Africa Watch

Obama considers replay of previously failed Libyan strategy

Obama to repeat Libyan folly?

 As the Islamic State’s presence in Libya grows, the US and its Western allies are considering a replay of the strategy that created the present conundrum there.

There is war talk in Washington as the Pentagon requested an allocation of US$200 million in its 2017 budget for counterterrorism operations in Libya and other localities in North and West Africa.

According to Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Obama Administration is “on the verge of taking action” against the IS in Libya.


Libya has been wracked by instability since the NATO-led, US-supported ousting of the Qaddafi regime in October 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring.

Not anticipating Libya’s disintegration and unable to undo the consequences of their actions, the allies must now watch, almost helplessly, Libya host warring militias, two governments and parliaments (in the east and west), and the growing presence of the IS.

The disintegration of the Libyan state has taken its toll on the civilian population, with 2.4 million reliant on humanitarian aid and 1.3 million requiring food assistance.

Libya is also running out of money with its Central Bank’s reserves having shrunk from 2011’s US$280 billion to just US$50 billion.

Oil production has drastically declined from 2010’s 1.65 million barrels per day to a present daily average of 400 000. Libya is predicted to have the world’s fastest-shrinking economy this year.

The threat of the IS

The growing IS presence is considered such a threat to the US and its European and African allies that it forced the Obama administration to, once again, consider war in Libya.

According to intelligence reports, IS is regrouping in Libya, exploiting the prevailing chaos in the country. The number of IS fighters is estimated at between 5 000 and 6,500 — more than previously thought.

Rather than going to Iraq or Syria, where IS is under pressure, many new IS recruits from across North Africa relocate to Libyan militant strongholds along the more than 300 km of Mediterranean coastline. Ironically, one of these strongholds, Sitre, was once the power base of Qaddafi.

It is also said that IS’s top leadership in Syria has sent half a dozen top lieutenants to help organise sympathisers and recruits into combat units.

Against this backdrop there has been mounting pressure in the West, particularly in the US, for military intervention in Libya to open up a new front against IS.

With more than a dozen countries experiencing IS-initiated terrorist attacks since it embarked on a global strategy in the summer of 2014, analysts argue that if left unchecked in Libya, the possibility of terror attacks on Western Europe and American interests will increase considerably.

Oil reserves

Another reason is Libya’s vast oil reserves. US Secretary of State John Kerry did not beat around the bush with his remark that IS must be stopped from gaining a “stranglehold” in oil-rich Libya.

“The last thing in the world you want is a false caliphate with access to billions of dollars of oil revenue,” he said.

The IS is not only interested in Libya’s oil wealth to help finance its ambitions but also in its strategic position. Libya is the gateway to Africa and an ideal beachhead for a future attack on Western Europe, across the Mediterranean, particularly with Italy only 300 km away.

Military action contemplated

It is no surprise that the American and international media reported extensively on a National Security Council meeting called by President Obama last week to discuss a possible escalation of the fight against IS in Libya.

Obama, according to media reports, asked his advisers and the Pentagon to provide him with a plan for military action that will blunt the IS threat.

The Obama administration and military leaders are at pains to explain, in an attempt to convince critics, that the military option is not a means to an end, but will run in tandem with the search for a political solution in Libya. Neither will it be executed without the consent of the internationally brokered unity government in Libya.

But there is already confusing double-talk. US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said on record: “The creation of a new (Libyan) government is not a condition for the US launching unilateral strikes.”

The Obama administration is also at pains to explain that military intervention will not be unilateral but in close co-ordination and co-operation with allies.

The message from Washington is that the US would prefer others to take the lead, particularly Italy that as former colonial master has indicated willingness in this regard.      

It remains to be seen whether the US will keep to this view once military operations commence. Some critics are of the opinion that a coalition-based approach in Libya is not necessarily supported by the US Congress.

Several senators have said that while they are concerned about the rise of the IS in Libya and elsewhere, they remain uncertain on what exactly the US should do militarily in Libya, and whether other countries should take the lead.

Military strategy

Indications are that military intervention in Libya is likely to involve the same kind of limited warfare that Obama approved for the fight against IS in Syria – air strikes, commando raids against IS leaders, and special operations programs to arm, train and advise pro-government forces and vetted militias.

The plan is to isolate and put a ‘firewall’ around IS in Libya, preventing it from expanding further into Africa or move toward southern Europe.

It’s a high-risk strategy.

The biggest problem facing the US is to find reliable partners among the various militia groups and get the buy-in of the Libyan unity government, which presently only exists on paper.

US military and intelligence officers complain that they have to deal with a patchwork of Libyan militias that remain unreliable, unaccountable, poorly organised and divided by region and tribe, rendering them unpredictable.

In December last year, for example, a covert US twenty man Special Ops team, supposed to meet up with prearranged ‘friendly’ militia groups, was ordered to turn back by hostile Libyan militias after their plane had landed at a Libyan airbase.

Questionable strategy     

The effectiveness of a limited military intervention, particularly with America’s preference for air strikes, and considering past experiences, is in doubt.

UN special representative for Libya, Martin Kobler, says: “As the past has shown, air strikes alone do not defeat terrorists. This is a battle for oil fields and refineries, a battle for cities and strategic positions – and for that you need ground troops.” 

Sir Peter Ricketts, David Cameron’s former national security adviser, agreed and said air strikes on their own would be of no use.

If military and intelligence experts are correct, the US and its allies might, once again, be sucked into a protracted and destructive struggle in Libya – the scenario Qaddafi predicted when the first aerial NATO bombardment was ordered in 2011.   

By contemplating a return to some form of military intervention in Libya, the Obama administration acknowledged how little progress has been made in restoring peace and stability in Libya. 

It is ironic that the US and its allies might fall back on the same strategy that failed five years ago.

As one analyst put it: “The international coalition is going to air-strike its way out of the chaos created by its earlier air strikes.”

by Garth Cilliers

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