The Pentagon is prepared to expand military operations against the Islamic State faction in Libya, but only after the war-torn county agrees on a national unity government, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Monday.
“I’m certain they will want help and the international community will help,” Carter said at a press briefing.
“We fully expect that when — which we hope is soon — a government is formed in Libya, it will welcome not just the United States but the coalition,” Carter said.
The U.S. military’s attention on Libya has intensified in recent weeks as intelligence reports suggest that the size of the Islamic State force there has grown to nearly 6,000, roughly double last year's estimates. The extremist group now controls large swaths of the Libyan coast.
On Feb. 19, U.S. aircraft launched an airstrike on an Islamic State training camp near the Libyan coastal town of Sabratha. Dozens of militants were likely killed including a senior leader named Noureddine Chouchane, defense officials said.
The U.S. military has also reportedly deployed special operations troops to Libya to identify local militias fighting the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Yet the U.S. is reluctant to get more directly involved in Libya until the end of the civil war that erupted five years ago after an American-led air campaign helped topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. The North African country has two competing governments, both backed by loose alliances of militias.
The international community has supported the government based in the eastern part of Libya, but diplomatic efforts to reconcile the two warring factions have failed.
Carter said establishment of a central government is essential to stopping ISIS, which has taken advantage of the lawlessness and established a new foothold.
“That is the key, which is try to get a government in [the capital] Tripoli that can win the support of all of the many factions in Libya so that Libya isn’t the kind of disordered state that provides fertile ground for ISIL to spread.,” Carter said.
“But in the meantime,” Carter said, airstrikes may continue if U.S. intelligence identifies specific threats.
“We’re going to protect ourselves against ISIL in Libya as anywhere else,” Carter said.
That plan was underscored by Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also spoke at the press briefing Monday.
“I’d foot stomp” the fact that “we are very much aware of ISIL's expansion in Libya and … the strike in Sabratha was designed to get after that,” Dunford said.
The current strategy is to find “opportunity to conduct operations against ISIL, to disrupt them at this point and not undermine the political process,” Dunford said.
“Right now, it very much is informed by a balance between wanting to contain or — disrupt, better said — ISIL, and at the same time, ensure that the [national unity government] has a full opportunity to be seated,” Dunford said.
Carter said Italy has offered to take the lead in some Libya operations, “but we have already promised that we will strongly support them. And so I hope that's part of the future there.”