Gen­er­als doubt Obama strat­egy, see need for more U.S. aid in Libya

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY CARLO MUNOZ

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 last week 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 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 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 that the sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try il­lus­trates the draw­backs of di­rect mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion.

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