US policy on Libya comes up short

Sunday 16/10/2016
Libyan forces allied with UN-backed government taking position

As the US presidential race enters its final stages, the question of how both major party candidates plan to defeat Islamic State (ISIS) and the threat its brand of violent jihadism poses to the United States and other Western countries is proving to be a hot topic.

Strategies generally focus on fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq. However, if the new administration fails to formulate a coherent Libya policy to replace US President Barack Obama’s passive wait-and-see approach, then any gains made against ISIS in the Levant will likely be cancelled out by the group’s penetration across North Africa.

US foreign policy has failed to fully engage or understand the complexities of the Libyan political and military landscape or address why ISIS has been so successful in seizing territory in Libya, most notably in former leader Muammar Qaddafi’s birthplace of Sirte.

Indeed, since the attack carried out by jihadist group Ansar al- Sharia on the US special mission in Benghazi in 2012, the United States has adopted a hands-off approach to foreign policy in Libya. This political distancing has grown more pronounced as Hillary Clinton has sought to play defence every time she is questioned about the fallout from the attack.

In response to US Ambassador Christopher Stevens’ death, the United States could have doubled down; instead it withdrew. This disengagement has helped sustain an environment in Libya in which ISIS and related groups have thrived.

When the United States launched Operation Odyssey Lightning on August 1st, a campaign of air strikes against ISIS targets in Sirte, the response was framed entirely in terms of a finite counter-extremism military intervention rather than deriving from an understanding of US interests inside Libya or a clear policy on what the post-Qaddafi political settlement should be.

The US air strikes were launched following a request from Bunyan Marsous (BM) militia forces, which are aligned with Libya’s UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) and which have been fighting a ground assault against ISIS in Sirte since late May. Although ISIS fighters have been driven back to a 3-sq.-km enclave in north-eastern Sirte, BM fighters continue to suffer heavy casualties from explosive devices and suicide attacks.

Nevertheless, with US air support they are likely to liberate Sirte in the near future. As and when this happens, past US policy indicates that Washington will be inclined to declare victory and withdraw from Libya, both militarily and politically.

The two presidential candidates’ attitudes and backgrounds as relates to Libya and ISIS appear to back this up. In the September 26th debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Trump commented that “I think we have to get NATO to go into the Middle East with us… and we have to knock the hell out of ISIS”. Presumably then, once a military victory can be declared against ISIS in Sirte, a Trump administration would consider that job done in Libya.

In Clinton’s case, the criticism and controversy she has faced over her handling of the Benghazi attack is likely to mean her administration would try to distance itself as much as possible from Libya, also leading to a hands-off approach post-Sirte.

Both policy approaches to Libya would ultimately be self-defeating. Destroying ISIS’s hold over Sirte does not mean destroying ISIS in Libya, nor does one military victory eliminate the threat of other equally dangerous and potent jihadi groups emerging and wreaking havoc in North Africa. Recent clashes between ISIS fighters and pro-GNA forces 30km south of Sirte confirm analysts’ predictions that key ISIS leaders and commanders have slipped out of the city and regrouped in the desert, meaning the threat ISIS poses in Libya is far from extinguished.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that ISIS’s success in establishing foundations in places like Sirte is a symptom, not the cause, of the chaos, political division and lack of state control that have come to characterise post-Qaddafi Libya. As long as these chaotic conditions persist, the root of violent jihadism will endure and even thrive in Libya, no matter whether certain groups or units of fighters are defeated in one particular place or battle.

Consequently, if the United States wants to truly address the threat posed by a powerful jihadist group with free rein over large parts of oil-rich, smuggling-rich, weapons-rich North Africa, then US policy efforts must be directed towards creating and supporting a long-term sustainable political solution in Libya.

Without political unity and stability, Libya’s economy will crumble, conflict will spread and the state will be powerless to prevent the country’s unravelling. In this scenario, ISIS and like-minded groups will continue to disrupt the stability and security of Libya and surrounding countries and the new US administration will have no weapons in its arsenal to prevent it.