The Trump administration, like its predecessor, has largely disengaged from political reconciliation efforts aimed at unifying Libya’s rival governments in the east and west. Instead, it has relied on the United Nations and Europe to manage the country’s political divisions and persistent instability. The United States has played a more active role in military operations against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but engagement has remained limited even on these fronts.
Seven years after the fall of the Muammar al-Qadhafi regime, Libya remains mired in armed clashes, political discord, and economic crisis. The Tripoli-based government of Fayez al-Sarraj, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), continues to compete for influence with the eastern-based government backed by the House of Representatives (HoR), which has aligned itself with General Khalifa Haftar’s Libya National Army (LNA). The GNA, which Washington and the UN recognize as Libya’s only legitimate government, emerged in December 2015 as a product of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement, which tasked the GNA with building a democratic state rooted in national consensus.
The United Nations, France, and Italy have taken the lead in resolving the Libyan crisis. The UN Action Plan seeks to facilitate approval of a new constitution and hold an inclusive national conference in early 2019, followed by new elections in the spring. The Action Plan also addresses humanitarian assistance and the need for economic and security reforms. France and Italy, though, have sparred over the future of Libya’s leadership, undercutting the UN plan. Paris, which chiefly fears that Libya’s instability exacerbates the risk of terrorist attacks on European soil, backs the HoR and LNA, which prioritize the defeat of Islamist terror groups. Rome, which has prioritized stemming the flow of migrants and preserving its robust economic ties with Tripoli, supports the GNA yet has recently shown willingness to engage with Haftar.
President Trump indicated his relative disinterest in Libya when he said in April 2017, “I do not see a role in Libya” for America aside from “getting rid of ISIS.”1 U.S. military leaders, however, have expressed greater concern. “The instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant, near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent,” said AFRICOM Commander General Thomas D. Waldhauser in September 2017. Political divisions, he noted, “exacerbate the security situation, spilling into Tunisia and Egypt and the broader Maghreb, allowing the movement of foreign fighters, enabling the flow of migrants out of Libya to Europe and elsewhere.”2 In March 2018, Waldhauser articulated four U.S. goals in Libya: “degrade terrorist groups who threaten U.S. interests and threaten to destabilize Libya and the region; avert civil war; support the political reconciliation process towards a unified central government; and assist to curb the flow of illegal migrants into Europe via Libya.”3
Even so, the Trump administration has offered little in the way of diplomatic engagement aside from limited economic assistance aimed at bolstering the GNA and Libyan civil society. To date, the U.S. embassy remains closed and there is no U.S. ambassador; the Libya External Office at the U.S. embassy in Tunisia serves instead as the primary base for U.S. diplomats engaging with Libya.
Following an aggressive air campaign in 2016 that contributed to the collapse of the Islamic State stronghold of Sirte on the Libyan coast, U.S. military activity has sharply diminished. As part of counterterrorist operations, the U.S. military conducted eight airstrikes against the Islamic State in Libya in 2017 and six airstrikes in 2018, targeting both the Islamic State and AQIM.4 The pace of activity may increase in 2019 if the Islamic State and AQIM take advantage of the country’s continuing instability to recover their strength.
The Trump administration’s actions in Libya seem to rest on the assumption that the UN, France, and Italy can address the country’s instability while U.S. counterterrorism operations can address direct threats. Yet the UN and the Europeans have not moved Libya much closer to creating a unified government with a legitimate military and security force. The prospects for achieving that goal would significantly improve through robust U.S. engagement.
In the absence of U.S. engagement, other countries are filling the void. Russia, seeking to burnish its credentials as a regional power, has worked to serve as a power broker between east and west Libya. In particular, Moscow has thrown its weight behind General Haftar and the LNA to safeguard its economic engagement with Libya in energy and infrastructure. France, Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia have also backed Haftar, who casts himself as a bulwark against terrorists and Islamists.
Libya has also suffered from destructive interventions by Turkey and Qatar, which seek a more Islamist order. In recent years, Turkey has repeatedly shipped arms to Libyan Islamist groups.5 Likewise, Qatar has shuttled Islamist militants to Libya.6 By contrast, Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia have supported the UN Action Plan and rejected all foreign interference, although Cairo’s support for Haftar is not consistent with this position despite its roots in legitimate security concerns. Chad, Niger, and Sudan also signed an agreement with Libya’s internationally recognized government to enhance cross border security by targeting human trafficking and arms and narcotics smuggling.7 The deal, however, lacks formal international recognition.
In the areas where the United States has exerted greater effort, it has enjoyed some tactical success. In September 2017, U.S. forces captured Mustafa al-Imam, a member of the Islamist terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia, who helped plot the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others.8 Likewise, U.S. airstrikes on the Islamic State and AQIM have degraded the abilities of both terrorist groups, according to AFRICOM.9
Nonetheless, the Islamic State is still capable of carrying out attacks against state, military, and economic targets. The group has claimed responsibility for several major operations, including a December suicide attack on Libya’s foreign ministry in Tripoli, a September shooting at the Tripoli headquarters of National Oil Corporation, and a May attack on High National Election Commission. The Islamic State also has acknowledged that it perpetrated surprise attacks on the central town of al-Fuqaha and the southern town of Tazirbu in October and November, respectively.
The United States has also employed sanctions to target those responsible for disrupting oil exports, a major source of income for the GNA. In February 2018, the Treasury Department sanctioned six individuals, 24 entities, and seven vessels for destabilizing Libya by engaging in illegal oil transactions. Washington and the UN jointly sanctioned Libyan militia leader Ibrahim Jadran for carrying out attacks on oil facilities. They also jointly designated Libyan militia leader Salah Badi for undermining security by directing attacks on groups aligned with the GNA. While it is difficult to show a direct causal relationship between these actions and rising oil production, the country’s output recently jumped to almost 1.3 million barrels per day, the highest since 2013, according to the state-run National Oil Corporation.10 In December, however, militia forces, tribesmen, and state guards seized the country’s largest oilfield, El Sharara, disrupting its production of 315,000 barrels per day.
The Trump administration should recognize that it cannot achieve its strategic objectives in Libya by relying on others to resolve the country’s political divisions. Moving forward, U.S. policy should adopt a holistic approach that engages all relevant stakeholders to achieve a unified, democratic Libya. As then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said in a January 2018 Security Council meeting on Libya, “The only legitimate path to power is through free and fair elections.”11