WASHINGTON — The U.S. military will keep an unspecified number of ground troops in Libya to help friendly forces further degrade the Islamic State faction there, and officials are seeking new leeway to target al Qaida loyalists in Somalia, the top commander overseeing operations in Africa said Friday.
"We're going to maintain a force that has the ability to develop intelligence, work with various groups as required, or be able to assist if required ... to take out ISIS targets," said Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the head of U.S. Africa Command. Speaking to media at the Pentagon, he indicated also the ISIS presence in coastal Libya has fallen below 200 from an estimated 5,000 or 6,000 only a year ago.
The region no longer appears to be a "backup plan" for foreign fighters unable to join the the Islamic State's primary fight in Syria and Iraq, he added. That's due in large part to an intense four-month air campaign led by U.S. Marines operating from Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Between August and December, their attack aircraft flew nearly 700 missions in support of Libyan militias battling ISIS militants in Sirte.
The last major U.S. operation in Libya occurred during mid-January, when American warplanes unleashed a massive attack on two Islamic State training camps, killing an estimated 80 militants who had fled the group's crumbling stronghold. The strike was enabled, Waldhauser said, by U.S. personnel who'd spent several weeks coordinating face-to-face with allies to ensure there would be no collateral damage.
"When you conduct precision airstrike, close-air support operations in an urban environment with the requirements to not have civilian casualties, with the requirements to be careful about infrastructure, destruction and the like, you can't do an operation like that without somebody on the ground to interface," the general added.
The dynamic in Libya is complicated for many reasons. In the years since former dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, rival groups have battled for power and influence. More recently, Russia has entered the picture, establishing a military presence in neighboring Egypt.
Asked about Moscow's potential involvement in Libya, Waldhauser confirmed Russian operatives are "on the ground in the area" but sought to walk back his earlier suggestion they have in fact crossed into Libya from their outpost in Egypt. Regardless, Russia is attempting to influence the security environment there, the general said, and reestablish financial ties — Libya is flush with oil and a target market for Russian-made weapons — that were lost after Gaddafi's demise.
"We watch what they do with great concern," Waldhauser said.
In Somalia, where the al-Qaida affiliate al Shabaab remains a threat, Waldhauser is hopeful the Trump White House will loosen rules of engagement established by the Obama administration, which was intently focused — to a fault, some have argued — on avoiding collateral damage. That's still an important concern, Waldhauser said, but current restrictions slow the approval process for conducting airstrikes in populated areas.
The general would like more of that authority to rest with his headquarters in Germany, versus the White House or the Pentagon, so targeted attacks can occur quickly. "I think the combatant commanders, myself included, are more than capable of making judgments and determinations on some of these targets."
Under existing rules, armed drones flying over Somalia are approved to strike if U.S. military advisers and their partners come under attack and are unable to repel the threat. In those instances, airstrikes can be used for self defense. "But that's not an offensive capability," Waldhauser noted.
About 50 U.S. troops, all elite special operations personnel, are on the ground in Somalia. The plan that's pending White House approval would boost that number slightly, The Associated Press reported last month.
Ultimately, Waldhauser wants more flexibility to pick apart al Shabaab, both by stepping up efforts to train and assist U.S. allies doing much of the fighting in Somalia, and by making it easier to take out suspected terrorists when they step out of the shadows. But the broader American mission there, he said, would remain focused and deliberate.
"We are not," the general added, "going to turn Somalia into a free-fire zone."
Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter: @adegrandpre