging in and expanding its territory. IS recently launched audacious attacks on Libya’s largest oil fields and export terminals—threatening to cripple or capture the lifeblood of the Libyan economy.
The success of a light footprint strategy against the Islamic State in Libya will depend in large measure on the ability of the United States to provide effective assistance to Libyan ground forces. Libya has been torn and twisted by a civil war for the past two years between rival governments jockeying for power and resources. The United States and several European countries have indicated they would be willing to provide military assistance to Libya to combat the Islamic State, but only if the country’s factions ceased fighting each other and formed a national unity government. UN mediators finally brokered such a deal in December, but implementation has stalled. Even if the unity government can be cobbled together, the conditions on the ground in Libya will test the nimbleness of a light footprint strategy to the utmost.
U.S. security assistance is notoriously difficult to implement in countries with dangerous environments, weak central governments, and no permanent U.S. presence. Centralized security institutions in Libya are basically nonexistent. Building functioning security institutions and national military forces will require major political breakthroughs and surely a significant amount of time. In the interim, partnering with local forces will have to mean just that: local forces. Libya does not have a clear national military that can be trained, equipped, and thrown into the fray, and the forces resisting the Islamic State’s advances are collages of militia groups from various cities, political factions, and tribes with tenuous, if any, ties to the state. The hurdles for the U.S. military to be able to quickly and efficiently provide basic support such as training, equipment, and intelligence to these types of local partners are daunting. Most U.S. security assistance programs are designed to plug into functioning defense bureaucracies with clear lines of authority and state militaries with clear chains of command.
The conditions on the ground in Libya are not an exception. An increasingly common feature in the Middle East and North Africa is a state system weakened from multiple internal and external pressures. While contemplating the next steps in Libya, policymakers in the White House and Congress should step back and reassess whether the entire U.S. counterterrorism tool kit needs an update to make it more responsive to these challenges.