The Corner

Hillary Clinton ‘Smart Power’ Update: ISIS on the Offensive in Libya

Hillary Clinton used to call the Libyan intervention “Smart power at its best.” Now Obama calls the failure to plan for the aftermath his greatest mistake. Well, here’s your smart power/greatest mistake update. According to a report from the Institute for the Study of War,ISIS is on the offensive:

ISIS now possesses a contiguous zone of control that includes a more than 200 km stretch of Libya’s coast, which ISIS confirmed as part of its Caliphate in August 2015. ISIS maintains between 5,000 and 6,500 fighters in Libya, according to the Pentagon’s latest count. The group is now both defending its stronghold in Sirte and pushing outward, imposing its rule on the population as it grows by establishing governance structures and enforcing shari’a law. U.S. leaders including Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter have acknowledged that ISIS’s Libya affiliate is chief among the organization’s increasingly dangerous “metastases” abroad.

Moreover, our local “allies” are ill-equipped to meet the challenge

No Libyan actors are poised to roll back ISIS’s territorial gains in Libya. Libya does not have a unified national army, and its highly factionalized armed groups remain locked in a multidimensional civil war. The transitional government that assumed power after the fall of longtime dictator Muammar al Qaddafi in 2011 failed to bridge the country’s political and tribal fault lines and ultimately broke down into two warring parliaments, each supported by loose coalitions of armed groups. The UN is struggling to bring the two parliaments together behind a unity government, but the ongoing stalemate and uncertain status of key powerbrokers in the future government are preventing majorities on both sides from agreeing, and thus the armed groups from uniting. ISIS’s rapid expansion in Libya has proved insufficient to force Libya’s political leaders to abandon their grievances. At the same time, no existing Libyan fighting force has demonstrated either the will or the capability to defeat ISIS in their country.

The expanding Libya presence gives ISIS a fallback safe haven in the event it continues to lose ground in Iraq and Syria:

ISIS will use its enduring safe haven in Libya to endure and project disorder throughout North Africa and potentially into Europe. A Libyan stronghold allows ISIS to survive in the event of defeat in Iraq and Syria by providing two key capabilities: a physical safe haven that can serve as a refuge for central leadership, and a safeguard for ISIS’s ideological legitimacy, which depends on the governance of a territorial Islamic state.

ISIS’s presence in Libya is deeply troubling on a number of counts. Libya is far closer to our European allies than Iraq and Syria, its control of territory in North Africa indicates that we missed our window to destroy the group before its “caliphate” could spread, and we don’t have the same kinds of allies on the ground in Libya that we do with the Kurds in Northern Iraq and Northern Syria. ISIS is set to be an enduring foe — like al Qaeda — but a foe with significantly greater resources than al Qaeda or the Taliban were ever able to command. Heckuva job, Hillary.


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