What A War With ISIS in Libya Would Look Like
With three competing governments, some of which hate each other more than the Islamic State, things would get tricky fast.
In Libya, which has been in a state of civil war for years, ISIS operates in what Pentagon officials call a “permissive environment.” But if the political stalemate should end, the U.S. would be more likely to up its anti-ISIS efforts in the country, Pentagon and intelligence officials said.
On Tuesday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford said the Pentagon had been talking with one of the factions vying for control of the country to determine operational needs. But removing ISIS from the Libyan sands or their stronghold in Sirte would be more complicated than fighting them in Iraq or even in Syria. The good news, such as it is, is that ISIS, too, has limited prospects there.
Currently, U.S. defense officials estimate, ISIS in Libya may have up to 6,500 fighters. They are led by an “emir” named Abdul Qadr al-Najdi, appointed in March by ISIS’s Syrian leaders after U.S. air strikes killed the previous boss. al-Najdi sits atop a developed leadership structure, closely modeled on the Syrian group’s, with separate portfolios for finance, infrastructure, and so forth.
ISIS in Libya serves as intermediary between the group’s “capital” in Raqqa and its eight other African affiliates in Algeria, Egypt, and elsewhere. Many of the affiliates are just terror groups or militias that pledge allegiance to ISIS; in return, they get Syrian help, mostly in media production and dissemination. (After Nigeria’s Boko Haram pledged its loyalty to ISIS, its media content got “about a million times better,” one U.S. official said. Still, coordinated attacks have shorn Boko of most of the power they held in January 2015.)
The Libyans have a stronghold in Sirte, but “can’t completely press outward,” one defense official said. The reason: ISIS in Libya is surrounded by enemies.
Unfortunately, ISIS’ enemies are also at war with each other.
There are no fewer than three competing governments running Libya. The United Nations has awarded legitimacy to the three-month-old “government of national accord” (GNA) or Unity Government, but that’s hardly settled the matter, said Wayne White, a former deputy director at the State Department.
“Neither of the previous rival governments have fully accepted it,” White said. “Indeed, the previously recognized eastern government in late April attempted to ship crude out of an eastern oil terminal on its own, a vessel and cargo which had to be blacklisted by the UN.”
Still, the GNA, headed by prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj, is the one that the Pentagon has been talking to since launching limited airstrikes in February.
“With regard to subsequent operations that might take place in Libya, that’s going to be at the invitation of the Government of National Accord,” Dunford told reporters on Tuesday. “We’re already working very closely with the GNA to determine what assistance they may require.”
Dunford said Gen. David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Africa Command, has already met with U.S. diplomats, who will “meet with the Government of National Accord to see what requirements may exist from a security perspective and from an operations perspective.”
When might that assistance come? Defense Secretary Ash Carter declined to offer a timeline.
“I think it’s going to be up to them,” the GNA, Carter said at the Tuesday briefing. “But I think that the signs are very positive there. And certainly, you have a willing inclination on the part of the European nations and the United States that have already agreed to assist that government.”
Despite al-Sarraj’s important foreign supporters, the most powerful group on the ground since 2014 has been the General National Congress. Made up of different militias, most notably former members of Libya Dawn, the GNC opposes ISIS, but also al-Sarraj’s efforts to unite the country under his authority, which would require the GNC to relinquish its power gains and its hold on the capital.
The third faction, the Tobruk Parliament, governs the oil-rich eastern part of the country under Gen. Khalifa Haftar. Forced out of Tripoli by the GNC, the Tobruk Parliament stands to gain under a Unity Government, which would install the parliament as the country’s legislative body.
There are signs that al-Sarraj and his Unity Government are gaining ground.
“We’re very hopeful about the latest version of the government in Libya, the government of national accord. Very, very fragile. It appears that there’s room for some hope here,” National Intelligence Director James Clapper said at a Christian Science Monitor meeting with reporters on April 25. “Certainly, we are much better off if we can operate with a government, and co-operate with one and certainly if we are going to do something militarily that we have some recognized governmental entity that can we can engage with and that can hopefully consent to such operations.”
Defense Department officials said they were “realistically hopeful” about the prospects for the Unity Government but added, “there will be hardliners who continue to push back.”
“There are likely to be spoilers...dead-enders that will be irreconcilable under any conditions. That could be anywhere between ten to 40 percent of the militias that are out there,” said Chris Chivvis, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND. “That’s a reality that Libya has to deal with.”
Such spoilers would put an international protection force in an awkward position, depending on how many people side against the government. Exactly how unified or unifying is a government that rules from behind a wall of foreign troops?
The good news is that ISIS has popularity problems too, and is now seen as a foreign, occupying force.
“In the beginning, it was mostly Libyans,” a defense official said, but foreign fighters from the more southern parts of Africa are now moving into the country and staying, instead of moving on to Turkey, Iraq or Syria. The new arrivals annoy the Libyans, according to one official, who described ethnic prejudice against sub-Saharan Africans as a regular fact of life in Libya.
Last month, al-Sarraj rejected a British offer to help, and announced instead plans to gather various Libyan forces for a joint anti-ISIS effort. But experts say it’s going to need foreign help.
Patrick Skinner, former CIA case officer and director of special projects for the Soufan Group, says it’s a fair bet that the United States will “play a train-and-advise role at very least once a stable partner is in place.”
“Sadly, the U.S. has growing experience with training and equipping forces that some large portion of the ‘host’ country probably oppose or at least don't support. Libya will continue a recent trend from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria of the U.S. seeking stability through picking a partner and hoping increased capacity leads to larger change/acceptance/reform. It hasn't worked altogether well in various degrees, but we will try it again in Libya,” he said.
Skinner said the U.S. might wind up helping more than one of the competing governments.
“We've got no qualms encouraging a new Unity Government while maintaining a strike capability with local forces somewhat less aligned with the new government. It's a balance,” he said.
A very delicate balance; the United States must be careful not to appear to slight the eastern-based Tobruk Parliament as it doles out gear to the Unity Government.
“One of the fundamental challenges here is to avoid picking sides between the east and the west,” said Chivvis. “The President’s Council, in theory, should represent at least part of the Eastern government because it’s supposed to be a government of national accord. It’s not only supposed to be about unity between the GNC and the GNA It’s also about bringing in the representatives from the east. How effectively it’s done that is unclear because the east refused, for many months, to confirm the cabinet that the presidency council of the GNA had appointed. It’s still unclear, to me at least, exactly to what extent the presidential council can be said to represent the Tobruk government.”
The United States could work with both, said Chivvas.
“Any support, training, or equipping you provide to one side will be viewed by the other side as favoritism. Up until now, both sides have cared much more about their relative strength vis-à-vis each other than they have about ISIL insurgents,” he said. “If we go in and say we are going to give support to the forces of…General Haftar’s forces in the east, that will be looked upon very negatively by exactly those forces that we are trying to get to come around to an agreement in Tripoli.”
This new force’s first mission would likely be defending the al-Sarraj administration from rival militia groups.
“You’ve got a government set up, say, in buildings in Tripoli. Who is providing protection for that government, first of all? That’s an important question. Depending upon on what militias they have that are loyal to them, it’s not entirely clear whether or not they will be able to provide sufficient protection without some kind of international help,” said Chivvis. “That’s the first instance in which discussion about international support, the international assistance mission start to come into play, and that’s separate from the question of what kind of counter-ISIL operations the United States and its allies and partners in the region might carry out.”
And what of those counter-ISIS efforts?
Defense officials said that U.S. airstrikes had been effective “to a point.” A renewed campaign could even keep ISIS from spreading in Libya or outward to places like Algeria and the Sinai, would “need to be sustained,” one official said. “We had to do multiple strikes in Iraq every night” to change the dynamic there.
If that doesn’t work, it will be time to consider ground troops, Chivvis said.
“A full-scale recapture of Sirte from ISIL, which needs to be the objective, that’s going to require ground forces,” said Chivvis. “My view is that those forces don’t exist in Libya itself in any combination of the various militias that are on the ground. So, what that means is that either the political situation is going to have to get better, or eventually there will have to be Western ground forces on the ground to retake and stabilize Sirte. Now, we are not at that point. Because if you do that right now, before there is a legitimate government in Libya, there’s going to be no way out, effectively. So that is a strategy that could become necessary in the medium term.”
But will the presence of U.S. troops provide a rallying point for ISIS and its recruiters?
“Most people who are experts in Libya believe that any foreign forces in Libya will be rejected immediately by the rejected by the local population. My view is that that is an overly simplistic understanding of how local populations respond to the presence of foreign forces,” Chivvis said. “While there’s no question that ISIL would use the presence of foreign forces as part of its strategic communications plan, the actual reception of the vast majority would depend upon a range of different factors, first and foremost, whether or not their lives are actually improving,” he said. “There are things we now know to do better 10 or 15 years ago.”
Let’s hope so.