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In Libya, a New Front in the War on ISIS
The American military this week began bombing Islamic State targets in Libya, opening another front in its war against the terrorist group. The campaign was launched to help Libyan fighters allied with the country's fledgling, internationally recognized government rout the Islamic State from Surt, a coastal city that, since 2014, has served as a base for ISIS' efforts to establish a franchise in Libya.
Given the country's fractured politics and the messy amalgam of militias born of the 2011 civil war, in which the United States played a key role, the Obama administration has long been hesitant to re-engage militarily. Still, American officials grew concerned as the Islamic State made quick inroads along Libya's coast, enforcing draconian social laws and carrying out brutal executions. In recent weeks, militias aligned with the government have made significant progress in taking back territory from ISIS. But they were incurring heavy casualties, which led Libya's prime minister, Fayez Serraj, to ask the United States to help with airstrikes.
The United States had compelling reasons to act. A strong and enduring ISIS base in Libya could serve as a staging ground for attacks on Western nations. As attacks attributed to, or inspired by, ISIS around the world have increased, President Obama and other Western leaders have come under increasing pressure to put the group on the defensive. Beyond that, the Islamic State's growing power in Libya makes the tasks of restoring order and building a functioning state far more difficult.
The long-term effects of this latest escalation in the war against ISIS — which the United States is also battling in Iraq, Syria and, to a limited extent, Afghanistan — are uncertain. The United States demonstrated during its involvement in the 2011 civil war that led to the ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi that American airstrikes can change battlefield fortunes. But Washington and other NATO members involved in that effort didn't have a comprehensive morning-after plan, which left Libya to devolve into a state of anarchy. Until April, the country had two rival governments and was run, for all practical purposes, by militia leaders.
Stabilizing Libya will require a lasting commitment by the international community. One of the most pressing tasks is the establishment of legitimate security forces, which will require dismantling militias. This will take more international engagement than world leaders were willing to muster after Colonel Qaddafi was killed. Helping the new government assert greater authority will take time, but it is a viable goal since Libya is an oil-rich nation of only six million people.
This new step in the war against the Islamic State should serve as a reminder of the need for a debate over America's legal authority to battle the group. The Obama administration is relying on a 2001 legal mandate to avenge the Sept. 11 attacks because the White House and Congress have been unwilling to compromise on the parameters of a new one that would define the scope and goals of the military campaign.
Over the past few years, one of the loudest proponents of formulating a new legal mandate, known as an authorization for the use of military force, has been Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate. Voters deserve to hear more about this from both parties on the campaign trail.
[Source: By The Editorial Board, International New York Times, 02Aug16]
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