A dual citizen of Libya and the U.S. has marched an army to the Libyan capital of Tripoli, but don’t expect U.S. forces to stop him.
The only solution to the conflict, a U.S. Africa Command spokesman told Military Times, is a political one.
The United Nations has also called for a political settlement, echoing a desire from the international community to halt combat operations.
“Containing instability in Libya is important to regional security,” said AFRICOM spokesman Col. Chris Karns. “However, U.S. Africa Command recognizes that a political solution, not an application of military muscle, is the way forward for the existing problem set Libya faces.”
On Tuesday, the U.N. postponed a three-day peace conference scheduled to begin April 14 due to the military operation. The talks were intended to discuss a way to end Libya’s eight-year civil war through a framework of elections.
What’s the U.S. doing in Libya?
Some of those troops were temporarily pulled from Libya, AFRICOM announced Sunday.
“It serves no operational benefit to pinpoint exact figures or whereabouts when violent extremist elements still remain,” Karns said. “It is important for ISIS to know a counter-terror capability still exists, especially when you consider airpower. Our boots on the ground, or U.S. personnel in Libya, has always been limited and dispersed.”
“I will tell you there are no longer U.S. forces in Tripoli,” he added. “Those forces were primarily dedicated to supporting U.S. diplomatic missions into Libya."
Libya’s eight-year civil war jumped back into the news last week, when Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter’s self-styled Libyan National Army launched an offensive against Tripoli.
Hifter was an exiled general during dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s rule, but he returned during the 2011 uprising. He also gained U.S. citizenship while living in Virginia in the 1990s.
Tripoli is controlled by militias that support the country’s U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord, or GNA. Hifter, meanwhile, represents an opposition in the eastern part of the country.
Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the AFRICOM commander, said in February that the U.S. has maintained lines of communications with Hifter throughout the conflict.
“We’ve known all along that the solution in Libya — political solution — is going to involve Hifter in some fashion,” Waldhauser said.
He added that the Russians have tried to revive Gadhafi-era weapons sales and oil contracts in the country through Hifter. “Like others, when the music stops, they want to be able to influence whoever, you know, finds the seat, whoever wins,” Waldhauser said.
Libya has been embroiled in violence since Gadhafi was overthrown and killed in 2011, with the help of NATO airstrikes. AFRICOM has maintained a small footprint in Libya since then.
One reason for a continued U.S. foothold is ISIS’ Libya offshoot. The militant group maintains a low-level presence in the country even after being expelled from Sirte, a coastal city between Tripoli and Benghazi, in 2016.
“If they attempt to reconstitute, it is important for violent extremist organizations to note, a U.S. counter-terrorism capability still exists, if required,” Karns said.
Since 2014, the U.S. has conducted airstrikes and raids in Libya. Most strikes occurred during Operation Odyssey Lightning, the air campaign that helped Libyan government forces recapture Sirte from ISIS occupation. Almost 500 airstrikes were launched during that campaign in 2016.
Airstrikes dwindled considerably, and during 2018, only three were launched, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal.
“It has always been our policy to not provide absolutes and specific numbers for U.S. forces in Libya," Karns said. "Making adjustments, exercising agility and rapidly responding with our assigned forces is part of U.S. Africa Command’s DNA. As situations dictate and needs arise, the command has demonstrated an ability to flex and position itself as circumstances warrant.”
What’s this Hifter character all about?
“[Hifter] was one of [Gadhafi’s] allies, co-conspirators when [Gadhafi] overthrew the Libyan monarchy in 1969,” Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told NPR this week. “He broke with the dictator during this disastrous war in Chad. He briefly was trained by the CIA. Then, he fled and settled in Virginia for two decades.”
Hifter returned to Libya in 2011 and consolidated his control in the eastern part of the country.
While his latest move may appear reckless, it looks like Hifter’s assault is more about “media optics and projecting power” than it is about waging a bloody war for Tripoli, Jason Pack, a Libya analyst who has advised the State Department and Pentagon, said in a piece for Al-Monitor.
The assault was likely part of Hifter’s bid to increase his negotiating position heading into the peace talks this month, Pack said, noting that it’s unlikely Hifter’s forces could hold Tripoli even if they took it.
“Therefore, the assault on Tripoli is a form of kabuki theater,” Pack wrote.
“[Hifter] thinks he can benefit from the appearance of the assault, knowing that a genuine hot war would not succeed and would harm his interests," Pack added. "Using columns of tanks and tweets to conquer the news cycle rather than assault Tripoli seems a savvy strategy.”
Waldhauser said in February that AFRICOM is aware that Russia has been giving help to Hifter, including military support.
“Publicly, the Russians support the GNA and the U.N. process, but privately … I would say, they’ve given support to Hifter and continue to do so today,” Waldhauser said at the time.
Kremlin officials have denied accusations that they are backing Hifter, according to the Associated Press.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on April 5 that Hifter needs “to avoid actions that would lead to the resumption of bloodshed.”
Asked if Russia was supporting Hifter, Peskov said: “No, Moscow isn’t involved in that in any way.”
Similarly, the U.S. has taken a firm stance against Hifter’s moves.
“We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Hifter’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week. “This unilateral military campaign against Tripoli is endangering civilians and undermining prospects for a better future for all Libyans.”
For now, it appears as if the international community is rallying against Hifter’s forces.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer