Pentagon officials are proposing air strikes and the use of special operations forces in Libya to counter the growing threat from ISIS. This potentially dangerous escalation of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East is being decided without public debate or dialogue. Is it really a good idea to open a new front in the expanding war in the region?
U.S. military strikes have not brought stability and peace to Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia or Syria. Why do we think they will solve the problems now in Libya? Military strikes can destroy targets and kill fighters (along with civilians), but they cannot solve the underlying political problems and lack of accountable governance that are at the root of these conflicts.
The United States fought a major war in Iraq to suppress Al-Qaida, but that organization morphed into the even more dangerous menace of ISIS. We fired the Iraqi army and sent some of its senior officers to prison, where they became radicalized by jihadists. Today many of the military leaders of the so-called Islamic State are former commanders of the Iraqi army.
Military involvement in the Middle East is the problem not the solution. As we have seen in other countries, American military intervention creates a rejection response that drives many people into the arms of the extremist groups.
As Scott Atran recently observed, an extreme reaction from the United States and other Western countries is exactly what the strategists of Al-Qaida and ISIS want. The more we become bogged down in the region, the happier they are. They want to cause chaos and ‘vexation’, forcing the West to become directly involved militarily.
External military intervention reinforces the false narrative of the extremists that the West is waging war on Islam. Bombs falling on another Arab country will be a bonanza for ISIS recruiters.
The U.S. has conducted 10,000 military strikes against extremist targets in Syria and Iraq over the past 18 months, but the threat from ISIS in the region remains formidable and is now spreading to Libya.
Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations confirmed in a recent analysis that American bombing in Iraq and Syria has not achieved its strategic objectives. Pentagon officials claim that U.S. strikes killed 25,000 ISIS fighters last year. Yet military officials also acknowledge that the number of estimated ISIS fighters in the region today remains about the same as before. Bombing alone cannot stem the flow of extremist fighters.
Keep in mind that U.S. bombing strikes in 2011 created the chaos in Libya in the first place, causing the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime and the collapse of the Libyan state, spreading lawlessness and armed conflict across the Sahel.
Yes, we need to do more to stop the spread of ISIS, but U.S. bombing will create a backlash that could worsen the extremist threat. We need to act, but we also need to heed the warning: do no harm.
Rather than further stoking the flames of chaos, let’s focus instead on encouraging negotiations among Libya’s competing political factions. The only hope for a resolution to the crisis in Libya is political agreement among the local parties. U.S. intervention could shatter the thin hopes of forging a viable coalition government.
Now is an especially bad time for external military intervention as the Libyan factions have been engaged in internal political discussions and are taking tentative steps toward forming a unity government. Encouraging and supporting that political process should be our top priority.
A stable government in Libya would be more than capable of containing the threat from ISIS and could contribute to greater security in the region. Let’s focus on that task rather than the risky business of widening the war in the Middle East.