U.S. Marines take the lead but are likely not alone in attacking the Islamic State
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
The Pentagon’s war in Libya appears to be escalating with a surge in reported strikes. And the U.S. Marine Corps — which has played an outsized role in the war — may no longer be alone in attacking the Islamic State faction in and around the eastern city of Sirte.
On Oct. 2, U.S. forces conducted 20 different missions and blew up more than six dozen individual targets, according to an official press release from the Pentagon’s main command for operations in Africa. By that point, American pilots had conducted more than 200 air strikes since the campaign began on Aug. 1.
“We have a range of capabilities at various locations in the region that will allow us to carry out these air strikes,” Capt. Lauren Ott, a public affairs officer with the Air Force’s top headquarters for operations in Europe and Africa, told War Is Boring by email.
“As you are already aware, the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp … is one asset currently supporting operations in Libya.”
Marine aviators based aboard Wasp have blasted the Islamic State in Libya since the beginning of the mission, dubbed Odyssey Lightning. Though the Air Force’s drones were involved in the strikes early on, the Pentagon’s released information almost solely concerns the leathernecks’ operations.
However, it is highly unlikely that the Marines could have flown all of the Oct. 2 missions by themselves.
Publicly available photographs from Odyssey Lightning show AV-8B Harrier jump jets carrying only two bombs on each sortie. Pictures similarly show AH-1W Cobra gunship helicopters heading toward the Sirte area armed with only two missiles.
A typical Marine Expeditionary Unit, such as the one aboard Wasp, has six AV-8s and four AH-1s. Assuming each carried two weapons at a time and the crews only needed one bomb or missile to destroy each target, these jets and choppers would have each needed to fly nearly four individual missions on Oct. 2.
And on Oct. 3, American pilots hit more than two dozen new targets. Again, the Marines would have had to put each of their aircraft in the air at least once to meet that demand.
As of Sept. 15, the destroyer USS Carney escorting Wasp had not contributed directly to the strikes, according to an email from the U.S. Africa Command public affairs office. It is more likely that Air Force fighter-bombers and drones, flying from bases in Europe, helped out on at least some of these missions.
Flying from the United Kingdom, the flying branch’s F-15E Strike Eagles make regular trips to Africa and the Middle East. The Pentagon declined to confirm or deny whether F-15s participated in the recent Libya strikes.
“U.S. forces use a variety of platforms to conduct the air strikes in support of … forces conducting ground operations to liberate Sirte from Daesh control,” Chuck Prichard, the media relations team chief at U.S. Africa Command, told War Is Boring in an email. “For operational security reasons, we cannot specify which platforms were used nor the specific unit designation of the U.S. forces conducting the air strikes.”
Part of the reason for this policy no doubt has to do with concerns from Libya’s international recognized Government of National Accord, or GNA. Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj and his cabinet only arrived in the country’s capital Tripoli in March.
For more than a year, two competing regimes had run parallel institutions in Tripoli and Tobruk. While the United Nations-supported GNA was supposed to end the infighting, Libya continued to have trouble bringing a myriad different factions and militias — some of whom are wary of Washington’s motives — together.
“The challenge of the Government of National Accord is to bring [the militias] together to, you know: one, for the future of Libya,” U.S. Army Gen. David Rodriguez, then-chief of U.S. Africa Command, told reporters on April 7.
“We’ll just have to see how this government of national accord develops and … what they think is in their best interests and how much they’re willing to ask or, you know, need international aid.”
Another reason is Washington’s own shaky legal justification for the operation. After announcing the first air strikes in August, the Pentagon described a confusing and at times contradictory timeline of how it arrived at the decision to help the GNA.
“From a domestic law perspective, the argument seems to hang in the first-instance on the now-familiar claim that the 2001 AUMF extends to ISIL,” Robert Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution noted at Lawfare.
Pres. Barack Obama and his administration have argued that Congress’ 15-year old Authorization for Use of Military Force against Al Qaeda covers the Islamic State because the group is an outgrowth Al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq.
“The interesting twist the Odyssey Lightning presents, of course, is the extension of that authority to Libya and the manifestation of ISIL present there,” Chesney added. “ Given that the ‘01 AUMF has always been construed by the government to have no geographic boundaries vis-a-vis Al Qaeda … this is not particularly surprising.”
Critics have not been swayed by these rationalizations. For many, the Libya strikes are just the latest extension of a bad policy based on a bad law.
“The long-term effects of this latest escalation in the war against ISIS … are uncertain,” the New York Times editorial board wrote on Aug. 2. “The Obama administration is relying on a 2001 legal mandate … because the White House and Congress have been unwilling to compromise on the parameters of a new one that would define the scope and goals of the military campaign.”
Since American troops went back to Iraq to help fight the Islamic State in 2014, Obama and legislators have been going back and forth over the legal underpinnings of the mission and the basic definitions of “combat.”
The debate transcends the fight against Islamic State, whether it be in Iraq, Syria, Libya or anywhere else. In Somalia, where American troops are fighting the Al Qaeda-linked militant group Al Shabab, the Pentagon has curiously described air strikes for supposedly non-combat forces as “self-defense.”
“The U.S. military continues to classify combat operations against Shabab, Al Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, as ‘self-defense strikes,’ even though many of the incidents reported … are clearly offensive in nature,” Bill Roggio wrote at the Long War Journal, which does its best to track these missions.
The Pentagon has “has loosely defined targets such as IED facilities and training camps as ‘counterterrorism operations,’ when in reality these are military operations since they are often launched against hardened or well-defended targets.”
Back in Libya, the Pentagon has adopted a similarly obtuse method of grouping strikes regardless of the total number of targets American aviators attack.
This means the official tally of strikes for two separate days might be the same even if the attacks on one day destroyed exponentially more Islamic State vehicles, facilities or nebulous “fighting positions.”
And upon closer inspection of the reports, it seems clear that Washington is stepping up air strikes in Libya and committing more American troops to the mission.