Libya and the Limits of the Light Footprint

Over the past two weeks, the Obama administration has introduced a significant escalation of U.S. involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. On August 1, U.S. forces launched Operation Odyssey Lightning, a campaign of limited airstrikes in support of Libyan militias against Islamic State fighters ensconced along the Libyan coast in Sirte, the birthplace of Muammar Qaddafi. This week, Pentagon officials also acknowledged that U.S. Special Operations Forces are on the ground in Libya, providing direct intelligence support to forces loyal to Libya’s fragile Government of National Accord (GNA). Those actions represent another manifestation of the Obama administration’s “light footprint” approach to military force—the use of standoff strike capabilities in support of allied ground troops—and they highlight the limitations of that approach.

After all, Odyssey Lightning is essentially a response to the negative repercussions of the multinational operation that the United States “led from behind” to overthrow Qaddafi in 2011. Allied airstrikes enabled Libyan rebels to oust Qaddafi in relatively short order. In so doing, however, the Western intervention produced a power vacuum, which resulted in a persistent civil war that enabled the Islamic State to carve out an enclave in Libya. Over the past five years, developments in Libya have thus demonstrated that the light footprint is quite useful for combating relatively well-armed militants (both state and non-state); yet the approach cannot resolve (and may even exacerbate) the socio-political disputes that lie at the heart of the instability and conflict that has swept over the Greater Middle East.

In all likelihood, U.S. airpower will enable the forces loyal to Libya’s GNA to dislodge the Islamic State from Sirte—just as U.S. support is assisting Iraqi security forces and Kurdish militias to roll back the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, the political cleavages within Libya, Iraq, and Syria show little sign of abating. There is still no end to the Syrian civil war in sight. The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has shown little inclination to accommodate Iraq’s large, disaffected Sunni community. And in Libya, a rival government in Tobruk continues to deny the authority of the GNA. As long as such cleavages persist, the United States will not be able to eradicate the Islamic State—just when we think we’ve won, the organization (or its next iteration) will likely pop up again. The United States thus appears to be stuck playing whack-a-mole.

The hard truth is that the United States cannot defeat transnational terrorism with military force. As Michael Morrell, Sandy Winnefeld, and Samantha Vinograd recently suggested, “unless we—and our allies and partners—also get our arms around the underlying causes of extremism, we will be facing it for generations.” Although we still lack a sophisticated understanding of what the root causes of terrorism are, it seems clear that the sectarian conflict and ungoverned spaces that have emerged within the Greater Middle East over the past two decades have served as incubators. Eradicating terrorism will therefore depend on constructing stable political settlements in countries throughout the region. The United States can and should do everything in its power to support that process. Ultimately, though, the construction of a durable political order is something that each country must accomplish on its own—and it is likely to take decades.