US likely to continue military involvement in Libya

What is not open to doubt is that Africom strikes against militants in Libya are not going to stop and may increase, especially in southern Libya.
Sunday 09/12/2018
 A shift on focus. An aviation boatswains mate guides an AH-1Z “Viper SuperCobra” landing aboard USS Makin Island in the Pacific Ocean. (AFP)
A shift on focus. An aviation boatswains mate guides an AH-1Z “Viper SuperCobra” landing aboard USS Makin Island in the Pacific Ocean. (AFP)

TUNIS - Since Donald Trump became US president, Washington’s involvement in Libya has been limited to ensuring Libya’s oil flows to help keep the international oil prices down, bombing suspected terrorists and acting as the lead in the United Nations’ efforts to bring about economic reform in the country.

US diplomats coordinated economic issue meetings with Libyan officials that resulted in September’s de facto devaluation of the dinar. Other US-endorsed economic reforms, such as removing subsidies on food and fuel, are said to be in the pipeline.

The bombing campaign against militants has been pursued with determination. Air strikes in and around Sirte by US Africa Command (Africom) were a major factor in its liberation from Islamic State (ISIS) forces two years ago, despite claims some commanders of the mainly Misratan-composed al-Bunyan al-Marsous force that led the campaign to free the town.

From August 1-December 20 in 2016, when the US Defence Department announced the end to its Sirte operations, US forces carried out 495 strikes and estimated that 800-900 ISIS fighters had been killed.

That campaign may have officially ended but, with several hundred militants escaping Sirte and regrouping in the wider area, there have been many more air strikes, including in August when an ISIS commander was killed near Bani Walid.

The United States, though, is increasingly shifting its focus to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates largely — but not entirely — in south-eastern Libya. In March, an Africom air strike near the south-eastern oasis town of Ubari killed an AQIM commander. In June, another AQIM commander was killed in an attack near Bani Walid, much further north.

Talks between Fayez al-Sarraj, chairman of Libya’s internationally backed Presidency Council, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in early November occurred just days after Africom carried out its largest anti-AQIM air strike, an attack near Alawenat on the Algerian border. It said that 11 AQIM fighters were killed, three vehicles destroyed and “no civilians were injured or killed in this strike.”

That is not what some local inhabitants, mainly members of the Tuareg community, say. The day that Sarraj met with Pompeo, several dozen Tuaregs in Ubari protested that Africom had killed civilians and demanded Sarraj’s government investigate. AQIM said none of its members were killed.

There are no independent observers to verify any of the claims. The possibility that the United States relied on poor information has been suggested but there have also been reports that some Tuaregs in Ubari who are from Mali have links with AQIM. As allies, they would have reasons to want to accuse the Americans.

The idea that the United States had poor information is not the view of one usually reliable Libyan political analyst, who asked not to be named. “The Americans have good information on the ground” from local sources, he said, adding that claims that civilians had been killed in Africom’s June 6 air strike turned out to be false and that the four people killed had, as Africom claimed, been ISIS militants.

Nonetheless, there is risk that anger at the attack among Tuaregs could further destabilise a deeply troubled and unstable region and result in renewed threats to the nearby El Sharara and El Feel oilfields. In November, protesters angry about poor living conditions in southern Libya tried to disrupt production at El Sharara and, a few days later, the facility was attacked by gunmen. Disputes at El Feel shut the field down for six months earlier this year.

What is not open to doubt is that Africom strikes against militants in Libya are not going to stop and may increase, especially in southern Libya. The United States is building the world’s biggest drone airbase near Agadez in central Niger, strategically located to monitor terrorist activity in Libya, the rest of North Africa and West Africa. It should to be operational within the six months.

Questions are being asked as to whether the United States will become more involved in Libya.

There have been unconfirmed reports that the United States and the United Arab Emirates have been working behind the scenes to improve security in Tripoli. Washington is certainly concerned about Tripoli security. Tweeting that his Brussels meeting with Sarraj had been “very good” and reaffirming Washington’s support for the UN Support Mission in Libya’s lead on Libya, Pompeo said Washington’s goal was a stable Libya “with security & economic prosperity for all Libyans.”

A series of assassinations and attempted killings of military and militia figures in Tripoli triggered fears that the city could go the same way as Benghazi in 2013 and 2014. There, after approximately 230 known assassinations or attempted killings in 2014, the result was a 3-year civil war between militants who were largely behind the killings and the Libyan National Army.

The Benghazi militants, in the form of the Benghazi Defence Brigades, are being blamed for most of the recent Tripoli killings, supposedly with the objective of taking control of the city.

Given its policy of hitting militants wherever it finds them, it is unlikely that the United States would stand idly by were such a situation to develop.