Rome—The European Union is planning surgical air attacks on Islamic State groups and affiliated radical militias in Libya in an effort to ease military pressure on a reconstituted government there. Because Europe lacks the technical, logistical and intelligence capability to mount such attacks, the United States will have to be involved, a senior NATO intelligence official said.
The attacks would be centered on the city of Sirte, once a tribal stronghold of the assassinated Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi and now the epicenter of Islamic State support. Readers may remember that Sirte was the last holdout against rebel forces during the 2011 civil war and is home to Gaddafi’s tribe.
The EU and US would hit other groups with the help of ground spotters who choose the targets. Italy and France are the biggest promoters of the plan–Italy because Libya has become a jumping off point for thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa seeking to reach European shores.
This kind of surgical military strategy is familiar–it’s been tried in other Middle East conflicts. It is supposed to go hand-in-hand with political reconciliation that would marginalize violent organizations.
The tandem of military attacks on insurgents and encouragement of competent and democratic governments underlay the American and NATO strategy in Afghanistan. It has failed to end the Taliban threat in part because of the endemic corruption of the government and unwillingness of Afghan security forces to fight.
The same strategy underpins current Western intervention in Iraq, where the US and United Kingdom bomb the Islamic State and its allies while trying to get “an inclusive” central government in Baghdad. For now, the Baghdad government is dominated by parties representing the country’s Shiite majority and has done little to reconcile with a disenchanted, minority Sunni Muslim population.
In Syria, a variation of the strategy is in action. The US bombs the Islamic State while, it is hoped, rebels unseat the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. That possibility, always a long shot, was fully disrupted by Russia’s military intervention on the side of Assad, along with Iran’s continuing financial and armed support for his government. The war is in a stalemate.
So why will a similar approach work in Libya? Supposedly, the United Nations has worked out a deal in which two rival governments agree to put aside their differences, unite and pacify the fractious country. Unfortunately, the national unity agreement has already been rejected on several occasions. And even if the unity government is formed, it is unclear whether the Libyans have a proper ground force to take and hold territory now under control of the Islamic State or other recalcitrant Islamic groups.
But planning is going ahead anyway. The Obama Administration, needing to look tough on ISIS, is involved. If there’s any doubt that US intervention would be needed, I refer you to comments made by then-Defense Secretary chief Leon Panetta to NATO following the European bombing of Libya in 2011 that helped overthrow Gaddafi: The original Libya operation, spearheaded by the UK and France, exposed “embarrassing gaps” in Europe’s military capabilities that could only be filled by the US. Nothing has changed since then, and without the US, Europe is mostly a paper tiger.
Stratfor on what’s holding up Libya’s political deal.
The Guardian on US thinking.
NYTimes dumps on anti-ISIS plan.