This article was written by Louis Tayler and originally published on Grey Dynamics

Key Judgements

  • AFRICOM’s mission in North Africa is to limit the instability caused by the second Libyan Civil War. This mission has achieved some measure of success.
  • AFRICOM, and by extension, the United States, has a de-facto neutrality policy regarding the second Libyan Civil War. In light of Trump’s “America First” withdrawal, the U.S. is highly unlikely to pick a side or get involved in the war beyond hunting IS and AQ affiliates, and other extremists.
  • Despite denial by Tunisian authorities and strategic ambiguity by U.S. authorities, it is almost certain that Tunisia hosts a politically sensitive drone base and U.S. SOF, who use the country to operate across North Africa.
  • Scenario Generation: The U.S. is highly unlikely to support either side in the Libyan Civil War, however, scenario generation of limited U.S. support to either side is at the end of this report.

United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) is the unified command structure responsible for managing all U.S. military activity in Africa, with the exclusion of Egypt, which falls under a different command. Due to the politically charged and controversial nature of hosting U.S. Headquarters in Africa, and for security and financial reasons, AFRICOM is headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. AFRICOM also delivers a wide variety of projects, including the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) program.

AFRICOM’s Mission in North Africa

AFRICOM itself describes its mission in North Africa as one of containing the spread of instability originating from Libya. It claims that it will accomplish this by building up the resilience and security capability of the region’s countries to counter threats from Libya. This mission has been mostly effective. Terror attacks have been kept to a relatively small number in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, with particularly effective cross-border counter-terrorism cooperation between Algeria and Tunisia (see previous Grey Dynamics Report).

However, the mission to contain regional instability has not been an unmitigated success. Low-level terrorism continues to plague North African nations. Islamic State, though greatly weakened, still has a presence in Libya.

Most importantly, the conflict in the Sahel mars AFRICOM’s success. The current conflict in the Sahel has its origins in the Libyan Civil War. Tuareg fighters returning from the 1st Libyan Civil War destabilized Mali. The resulting French intervention and Islamist exploitation of the situation started the conflict seen today in the Sahel. Yet, AFRICOM is far from solely responsible for this.

Figure 1: Terror attacks in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia 2010-2018.

AFRICOM’s Presence in Tunisia

Despite U.S. strategic ambiguity as to the placement of troops across Africa, and the Tunisian government’s unwillingness to acknowledge active U.S. military presence within its borders for political reasons, it is a badly kept secret that Tunisia hosts the largest U.S. drone base in North Africa. Drone missions are run from Bizerte-Sidi Ahmed Air Base in Northern Tunisia. Both the U.S. and Tunisia claim that drones are unarmed and merely conduct reconnaissance, mainly for the purpose of border security and “cooperation and training” with Tunisian forces. The second major component of active military operations is the Special Operations Forces’ ongoing missions, of which relatively little is known.

An exception is a 2017 gunfight between al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Tunisian forces, supported by Marine Special Operations Command. It resulted in several Marines gaining valor awards. The official U.S. version of the story leaves the exact country in North Africa unnamed for “classification considerations, force protection, and diplomatic sensitivities.”

The Bizerte-Sidi Ahmed drone base and the 2017 firefight exemplify the significant AFRICOM presence in North Africa and highlight how AFRICOM approaches its mission, preserving regional stability and building capability and resilience in North African countries.

U.S. Position on Libya

AFRICOM, as an extension of the United States government, clearly displays the U.S.’s ambiguous position regarding the second Libyan Civil War. It is content to mostly sit on the sidelines and has not endorsed either the Government of National Accord (GNA) or its rival government, the House of Representatives that is supported by the Libyan National Army (LNA). AFRICOM’s participation in the conflict in Libya is mostly limited to raids and drone strikes targeting the Islamic State. The U.S. government perceives that its national interest is best served through the “America First” policy interpreted as withdrawal from needless foreign entanglements. While this non-participation has led the U.S. to not become embroiled in another never-ending conflict, it comes at a cost: other powers have entered the war and filled the power vacuum in Libya left by the United States.

Figure 2: Aerial Image of Bizerte-Sidi Ahmed Airbase, showing evidence of drone shelters and U.S. presence (extracted from Twitter).

Scenario Generation

This section will create two scenarios where the U.S. gives limited support to either side of the Libyan Civil War. Limited support would likely constitute training support, technical support, intelligence, equipment, and limited special forces involvement, rather than “boots on the ground” as that kind of presence would be politically unpalatable to the Trump administration.

A) U.S. Support for GNA Scenario

U.S. support for the GNA would be legitimized by the claim that the GNA is the government officially backed by the United Nations. In supporting the GNA, the U.S. would other international actors of which the most important is Turkey, a NATO member. Another motivation for U.S. support for the GNA is as a counteraction to growing Russian influence in Libya, as Russia currently backs the LNA. U.S. support for the GNA would displease regional allies such as the U.A.E. and Egypt, which currently support the LNA. While the GNA is currently in a precarious position, U.S. support has the potential to reverse LNA advances. The GNA is extremely unlikely to win the war militarily and conquer the rest of Libya by force. The goal for the U.S. and Turkey would be to support the GNA so that it is in a position of strength from which to negotiate a settlement.

B) U.S. Support for LNA Scenario

U.S. support for the LNA would be legitimized by the claim that the LNA is fighting terrorists, imported by Turkey from Syria and that the LNA provides the best possible chance for a stable future in Libya. In supporting the LNA, the U.S. would join with its other international backers, of which the most important is Russia. Other major international backers are Egypt, the U.A.E., and Saudi Arabia. U.S. support for the LNA has the possible advantage of displacing Russian influence by becoming LNA’s new biggest international sponsor. U.S. support could almost certainly end the war in the LNA’s favor relatively quickly, given the tenuous position of the GNA. The goal for the U.S. would be a resolution of the Libyan Civil War, the installation of a stable government, and potentially, the securing of favorable terms for extraction of Libya’s natural resources.

Likelihood of Scenarios

U.S. support for either the GNA or the LNA is highly unlikely under the current circumstances. The U.S. has little to gain by supporting either side. In choosing one side, it would alienate the supporting countries of the other. While supporting the GNA, which is the U.N.-backed side, would be the theoretical legally mandated position, the GNA is in a particularly weak position currently. On the other hand, the LNA, headed by Haftar, almost certainly represents a return to military dictatorship for Libya. And given the U.S. history of backing dictators to ensure stability, backing the LNA would be unpopular both in the U.S. and internationally.

Ultimately, with oil prices at all-time lows, the importance of Libyan natural resources is also extremely low, and thus also the motivation for entering the conflict to obtain favorable terms for resource extraction. Lastly, unlike Russia, the U.S. has no shortage of friendly naval bases and airbases around the Mediterranean, and thus has little motivation to enter the war to obtain basing rights. Thus, U.S. entry into the Libyan Civil War would offer several drawbacks with only a few advantages.