An emerging caliphate in Libya?
Libya is the 16th largest country on Earth. It has the tenth largest proven oil reserves and there are likely at least 10 billion barrels of high-quality crude not yet discovered. Who rules Libya matters.
Yet from the war of 2011, the “Arab spring” in which Muammar Qaddafi was deposed and killed, chaos in Libya has increased every year. Libya is a haven for leaders of the Islamic State (ISIS) fleeing ineluctable defeat by US-led forces in Iraq and Syria. There is a significant risk that Libya will become the “new caliphate,” the long-sought “Islamic State.”
The decline of Libya worries the Pentagon. In March, US Marine Corps General Thomas D. Waldhauser, head of the Africa Command, stated in congressional testimony that “we are heavily involved in the counterterrorism piece” in Libya. The Africa Command acknowledges four air strikes against ISIS bases in Libya but credible reports put the actual number at twice that.
The subject of Libya is a touchy one. “Boots on the ground” is a phrase rarely used by the Trump administration and with good reason: 6,251 American soldiers have been killed since 2001; some 45,170 have been wounded. That is too heavy a price. We are already too involved in combating ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Is ISIS already in charge of parts of Libya? Yes, it is! With the collapse of a central government, different parts of the country are ruled by local militias.
What outcome can we expect?
The US intervention in Libya in 2011, under the auspices of NATO, was only partially successful. No analyst views events in Libya in the last six years as anything but a disaster. One frequently hears cynical diplomats saying: “I never thought I’d ever say that I miss Muammar Qaddafi, but…”
Getting accurate information about Tripoli has been getting harder since 2011. The CIA estimates there are 20,000-30,000 ISIS fighters still in the war but at least 5,000 of those bad guys are hightailing it to safety in Tripoli.
On November 13, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with uncanny strategic insight, released a tape in which he accepted pledges of allegiance from supporters in Libya. Baghdadi saw a splendid new stage for victory and one with deep-water ports and hundreds of billions of petrodollars waiting in the ground.
Indeed, it may already be too late.
“We came. We saw. He died,” joked US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of Qaddafi’s death. Yet the killing of Qaddafi came at a high price when it became clear no one had the courage to replace him. American television was soon airing footage of young, healthy Libyans being sold in outdoor markets for labour like slaves.
The problem wasn’t getting rid of Qaddafi but, rather, that there was no second act. Neither the Americans nor the Europeans were willing to help find competent leadership.
Today chaos reigns. Few are better at exploiting chaos than ISIS. As Barack Obama writes his memoirs, Libya is likely his greatest regret. He has affirmed: “I did a little too much counting on other countries to help support government formation in Libya and now it’s kind of a mess.”
My purpose in bringing these terrifying images together is to raise consciousness of a problem that may soon explode, to the surprise of almost all Americans, including those who are avid consumers of news. Imagine a broadcast announcing that Libya is not Libya any more. It is now the Sunni Caliphate, the holy land, the replacement for the destroyed Syria and Iraq. And Baghdadi, or someone of his ilk, is in charge.
If we do nothing, Libya will cease to exist as a country. Instead, we will have the Islamic State, the dreamed of caliphate of ISIS, a land where, we are reliably informed, crucifixion will be a common form of punishment.
What is coming is unimaginably worse than Qaddafi. As US Army General Ray Odierno put it presciently: “They want complete failure of the government in Iraq. They want to establish a caliphate.”
Imagine, if you are capable of it, an Islamic caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean not far from Italy. It is a grim vision, indeed.