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Bombs Alone Won’t Beat the Islamic State in Libya

Western military intervention in Libya will work only if Libyans are on board. It's time for a political strategy.

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On February 19, the U.S. struck an Islamic State training camp in the Libyan city of Sabratha, killing dozens of fighters and two Serbian diplomats who had been kidnapped by the group. The news should not be viewed as some kind of escalation. Such strikes — of which there have been several in recent months — are part of a limited, “informal” war against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Libya that the U.S. has been conducting for some time.

But such a limited military response is unlikely to achieve anything. Simply ramping up the intensity of Western military efforts won’t help either. Inflicting real damage on the Islamic State and restoring the government’s control over its territory will take a much more serious effort — but to succeed, it will need politics, not just bombs. The U.S. and the Europeans should develop a political strategy that involves the Libyans and answers the question of what will happen after the intervention ends. Only in that way can the problem of who should govern the country’s ungoverned spaces — in which the Islamic State currently thrives — be addressed.

Since the NATO and Arab League first intervened in Libya in 2011, leading to the downfall of long-time dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, the country has slipped into anarchy. It is now roughly split between Libya Dawn, a coalition of mostly Islamist militias, and the anti-Islamist Operation Dignity, led by General Khalifa Haftar. These two sides have been in open warfare since the summer of 2014, when the Islamic State established its first bridgehead in the country, starting with the eastern city of Derna. The group now controls 200 miles of the country’s central Mediterranean coast.

At the moment, Libya has three governments in three different cities: Tripoli, controlled by Islamists from Libya Dawn; Tobruk, close to Haftar and seat of the internationally recognized House of Representatives; and an internationally recognized “Presidential Council” sitting in Morocco and headed by prime minister designate Faiez Serraj. But even as a U.N.-led peace process has struggled to bring these factions together over the past year, the Islamic State has continued to expand its presence in the country.

It has become increasingly clear that Libya is now the Islamic State’s third center after Syria and Iraq, and that the country’s civil war also made it a safe haven for many other jihadist groups. For this reason, the U.S. has carried out a limited campaign of airstrikes in recent months, trying to at least put the jihadists on the defensive. In June, a strike in Ajdabiya targeted the Algerian jihadi leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar (though it’s still unclear whether he was killed). And in November, the U.S. killed Libyan Islamic State leader Abu Nabil in Derna. Meanwhile, U.S. special operation forces have begun to establish links with Libyan partners. In January, the Pentagon’s Africa Command defined Libya as one of its “five lines of effort” in the fight against the Islamic State in Africa.

This intervention is not radically different from other, limited campaigns Washington has undertaken, such as its offensive against Al Qaeda in Yemen. The focus of these attacks is always on the terrorist organization themselves, rather than on the countries in which they are based. Drones, air strikes, and special operations may be a cure for a specific disease, but they do not make any attempt to treat the patient. In other words, this is about the Islamic State, not about Libya. And that is why this approach is simply not enough. In order for a military response to work, it must be backed by a political strategy — which, so far, Western policymakers have completely failed to articulate.

There are several reasons why, for the moment, both the U.S. and France have kept their level of intervention low. One advantage of this “informal” war is that limited strikes against imminent threats can be justified by reference to Article 51 (“self-defense”) in the U.N. charter. In other words, these strikes require no formal declarations of war, U.N. resolutions, or inconvenient public debates and parliamentary votes.

But some in the defense establishment are pushing for a bigger intervention, emphasizing that this would be possible, if only President Obama wanted. This escalation would be similar to what the United States is already doing in Syria and Iraq. Rather than destroying specific, imminent threats, its goal would be to degrade and destroy the Islamic State with repeated and continuous strikes — not just against certain leaders but against the group’s entire infrastructure. Just as in Syria, however, the Americans and Europeans will find that a military escalation unaccompanied by a political consensus among anti-Islamic State forces will not accomplish much.

According to point 12 of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2259, such an intervention would require a stamp of approval from the Libyan government. There’s no sign that the Libyan unity government headed by Serraj, which is struggling to be confirmed by the Tobruk-based parliament, would request such a full-scale foreign intervention.

This legal constraint could evaporate in case of a major emergency, such as a terrorist attack coming from Libya or an Islamic State offensive against strategic locations, such as oil or gas installations. This would greatly strengthen the case of those arguing that no time should be wasted in destroying the Islamic State in Libya before it becomes harder to beat, as happened in Iraq.

But those pushing back against a military escalation can also point to other constraints. It is not obvious that the Obama administration would be keen to open a third front in the fight against the Islamic State, given its existing commitments in Syria and Iraq.

France has a similar problem of overstretch, with a large mission ongoing in the Sahel, air strikes in Syria, and a military intervention in the Central African Republic. For the moment, France has provided some limited support to the Libyan National Army through undercover operations in eastern Libya, but it is unlikely to go further unless there is a direct threat to France or to Francophone Africa.

The U.K. has the capability to wage an informal campaign but faces severe constraints when it comes to fighting a larger, formal war, which would require a vote in parliament — an undesirable distraction during the debate over the E.U. referendum. Germany, Italy, or the Nordic countries could team up with the big three above, but have neither the capability nor the political will to go it alone.

Because of these constraints, a military escalation of the U.S. and European powers in Libya is unlikely to go beyond the current limited efforts, although pressure to escalate will always be high and could get higher if an emergency arises.

In any case, whatever the scale of the military engagement, it is essential that the Americans and Europeans develop a clear political strategy underpinning any military action. The Islamic State in Libya is no longer a matter of a few scattered groups — it’s an increasingly organized entity entrenched in a country with large ungoverned spaces. Bombs and special operations alone will never solve this problem.

This is why most diplomats and policymakers in Europe (and the U.S.) point to the need to get a unity government in place before any major military operation can be conducted. Under the current U.N.-brokered agreement, the unity government must be approved by the parliament in Tobruk, which is controlled by the enemies of those who hold Tripoli — which is where Serraj will eventually have to sit in order to run government agencies. And only a functioning unity government could, over time, restart Libyan institutions, including the security forces, and provide the infrastructure needed to roll back the ungoverned spaces that allow the Islamic State to thrive.

A Western military intervention without a political strategy might create disincentives for a political deal. Currently, the Americans and Europeans are establishing bilateral relations with various partners on the ground to fight the Islamic State. This could create centrifugal forces as different actors compete to become “the Kurds of Libya,” vying for weapons and an exclusive political relationship to further their goals. For General Haftar as well as for his opponents in Misrata, the temptation will be to ditch power-sharing efforts lead by the U.N. and instead leverage their efforts against the Islamic State in order to win their own de facto independent republics.

To avoid this, the U.S. and its partners need to push for a political and military convergence of all Libyans, without asking them to play a side role in a strategy devised elsewhere. The Libyan consensus against the Islamic State must be translated into a unitary call to arms and support for a unity government. As in Syria, it is essential that anti-Islamic State forces stop fighting each other — and this is easier in Libya, as demonstrated by several local ceasefires that have been upheld for almost a year now.

The U.N. should support the meeting of a broad assembly of all Libyan forces, to come to a political agreement and an alliance against the Islamic State. Such a body could include municipalities, lawmakers from both sides that support the U.N. agreement, and delegates from informal local authorities such as tribal leaders, elders, civil society. This would broaden the base of the political process beyond simply Tobruk and Tripoli, which represent only a small share of Libya’s political spectrum. Simultaneously, the West should promote joint operation rooms that bring together all Libyan actors that fight Islamic State.

This means having a Libyan-led response to the Islamic State based on the same type of forces that upheld the local ceasefires in western Libya, rewarding those who enforce stability rather than those who want to fight the civil war. The West would then provide the support needed to reinforce this Libyan convergence. But this strategy would probably imply a departure from the military interventions of the past — be they massive efforts like Iraq in 2003 or light-footprint campaigns as in Yemen against Al Qaeda. In none of these cases was the need for a political strategy ever properly addressed. We should avoid repeating the same mistake in Libya.

In the photo, a member of the Libyan security forces displays part of a document that was found at the site of U.S. airstrikes on an Islamic State camp that killed dozens near the western city of Sabratha, Libya, on Saturday, February 20, 2016.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Mohamed Ben Khalifa

Mattia Toaldo is a senior policy fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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