Liberation of Sirte didn’t end American involvement
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Dec. 5, 2016, forces aligned with Libya’s Government of National Accord declared they had finally ejected the last of the Islamic State’s fighters from the city of Sirte. Since Aug. 1, 2016, American pilots had supported the campaign with hundreds of air strikes.
The Pentagon did not report any new strikes on Dec. 6, suggesting the U.S. mission might be coming to an end. The top American headquarters for operations in Africa had dutifully issued press releases about the attacks nearly every day for the proceeding four months.
However, the aerial campaign — dubbed Operation Odyssey Lightning — has not ended and isn’t likely to officially come to a halt any time soon.
“We are continuing to monitor Sirte and its environs and are providing support as necessary to enable the final clearance of the city,” Samantha Reho, a spokesperson for U.S. Africa Command, told War Is Boring in an email. “The pause in strikes since Dec. 5 is merely coincidental.”
Islamic State fighters in Libya effectively took over the city in early 2015 and also claimed to control much of the surrounding area. Since a U.S.-led international coalition helped rebels depose long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the North African country has struggled to control the growth of militias and terrorist groups.
It was actually near Sirte where fighters pulled Gaddafi from a drain pipe, paraded the ragged and beaten strongman around and publicly executed him. After that, and especially in light of the infamous attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, the American military remained on alert in the region.
When Islamic State emerged as a threat, the Pentagon was ready to move into action. Between Aug. 1 and Dec. 5, U.S. aircraft conducted nearly 500 missions in and around Sirte. According to the Pentagon’s counting method, a “single” strike might hit one individual point of interest or as many as two dozen related targets.
But despite the liberation of Sirte, this posture might not change much in the near future. “It is not our policy to disclose current or future operational plans,” Reho explained. “That said, there is more work to be done before the city can be deemed ‘secure.’”
“We have forged a valuable counter-ISIL partnership with the [Government of National Accord] and we will continue to work together to prevent Daesh from establishing safe havens, while assisting in the promotion of a safe and stable Libya,” the public affairs official added, using two different, but common terms for Islamic State.
Since the latest campaign began, the Pentagon has been particularly tight-lipped about just what forces were operating in and over Libya. From Aug. 1 until Oct. 21, the U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship USS Wasp and a compliment of U.S. Marine Corps AV-8 Harrier jump jets and AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters flew the majority of the strikes.
In October, the landing ship USS San Antonio and a separate detachment of Cobra gunships took over. On Dec. 6, just as Libyan troops celebrated in Sirte, Wasp and her aircraft quietly returned off the coast to swap out again with the smaller ship.
Though none of the Marine aircraft on board launched any attacks that day, an official video — seen below — showed Harriers returning with bombs still under their wings. This would suggest the leathernecks were actively patrolling just in case their Libyan partners needed additional assistance.
On top of that, American warplanes in Italy and elsewhere in Europe are no doubt ready to go if necessary. Reports and other analysis indicated that U.S. Air Force drones and fighter-bombers contributed significantly to the mission.
The Pentagon continued to downplay the situation, and U.S. officials described the victory in Sirte as an indication of how successful the aerial campaign had been already.
“This was an attempt by ISIL to establish a foothold in Northern Asia, and it appears they’ve failed,” U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters on Dec. 7, 2016. “At this point, ISIL’s not in control of any territory.”
But just because Islamic State has fled Sirte and may not necessarily exercise control doesn’t make the terrorist group any less dangerous. Many terrorists could have melted away into the surrounding desert instead of dying in air strikes or in battles with Libyan forces.
“At this point, we don’t know of any other areas where ISIL is hiding out [in Libya],” Davis conceded. “We certainly are going to stand ready to continue to support the Government of National Accord-aligned forces as they do this back-clearing.”
The Islamic State’s spokesmen in the region have refused to give up and stressed the group will keep on fighting. Even after the loss of Sirte, the terrorists released earlier interviews boasting they would ultimately succeed.
The extremists were “spread today throughout the deserts of Libya,” Sheikh Abu Hudhayfah Al Muhajir, Islamic State’s “governor” in Sirte, said in an interview for their online propaganda magazine Rumiyah, according to The Long War Journal.
“Covert units are scattered throughout all the cities and regions, and their detachments cruise the deserts both east and west.”
Whether the Government of National Accord would be able to quickly fill the vacuum in Sirte was never a given. Outside of the capital Tripoli, the United Nations-backed authority has little, if any real power.
Despite international recognition, the group doesn’t have full legal authority to run things within the country. By December 2016, political infighting in the country’s parliament was still holding up plans to formally change the Libyan constitution.
All of this gives space for Islamic State’s fighters to regroup and launch a new offensive in Sirte or elsewhere. It’s no surprise the Pentagon has been reticent to end its most recent Libyan intervention.
So, don’t be surprised, if in the coming weeks or months, Marine aviators or other American fliers go right back to bombing the restive north African country. They’ve never stopped being ready to go.