The Pentagon is considering military action in Libya to counter the growing threat of ISIS, ramping up speculation that the administration could soon open up a third front against the terror group.
“We're looking at military options, a range of other options as a government that we can engage in to try … to be prepared, in the event that ISIL in Libya becomes more of a threat than it is even today,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters during a Wednesday briefing.
He said a “small group” of military personnel are on the ground in the North Africa country right now to “simply get a better sense of who the players are, who might be worthy of U.S. support and support from some of our partners going forward in the fight against [ISIS].”
U.S. officials are “extremely worried about the metastasis of ISIL to other locations, Libya being just one of those locations,” Cook added, using the other common acronym for the extremist network.
Libya has essentially been split in two for the last year, with competing governments in the east and west. A United Nations-backed plan to bring the two sides together to form a coalition was rejected by Libyan lawmakers earlier this week.
An estimated 3,000 Islamic extremists have taken advantage of the discord, carrying out brazen attacks on the country’s oil infrastructure and seizing large swaths of territory, reminiscent of the group’s march across Iraq in 2014.
The possibility of opening another front against ISIS is likely to illicit groans from a war-fatigued American public and contempt for the Obama administration from the Republican-controlled Congress, which has long maintained that the president isn’t doing enough to eradicate jihadist forces.
A military foray of any kind into Libya could also create headaches for Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton who was President Obama’s Secretary of State when an air campaign helped topple dictator Muammar Gaddafi roughly five years ago.
Clinton has been challenged about her decision regarding the terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador that took place just over a year after Gaddafi’s death. A call for military might no doubt would raise fresh questions about Clinton’s contributions to a policy that now lies in tatters, especially since she has gone out of her way to wed herself to Obama’s policies.
Any decision holds major implications for Obama’s legacy, too. He campaigned on ending America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but with less than a year left in his term there are 3,700 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq and roughly 10,000 in Afghanistan who likely will be stationed there long after Obama has left the Oval Office. A battle against ISIS in another country would seriously damage Obama’s unstated goal of being remembered as a peacemaker-in-chief.
Cook’s remarks add to a steady drumbeat of Pentagon officials who have said that action is not only likely, but possibly imminent. Last week Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Joseph Dunford told reporters traveling with him in Europe that the president could make a decision about Libya in “weeks,” according to The New York Times.
In separate comments, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Special Operations Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel also expressed deep concerns about Libya. “Libya will continue to be a challenge in the year to come, illustrating the new reality where small organizations wield undeserved power,” Carter said during a speech in France.