Not scaring Islamic State.

Photographer: Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images

Libya Warns U.S. Bombs Can't Stop Terrorists' Rise

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The internationally recognized government of Libya says there are more than 5,000 fighters allied with the Islamic State operating inside the country -- far more than previous estimates -- yet it doesn't want the U.S. to expand its Middle Eastern air war there because it's unlikely to help.

Wafa Bugaighis, the charge d’affaires of the Libyan Embassy in Washington, told us Friday that her embattled government, now in refuge in the eastern city of Tobruk, is facing a desperate situation caused by an epic conflagration of terrorism, economic collapse, political chaos and civil war with a rival government in the capital of Tripoli. Libya badly needs international aid, including military assistance, she said. But the U.S.-led international coalition currently bombing in Iraq and Syria should stay out of Libya; airstrikes can’t solve the problem of the Islamic State.

“The intervention in 2011 was welcomed," she said of the U.S.-led NATO campaign that toppled dictator Muammar Qaddafi. "The situation now is different. We are a bit cautious that such strikes might not succeed in fighting terrorism because these people just dissolve and spread.”

She said her government's estimate is that there are between 5,000 and 6,000 fighters in Libya associated or affiliated with the Islamic State -- more than double the number another top Libyan official gave me in an interview two months ago. Bugaighis said these were a mix of foreign fighters and local groups who now fly the jihadists' flag.

While the Libyan government is begging for international assistance of all kinds, including aid to its armed forces, the leadership in Tobruk is afraid airstrikes will only plunge Libya into greater chaos and topple the already fragile economy.

“Our vision is that terrorism can be tackled now with information, intelligence, special operations, special forces,” she said. “That will be more effective in fighting terrorism and this is the type of support we want.”

U.S. policy makers have yet to decide whether to throw more weight behind the government in Tobruk, which has control over only a small part of the country and which critics allege is under the de facto control of a military leader with a shady past, General Khalifa Haftar. According to a March 2 cable from the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Deborah Jones -- described to us by a U.S. counterterrorism official -- the State Department has been considering outreach to other, supposedly more moderate elements of the militia-aligned opposition forces in an effort to balance U.S. influence and cover all political bets.

The cable, according to our source, didn't go over well with other U.S. government agencies, and as of now U.S. policy remains to deal exclusively with the Tobruk leadership. At times, the U.S. has seemed out of the loop, for example when Egypt and the United Arab Emirates conducted airstrikes last summer in support of the Tobruk forces. Bugaighis said those strikes were coordinated with her government but were isolated incidents.

The government in Tobruk is engaged in lengthy negotiations to establish a government of national unity with the Tripoli-led coalition, known as the Libya Dawn movement, which controls the majority of the country with the help of various militias. The United Nations process, led by the Spanish Diplomat Bernardino Leon, starts another round of talks this month in Morocco.

The message from Washington to Libya has been that the U.S. will provide all manner of support, but only after a national unity government is formed. That might take months, if it ever happens. Bugaighis said the rise of the Islamic State and other extremist groups means the Obama administration’s policy of delay is dangerous.

“The issue is, can we afford waiting?” she said. “Terrorism is not going to give us a break and wait for us to form a government of national unity.”

The Libya Dawn movement, which runs its own parliament in Tripoli, has been trying to raise its profile in Washington and reach out to policy makers and lawmakers to make its case for recognition. That effort was led by Prime Minister Omar al-Hassi, until the General National Congress fired him last week.

Bugaighis said that her government wants to form a unity government, as the U.S. and the EU are urging, but she insisted that the Tripoli government was illegitimate and sustained only by its alliances with Islamic militias.

“Many people say there are two governments in Libya. This is not true," she said. "The fact is one is legitimate and democratically elected, one is self-proclaimed and completely illegitimate."

The list of her government's requests from the U.S. is long: intelligence support, military training, military equipment, border control support for neighboring countries, and even a naval blockade of Tripoli. They also want the U.S. to pressure outside countries to cease supporting its domestic opponents. Bugaighis wouldn’t name those countries but they include Qatar and Turkey.

Top White House officials have repeatedly told us they see no upside to bolstering the Tobruk government’s military power at this time. They think the UN process is the best path forward, and that further militarization of the conflict will only fuel the flames. Yet top Libyan officials on both sides privately confide they don’t have much hope in the UN process at all.

For Libya’s top representative in Washington, the lack of international attention to the deteriorating situation amid a surge of terrorist activity is shortsighted and will reverberate in the region, nearby Europe and eventually the U.S.

“Libya should not fall into the hands of terrorists,” she said. “The danger of terrorism, if it takes over Libya, will not be contained to Libya.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net