Taking on the IS in Libya

August 04, 2016 12:00 am | Updated 05:57 am IST

By launching airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Sirte, the United States has clearly scaled up its involvement in the Libyan civil war. The U.S. had previously conducted two standalone operations on specific IS targets in the North African country. This time, American warplanes are likely to stay longer, providing air cover to the forces of the Tripoli government in the battle for Sirte, a strategically important coastal town that has been under the control of the IS for more than a year. The group has some pockets of influence across the country, including Benghazi and Derna in the east and Sabratha in the west. The U.S.’s deepening involvement points to the rising threat perception from Libya. One concern is that the IS, under pressure from attacks in Iraq and Syria, will turn its focus towards Libya, and Sirte could become a transit haven. But the Libyan crisis is as complex as the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. Even with U.S. air power, it may not be easy for the Libyan forces to defeat the IS. The key problem is that the country doesn’t have a credible government. The forced ouster of Muammar Qadhafi threw it into chaos and anarchy. Today, there are two governments in Libya, one in Tripoli and the other in Tobruk. It is the interim body in Tripoli that is leading the offensive in Sirte. But the forces loyal to the Tobruk government, commanded by a Qadhafi-era General, Khalifa Haftar, are not part of this operation, and he has repeatedly denounced the interim government in Tripoli.

The U.S. and its European allies must share some blame for the country’s present crisis. Qadhafi’s regime, despite all its problems, was a unifying force among the country’s diverse ethnic and tribal groups. When protests broke out in Benghazi against the regime in 2011, the major world powers could have pushed for a peaceful settlement. Instead, NATO launched a disastrous war, the after-effects of which are still felt in Libya. There was little effort on the part of the invaders to reconstitute the Libyan state after Qadhafi was killed. Instead, the Islamist factions among the rebels got support from Arab countries, while the Haftar militia was backed by the West. It is into this state of chaos that the U.S. is sending its warplanes. But Libya needs a strong single government that can lead both the fight against the terrorists and efforts to rebuild the state. The powers that bombed the country have the moral responsibility to work towards this goal. Unless Libya is stabilised, superior air power alone won’t save it from the IS.

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