American special operations forces are helping to call in airstrikes on Islamic State positions in and around Sirte, Libya, leaving U.S. troops closer to the frontlines of that war — and in more danger of being killed or wounded — just as they face increased risks in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.
The growing role of the elite U.S. forces in Libya, first reported by the Washington Post, comes as American military personnel in Iraq help Iraqi forces push toward Mosul while battling ISIS in eastern Afghanistan. Both missions — in wars America has largely forgotten about — are leading to new U.S. casualties. In Iraq, two commandos and one Marine have been killed since October. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, five U.S troops were wounded fighting ISIS in July, and an Army Green Beret was killed fighting the Taliban in January.
Still, the troops aren’t likely to be leaving the warzones anytime soon. Instead, the special operations presence in Libya adds to the increasing number of troops active in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen as the Obama administration attempts to stamp out the Islamic State and al Qaeda at a time of increasing attacks on civilians in western countries.
Pentagon spokeswoman Henrietta Levin confirmed to FP that “a small number of U.S. forces have gone in and out of Libya to exchange information with local forces,” in recent months, adding that the Libyan government has established joint operations rooms, “away from the forward line, to facilitate coordination” among forces fighting ISIS.
Since Aug. 1, U.S. Marine Corps Harrier jets flying from the USS Wasp and armed drones flying from Jordan have launched 28 airstrikes in and around Sirte, targeting “enemy fighting positions” and vehicles, according to the U.S. Africa Command.
Despite the show of force, Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord remains in a precarious position. Several rival militias continue to maneuver for power, and the Islamic State has shown the ability to continue carrying out attacks — like a car bomb in Benghazi earlier this month that killed 22 people — even though many of its fighters are pinned down in Sirte. That attack took place in the Guwarsha district, the scene of continued clashes between security forces loyal to the GNA and an alliance of Islamists and others.
Earlier this year, U.S. defense officials estimated that there were as many as 6,000 ISIS fighters in Libya, crowded around their coastal enclave of Sirte, but over the past week those estimates have dwindled to just several hundred, as some have been killed, and others melted away in the face of increasing military pressure or for better deals with other militia groups.
The increased American effort in Libya comes as teams of commandos have been sent back to Yemen after leaving the country last year when Houthi rebels overran local security forces. The Pentagon began sending small teams back in April, and now plans to keep a small force of military advisers in in the country for the foreseeable future. The small teams will work with troops from the United Arab Emirates, who are hunting militants from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Other special operations forces have fought off attacks by al Shabab fighters in Somalia.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the head of the U.S.-led war effort, Gen. John Nicholson, said last month that American commandos had been involved in heavy fighting in Nangarhar province and that the White House had given him the authority to surge more troops into eastern Afghanistan to push back against the nascent ISIS threat there.
Five special forces troops were wounded in Nangarhar while battling ISIS in late July, one of whom left his weapon, ammunition, hand grenades, and identification cards behind after being evacuated quickly while under fire.
Over the weekend, the insurgents displayed the equipment online, bragging about capturing U.S. gear. The soldier in question was fine, U.S. military officials quickly said, and on Tuesday offered a more detailed explanation of what happened. While collecting their casualties after one firefight, the U.S. troops “came under effective enemy fire,” Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, the spokesman for the U.S. military command in Kabul told FP. The Americans then “moved to a safer location” and the equipment was left behind during the move. He stressed that “neither U.S. positions nor personnel were overrun.”
By Paul McLeary