Following the overthrow of the regime of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi by a group of ragtag militants and rebels the term “lead from behind” entered the lexicon for a brief time. Here for a short moment, it seemed to some, was regime change made easy: where armed rebel groups could be a substitute for “boots on the ground” which could be given direct support by western air and firepower to help them overthrow their oppressive regimes and sort out the future of their own countries.
Unfortunately, Libya hasn’t proved to be an ideal model given the tumult and chaos which followed the aftermath of Gaddafi – many of the rebels who had briefly coordinated for the ad-hoc goal of removing that hated tyrant turned their guns on each other as they struggled to grab the reins of power for themselves. Amid this chaotic instability Islamic State (ISIS) was, unsurprisingly, able to seize large swaths of territory around the coastal city of Sirte.
They did the same in Iraq two years ago and have exploited internal political-sectarian fissures in that country to capture the country’s second-city Mosul. The Iraqi Army’s failure to stop their initial thrust into Iraq has seen them having to undergo thorough reforms and re-training before they can final mount a successful counterattack to retake that city.
In Afghanistan ISIS has tried to get a foothold and is fighting both the Taliban and the Afghan army. A war which will truly test the ability of the Afghan government to defend the country against internal terrorist threats as the US-led coalition in that country winds down after a 15-year presence.
All three of these cases share one conspicuous commonality, they are states which have been on the brink of collapse where unpopular and very brutal regimes were overthrown by the United States and the ensuing power vacuum contested by many odious groups. How this has come to be is interesting in its own right as is how the US is trying to defeat ISIS in these countries. While there are many differences – Iraq is the only country where there is a real concerted effort to destroy ISIS at the moment – there are also some very striking similarities.
In each country the US is attempting to establish a central authority and build an army which can effectively counter the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda. In Iraq despite billions of dollars spent on building a large and strong army in the post-Saddam Hussein-era, after completely dismantling the pre-2003 Iraqi state army, ISIS was able to invade over a third of the country and retain hold over it for nearly two years and counting.
Even though the Iraqis have mounted successful ground offensives with US air support, most notably in Tikrit and Ramadi, in the latter case it was Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism forces who led the fight against jihadists in that city with the regular army playing a supporting role (see also the video above). While not perfect it got the job done, and the US seeks other competent ground allies to work with against ISIS in Afghanistan and Libya.
In April it was revealed by The Washington Post that the US has launched over 70 airstrikes against ISIS in the first three months of 2016, most of them in the mountainous eastern Afghan province of Nangahar where ISIS have been struggling to erect a mini-state including that provinces capital Jalalabad. US Brigadier General Charles H. Cleveland revealed that in many of these cases the US would bomb ISIS positions and then Afghan commandos, trained by US special forces, would then storm those same areas. “What we were able to do is have US unilateral strikes against Daesh [ISIS] targets, and then the [Afghan forces] specifically their [commandos], were able to move in and essentially clear part of a valley,” Cleveland told reporters.
Again a strategy reminiscent of Iraq where the US has devoted substantial resources to building-up a formidable ground army to assist in countering such terrorist groups. In Libya they don’t have such an army to work with, they don’t even have an established central government yet, but they are working on it. US officials have said time and again when central governance is restored in Libya they will support them in any military effort to uproot ISIS from that country. And even though they have launched a handful of airstrikes against ISIS targets in Libya they have not launched a sustained campaign against the group there, likely given the lack of any ally on the ground to coordinate operations with.
The UN-backed unity government of Faiez Serraj that the US wants to work with is trying to be that power in Tripoli, it recently discouraged the warring militias from attacking ISIS in Sirte until they can properly unify. Last Friday it announced the establishment of a counter-ISIS task force but did not specify how many were in it or how many they planned to recruit nor how.
While the US would lend air support to counter-ISIS operations mounted by this nascent force in the future, likely along with Britain and France, it is Italy who has volunteered to lead operations, likely due to the fact it is closest to Libya and would have the most to lose if ISIS were to get any larger a foothold in that country.
In Yemen, too, where the Saudis have led a coalition air campaign against the Shiite Houthis, the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) organisation has gotten a large foothold along the coast and built their own mini-state there. The US has deployed a small number of special forces to Yemen to assist special forces from the United Arab Emirates to combat AQAP. They may advise larger forces in the future and give more close air support to their allies on the ground to help them force AQAP from Yemen.
All of these trends are worth evaluating since they give a clear indication of the current strategy the US is using in tandem with its numerous allies to destroy such groups wherever they seek to erect the black flag of jihad.