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Friend or Foe? Doubts Plague US Military in Libya Training


FILE - A member of the force assigned to protect Libya's unity government stands at the entrance to where the government has their offices, in Tripoli, Libya, April 14, 2016.

FILE - A member of the force assigned to protect Libya's unity government stands at the entrance to where the government has their offices, in Tripoli, Libya, April 14, 2016.

The U.S. military is "prepared to support" a train-and-equip mission to fight the thousands of Islamic State militants in Libya when the Libyan government is ready for it, the head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) said Tuesday.

AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez added that Libya's internal politics have made it unclear which armed groups are fighting alongside the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), leaving the U.S. "really dependent" on the Libyan interim government to determine "who is with them and who is moving over to them."

Militias will likely be key to stopping the spread of Islamic State once friendly forces are identified and aided he said, but, "We're not at that point yet."

Libya is under a U.N. arms embargo, imposed to keep lethal weapons away from terrorists and militias vying for power.

However, a joint communique issued after international talks Monday in Vienna signaled that international powers, including the U.S., are set to provide arms and support to the Libyan government to fight Islamic State.

"The thing that they need most is really ammunition and small arms," Rodriguez said. "It's not fighter aircraft and that kind of stuff."

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon that there were small teams of U.S. forces on the ground in Libya to get a "better sense of the players" and to more accurately understand the Islamic State group's presence and strength level.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow on defense strategy at the Brookings Institution, said the 20 to 25 U.S. forces now in Libya, along with other NATO allies on the ground there, should "get serious" about a training mission for a Libyan military or integrated paramilitary.

"I'm interested in asking if 1,000 to 2,000 Americans at the right time could make a big difference," he told VOA.

FILE - Libyan military soldier stands guard at the entrance of a town, 110 kilometers (68 miles) from Sirte, Libya.

FILE - Libyan military soldier stands guard at the entrance of a town, 110 kilometers (68 miles) from Sirte, Libya.

US military locations

The U.S. military has looked at 11 locations for small “cooperative security locations” to help African nations fight extremist groups and other security threats, according to AFRICOM spokesman Colonel Mark Cheadle.

In response to a VOA question about military base locations in Africa, Cheadle had initially said the U.S. was looking at 11 locations for a second base, but later told VOA he misunderstood the question.

The United States currently has one military base in the east African nation of Djibouti. U.S. forces are also on the ground in Somalia to assist the regional fight against al-Shabab and in Cameroon to help with the multinational effort against Nigeria-based Boko Haram.

One of the possible new cooperative security locations is in Cameroon, but Cheadle did not identify other locations due to “host nation sensitivities.”

The military is not looking at a cooperative security location in Nigeria, he said, despite increased cooperation between the U.S. and Nigerian militaries.

AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez told reporters in Brussels that the U.S. military has trained members of Nigeria's intelligence corps as well as three Nigerian battalions, including one that "just recently" graduated.

"Boko Haram is the biggest killer of people across the world," the general said.

Rodriguez also said the AFRICOM headquarters, located in Stuttgart, Germany, will stay in Europe for the foreseeable future.

The command's stated mission is to advance U.S. interests and promote security and stability in Africa.

VOA's Dan Joseph contributed to this report.

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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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