Libya in need for America’s aid to defeat ISIS, says high-ranking U.S. official

Commander of U.S. special-operations forces in Africa says even unity government won’t be enough

A man walking past destroyed buildings after clashes between military forces loyal to Libya's internationally recognized government and Islamist fighters in Benghazi on Sunday. PHOTO: ESAM OMRAN AL-FETORI/REUTERS
A man walking past destroyed buildings after clashes between military forces loyal to Libya’s internationally recognized government and Islamist fighters in Benghazi on Sunday. PHOTO: ESAM OMRAN AL-FETORI/REUTERS

Islamic State, which has spread across Libya by taking advantage of conflict between the country’s two rival governments, has become too strong to be rolled back without U.S. help, a senior American commander said.

Army Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, the commander of U.S. special-operations forces in Africa, estimated that American military involvement would be needed in Libya even if a unity government were formed.

“Our assessment, purely looking at it through the [special-operations forces] lens, is that our partners need our advice and assistance. They need our training and a certain amount of equipping in order to be successful. That is the gap,” he said in an interview in Dakar, Senegal.

Gen. Bolduc declined to discuss current or pending operations. But his comments, while limited to the special-operations arena, are more specific about possible action in Libya than those made previously by other high-ranking U.S. officials.

Top military officials say they have presented the White House with options for military operations in Libya, which would involve other countries and local forces.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Monday at the Pentagon that a unity government in Libya is “the key” to win support from Libya’s different factions for foreign intervention.

He said he expected such a government would welcome help from the U.S. and other countries in fighting Islamic State. He said that Italy would lead such an effort because of its proximity, and that the U.S. has promised to “strongly support them.”

The United Nations has been mediating between an internationally recognized government in the east of the country and an Islamist-leaning administration that controls the capital Tripoli and much of western Libya. But many deadlines have been missed.

Rome, Paris and London oppose any military action in Libya before a unity government is formed. Without it, unilateral Western military operations are likely to inflame nationalist sentiment and push more Libyans to Islamic State, a senior European official said.

While discussions are under way, the U.S. military and some allies, also including France and the U.K., have for months been preparing plans for a second intervention in Libya. They have already established a Coalition Coordination Center in Rome, Gen. Bolduc said.

“The capability and the willingness is not the issue,” he said. “It’s a collective decision by the Libyans on what they want. That is hugely important. You’ve got to go in there to achieve their objectives and their goals.”

Islamic State has seized a chunk of Libya around the central coastal city of Sirte, as well as parts of the eastern city of Benghazi and areas near Sabratha, west of Tripoli.

Western special-operations forces have already been deployed on undisclosed missions to prepare for likely operations against Islamic State. One such mission became public in December, after a Libyan unit not informed about the team’s arrival at an air base posted their pictures on Facebook.

In recent weeks, British and French special-operations units have also operated in the country, according to Libyan and Western officials.

In January, Italy granted the U.S. permission to fly armed drones from a base in Sicily to protect American special-operations teams in Libya. In February, the U.S. bombed what it said was an Islamic State training camp near Sabratha.

U.S. Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday that the U.S. would for now continue to balance such operations targeting Islamic State against the need to ensure that a new Libyan government comes together.

The recommendations for military campaigns so far are “very informed” by concerns about safeguarding that political transition, he said at the Pentagon.

The main partner for American special-operations forces would be a small Special Forces unit that the U.S. initially helped establish and train after the 2011 revolution that ousted Col. Moammar Gadhafi, Gen. Bolduc said.

This unit is currently affiliated with the internationally recognized government. Gen. Bolduc declined to further identify the unit or its commanders.

It isn’t clear what affiliation, if any, it has with the Libyan Special Forces known as Saika that were originally created by Col. Gadhafi but switched sides during the revolution.

U.S. special-operations forces aren’t cooperating with the administration in Tripoli, Gen. Bolduc said.

“We have, because of previous relationships with Libyan special-operations forces, pre-existing relationships with military leaders that are internationally acceptable to partner with, in order to support them in going after the threat,” Gen. Bolduc said.

He added that his command isn’t working directly with Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the controversial strongman in the east who has advocated ridding Libya of both radical and moderate Islamists.

He said he had received a written apology for the December “misunderstanding” at the Watiya air base, when his troops’ presence was exposed. He said that hadn’t affected cooperation with the Libyans.

Allowing Islamic State to garner strength in Libya imperils not only Europe, and the Middle East but America’s partners in sub-Saharan Africa as well, Gen. Bolduc said.

In the Lake Chad area, in particular, Islamic State-affiliate Boko Haram—by some counts the world’s deadliest terrorist organization—is growing more dangerous thanks to its connections in Libya, he said.

“We see the transfer of tactics, techniques and procedures, and this includes not only the complex ambushes and the sensational asymmetric attacks, but we also see them replicating the types of improvised explosive devices they are using. The sophistication of those isn’t there yet, but they are moving toward that,” he said.

Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, whose country hosts French and American troops helping to secure the vast desert abutting Libya—and who opposed the campaign against Gadhafi—has come out in favor of another Western intervention in Libya.

The U.S. and allies failed to provide “after-sale service” once they ousted the Libyan dictator in 2011, Mr. Issoufou said in a recent interview with Al Jazeera TV network. He said a new Libyan unity government “won’t be able to face the terrorism threat by itself.”

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