Poking the Hornet’s Nest in Libya: “War Four” and This Time We Get it Right?

Very few of the classic writers on strategy suggest randomly poking a hornet’s nest to see what happens next. The key question for anyone talking about intervention in Libya, however, is exactly what outside intervention can actually accomplish. Various media leaks have talked about a major Italian ground force, an Italian-led mix of European forces, a major U.S. bombing campaign, and “a range of potential airstrikes against training camps, command centers, munitions depots and other militant targets. Airstrikes against as many as 30 to 40 targets in four areas of the country would aim to deal a crippling blow to the Islamic State’s most dangerous affiliate outside of Iraq and Syria, and open the way for Western-backed Libyan militias to battle Islamic State fighters on the ground. Allied bombers would carry out additional airstrikes to support the militias on the ground.

These reports have generally implied that no decision has been taken and none will be until some form of political unity is forged between Libya’s two separate power blocs in Tripoli and Benghazi. It is unclear what level of coordination actually exists between U.S. air options and allied ground and air options, or how any European effort would be coordinated with Arab efforts by nations like Egypt. It is also unclear how outside forces could really coordinate with the morass of different Libyan factions, tribal forces, and other elements of Libya’s unstable power structure that may or may not care what either of the “governments” in Tripoli or Benghazi do or do not agree to.

Some of this sounds all too familiar. We have poked the hornet‘s nest in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen (and Afghanistan if one looks beyond the MENA region.) In each case, we have scored tactical gains or victories against violent Islamist extremists. We have helped overthrow regimes in Iraq and Libya, and we have talked about building massive coalitions that brought in our staunchest allies but often consisted largely of “coalitions of the almost absent.” In the Bush Administration, we rushed massive amounts of ground troops and aid with very uncertain results. In the Obama Administration, we have shifted to indecisive incrementalism. In both cases, we failed to set meaningful and achievable longer-term strategic goals or to show that we could translate tactical military success into lasting security and stability—much less the effective nation building that was required.

These failures are not a reason not to act in Libya, and even a limited air campaign to degrade the ISIS forces in Libya might well ensure that it could not create another “caliphate” or sanctuary for terrorism and extremism. They are a reason, however, not to simply assume that is all it takes to achieve stability in some kind of agreement between Libya’s two “governments” in Tripoli and Benghazi, that broad outside intervention by anyone will be acceptable to Libya’s only real world voting bloc—its men with guns—or that simply taking about civil-military operations and throwing money at some parts of the problem will do any better than before. Throwing money at a hornet’s nest may be

less provocative than poking it with a stick, but it is unclear that the end result will be any more productive or stabilizing.

Bombing ISIS is one thing. Seeking lasting stability in Libya is another. Before we add war four to the current list in the MENA region—Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—we need to show that there is a coherent strategy for actually achieving stability as well as simply attacking ISIS. We need to show that Libya’s other armed factions will actually support outside forces on a lasting basis. We need to show that the Benghazi and Tripoli factions have enough control and influence to matter, and can move toward effective governance. We need to show that there is a real world capability to help Libya develop effective governance, use its petroleum revenues to meet urgent civil needs and then move on to development, and that there is a credible enough structure to carry out a limited form of nation building.

So far, our approach to war has been all too different and come close to the classic definition of insanity—repeating the same mistakes and expecting a different result. “War Four” either must have a clear and credible strategy and plan that visibly learns from our past mistakes and has Congressional, public, and allied support or it simply should not take place.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy