US is about to open a new front against ISIS in Libya
The New York Times
The Pentagon is ramping up intelligence-gathering in Libya as the Obama administration draws up plans to open a third front in the war against the Islamic State. This significant escalation is being planned without a meaningful debate in Congress about the merits and risks of a military campaign that is expected to include airstrikes and raids by elite American troops.
That is deeply troubling. A new military intervention in Libya would represent a significant progression of a war that could easily spread to other countries on the continent. It is being planned as the American military burrows more deeply into battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq, where American ground troops are being asked to play an increasingly hands-on role in the fight.
Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Friday that military officials were “looking to take decisive military action” against the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Libya, where Western officials estimate the terrorist group has roughly 3,000 fighters.
Administration officials say the campaign in Libya could begin in a matter of weeks. They anticipate it would be conducted with the help of a handful of European allies, including Britain, France and Italy. The planning is unfolding amid political chaos in Libya, which continues to reel from the aftermath of the 2011 civil war that ended with the killing of the country’s longtime dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. In recent months the United Nations has struggled to persuade two groups of Libyan officials who claim to be the country’s rightful leaders to band together. On Monday, the parliament that is recognized by the international community rejected a unity government proposal brokered by the United Nations.
The political strife and infighting among rival militias created an opening for the Islamic State in Libya in 2014. The extremist group now controls the coastal city of Surt, which lies between the country’s two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi. General Dunford told reporters that striking the cells of Islamic State fighters in Libya would “put a firewall” between that front and sympathizers of the group elsewhere in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.
That is a reasonable goal. But military officials have yet to make a persuasive case that it is achievable. Even if the Pentagon and its allies were to manage to strike Islamic State targets successfully, it remains uncertain that they would have a reliable ground force to hold the terrain. There’s good reason to believe that airstrikes would create the temptation to deploy ground troops to gather intelligence and provide technical support to rebel forces as they have in Iraq and Syria.
On the same day General Dunford discussed the plans for Libya, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said the Pentagon was redoubling efforts to assist local forces in Iraq and Syria. “We’re looking for opportunities to do more, and there will be boots on the ground — I want to be clear about that — but it’s a strategic question, whether you are enabling local forces to take and hold, rather than trying to substitute for them,” he told CNBC in an interview.
There seems to be little interest in Congress to authorize the campaign against the Islamic State, which is predicated, preposterously, on the 2001 law passed to take action against the culprits of the Sept. 11 attacks. The prospect of a new front in the war should spur lawmakers to revisit the issue.
The White House has said it would be nice, but not necessary, for Congress to pass a new authorization for the use of military force. That stance has allowed Congress — which has primary responsibility under the Constitution to declare war — to sidestep an important war vote.
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