The US Must Do Something In Libya, But We Must Have a Plan

Libyan rebel technical, 2011. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Some of the big news over the past few days has been the unsurprisingly report that the United States is considering new military action in Libya. The past intervention in Libya is now largely considered a mess by most of the public, meaning that any new action will likely be hotly debated.

The reports lack much detail, though the current aim seems to be using US Special Forces in conjunction with local militias, similar to our current anti-Daesh operations in Iraq. This is a reasonable strategy on paper, though the lack of unity and deep divisions between different parties in Libya makes it more difficult than it appears. With Libya still split between two competing governments, and the security situation even more muddle between not just the two governments and their militias, but also Salafi militants opposed to both the Islamic State and the government. Any realistic plan to fight Daesh must take this complexity into account. Unfortunately, using a limited number of troops on the group is unlikely to allow the US or any other ally involved (France is reportedly interested in military action as well) to control the security situation or build strong leverage. Counter-insurgency operations generally require larger forces, and it’s not clear to me given Libya’s struggles post-Qaddafi that their forces are up to the task of complex COIN operations.

But beyond this, there is a second problem. The Islamic State can’t be beaten solely through military means. I’ve been mentioning for some time now that the US and allies have ignored Daesh spreading into Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere, and that no decisive action against them can be taken in a piecemeal fashion. Iraq and Syria may have provided a fertile ground, but their ideology could survive just as easily in the mountains of Yemen or deserts of North Africa. Rather than having a number of disconnected military operations in different theaters, a coherent and regional plan needs to be developed. If militants are pushed out of Libya but then flee to the Sinai or Yemen, we’ve simply moved the problem. Given that, by definition, terror groups often use cheaper weapons and attacks, moving the problem around will simply increase the cost for the US and other states while failing to attack the underlying instability and security vacuums across the region.

Quite a few writers have already come out against any new military action in Libya. Unlike most of them, I believe some action is necessary. Neither Libyan government has been able to displace Islamic militants from the country, and ignoring the issue to focus on Iraq and Syria only allows them to build a stronger network. But any military action must be accompanied by a truly regional plan, rather than a piecemeal approach that will have anti-Daesh forces jumping from country to country following the militants. This regional plan needs not only a military component, but an economic and political one. The international community has turned a blind eye to deeper systemic problems that play a part in the rise of radicalism. Not all of those problems can be fixed by outside pressure and aid, but even stabilizing one or two countries could make a large difference. The United States seems too interested in framing this solely as a security issue, at the risk of spending blood and treasure to pursue too narrow of a policy.

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Originally published at on January 29, 2016.