Barack Obama. Picture: AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON
Barack Obama. Picture: AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is being pressed by some of his national security aides, including his top military advisers, to approve the use of US forces in Libya to open another front against the Islamic State.

But Mr Obama, wary of embarking on an intervention in another Muslim country, has told his aides to redouble their efforts to help to form a unity government in Libya at the same time the Pentagon refines its options. Those include airstrikes, commando raids or advising vetted Libyan militias on the ground, as special operations forces are doing now in eastern Syria.

Covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) paramilitary missions are also being considered, but the use of large numbers of US ground troops is not on the table.

Defence Secretary Ash Carter and Gen Joseph F Dunford Jr, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, among others, say some kind of US and allied military force will be needed. But Mr Obama has not yet made a decision, nor have the size or contours of any possible US military involvement been determined.

"The White House just has to decide," said one senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. "The case has been laid out by virtually every department."

The push for military action comes in response to growing concern over the Islamic State’s presence in Libya. The number of Islamic State fighters in the country, Pentagon officials said this week, had grown to between 5,000 and 6,500 — more than double the estimate government analysts disclosed last northern autumn.

Rather than travel to Iraq or Syria, many new Islamic State recruits from across North Africa had remained in Libya, in militant strongholds along more than 240km of Mediterranean coastline near Sirte, these officials said.

The top leadership of the Islamic State in Syria has sent half a dozen top lieutenants to help organise what Western officials consider the most dangerous of the group’s eight global affiliates. In recent months, US and British special operations teams have increased clandestine reconnaissance missions in Libya to identify the militant leaders and map out their networks for possible strikes. Military planners are still awaiting orders on whether US involvement would include striking senior leaders, attacking a broader set of targets or deploying teams of commandos to work with Libyan fighters who promise to support a new Libyan government.

Any military action would be co-ordinated with European allies, officials said. Teams of American special operations forces have over the past year been trying to court Libyan allies who might join a new government in a fight against the Islamic State. But commanders say they are dealing with a patchwork of Libyan militias that remain unreliable, unaccountable, poorly organised and divided by region and tribe.

"How long will the US and the Europeans wait until they say: ‘We have to work with whatever militias we can on the ground?’" asked Frederic Wehrey, a Libya specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who frequently visits the country.

In a meeting of his national security council last Thursday to discuss escalating the fight against the Islamic State, Mr Obama asked his advisers to prepare whatever military measures were necessary to combat the militants in Libya while not undercutting the international effort to help form a national unity government. For the president, the challenge is to avoid embarking on yet another major counterterrorism campaign in his last year in office while also moving decisively to prevent the rise of a new arm of the Islamic State, which if left unchecked analysts say could attack the West, including Americans or US interests.

Mr Carter summed up the balancing act between nurturing the fragile and fitful political process and gearing up for what would most likely be a special operations war this way last week: "We’re looking to help them get control over their own country."

But, he added, "We don’t want to be on a glide slope to a situation like Syria and Iraq. That’s the reason why we’re watching it that closely. That’s the reason why we develop options for what we might do in the future."

A dozen US and European military, intelligence and counterterrorism officials said in interviews that they had little doubt that the Islamic State in Libya posed a serious threat.

"You could see a very large holding, an area that is effectively governed by (the Islamic State) in Libya, and Libya’s proximity to serve as a gateway into southern Europe," Republican Adam B Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the house intelligence committee, said this week in calling for military strikes against Islamic State leaders.

Secretary of State John Kerry said in Rome this week that the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State should intensify its efforts to thwart the group from gaining a "stranglehold" in oil-rich Libya, mainly by backing the creation of a national unity government there. "The last thing in the world you want is a false caliphate with access to billions of dollars of oil revenue," Mr Kerry said.

There is no functioning government in Libya, where a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) bombing campaign helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi nearly five years ago. Warring factions are far more focused on fighting one another than on battling the Islamic State, and Libya’s neighbours are too weak or unstable to lead or even host a military intervention.

Forming a unity government could lay the groundwork for the West to provide badly needed security assistance to the new Libyan leadership. Options under discussion include sending Italian and other European troops to Libya to establish a local stabilisation force and reviving a Pentagon plan to train Libyan counterterrorism troops. But legislators in Libya’s internationally recognised parliament last week overwhelmingly rejected a proposed United Nations (UN)-backed unity cabinet, dealing a blow to diplomatic efforts to swiftly reconcile the country’s splintered factions.

Senior administration officials say the parallel tracks of supporting the political process in Libya while fighting the Islamic State are "mutually reinforcing". But at some point, current and former administration officials said, the US may have to act unilaterally or with allies if faced with a credible threat from the Libyan franchise.

"Weighing our actions based on how it impacts the Libyan political environment is an almost impossible juggling act," said Juan Carlos Zarate, a former top counterterrorism official under former president George W Bush. "We may not have a choice if (the Islamic State) continues to control greater swaths of territory and assemble more terrorists."

Administration officials said this week that a decision on action in Libya could come soon. Late in January, Mr Dunford said a decision would probably be made in "weeks".

"It’s fair to say that we’re looking to take decisive military action against (the Islamic State) in conjunction with the political process" in Libya, he said. "The president has made clear that we have the authority to use military force."

Indeed, the US killed a senior Iraqi leader of the Islamic State — Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi, also known as Abu Nabil, who was also believed to be the group’s top commander in Libya — in an airstrike in November near the eastern Libyan city of Darnah.

NYTimes.com