The U.S. announced Sunday an abrupt withdrawal of military forces from Tripoli amid a deteriorating security situation and growing belief that Libyan militia leader Gen. Khalifa Hifter is on the verge of capturing full control of the country’s capital.
Military leaders said the “complex and unpredictable” circumstances in Libya have created a dangerous situation for U.S. personnel and there is fear they could find themselves in a firefight between rival factions battling for control of unstable country.
U.S. involvement in Libya in recent years has focused on assisting local forces battling Islamic State and al Qaeda militants, and on securing American diplomatic facilities.
It’s unclear how many American military personnel are in Libya. The Pentagon has been reluctant to reveal exact numbers of troops in combat zones.
Military leaders stressed that even with the withdrawal, U.S. forces in the region will be “agile” enough to respond if necessary.
“The security realities on the ground in Libya are growing increasingly complex and unpredictable,” said Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, which oversees all American military efforts on the continent. “Even with an adjustment of the force, we will continue to remain agile in support of existing U.S. strategy.”
U.S. officials said they’ll continue to monitor the situation inside Libya, which has been gripped by years of fighting and unrest since the ouster and death of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
Less than a year after his death, four American diplomats were killed during a terrorist assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi — an incident that touched off a political firestorm at home and led to widespread criticism of the Obama administration for failing to protect personnel abroad.
In the years since that attack, rival militias have battled for control of the country. The most powerful of those groups, the Libyan National Army, is led by Gen. Hifter, who previously served as Gadhafi’s senior military chief. Gen. Hifter has said his goal is to reunite Libya under his control.
Last week, his forces began an aerial and ground assault on the capital, clashing with militias affiliated with a United Nations-backed government in Tripoli. At least 23 people have been killed in the fighting.
Gen. Hifter’s forces reportedly have gained control of the city’s shuttered international airport, a strategic prize that’s seen intense fighting over the past several days. The militia leader already has captured key oil fields across the country.
U.N. officials have urged the two sides to pursue peace, though all indications Sunday were that the fighting will continue.
“There is no military solution. Only intra-Libyan dialogue can solve Libyan problems. I call for calm and restraint as I prepare to meet the Libyan leaders in the country,” U.N. Secretary-General Antnio Guterres said late last week.
Gen. Hifter enjoys the backing of Russia and other international players who reportedly are financing the militia force.
Regional analysts say global powers have deeply misunderstood the situation in Libya and Gen. Hifter could offer the kind of stability some in the country are seeking.
“The international community has largely stood by, detached from the reality on the ground and trying to create political unity among increasingly marginalized politicians,” Tarek Megerisi, a policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent piece for Foreign Policy magazine.
Mr. Megerisi added that Gen. Hifter’s “seizure of the oil fields advertises to Libya’s general populace that he can supply what Tripoli’s feckless Government of National Accord cannot,” likely giving the strongman an appeal among a Libyan population eager to rally around a competent government.