U.S. lawmakers this week strongly endorsed continued U.S. military engagement in Libya, calling it vital for building the country's unity and keeping it from becoming a hub for terrorism.
U.S. involvement in Libya has been a politically divisive issue ever since former President Barack Obama launched the U.N.-authorized military intervention aimed at saving pro-democracy protesters from a government crackdown in 2011. The intervention led to political chaos that continues to this day. Last April, President Donald Trump said the U.S. should have no role in the country beyond fighting Islamic State militants.
U.S. lawmakers said in a Wednesday hearing of the House Foreign Relations Committee's subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa that terrorist groups like IS thrive in Libya's power vacuum.
"Nearly seven years after [former leader Moammar] Gadhafi's removal, Libya remains mired in civil conflict, political division, lawlessness and economic crisis with few signs of abating anytime soon. ISIS and al-Qaida though seriously degraded are regrouping," said subcommittee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican.
Christopher Blanchard, a Middle East expert at the Congressional Research Center, echoed Ros-Lehtinen's concerns.
"The power of armed nonstate groups remains unmatched and there is a lawless atmosphere that persists. Militias, criminals and terrorists, including remnants of the Islamic State, operate with impunity in some areas," Blanchard told lawmakers.
Blanchard added that these groups posed risks to countries in North Africa, Europe and beyond.
Division, opportunity for IS
The U.S. and Libya's U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), have made little headway in overcoming disputes that have practically split the country into islands of power since 2014.
Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said militant groups like Islamic State thrive in those porous security conditions.
"Though the Islamic State has dispersed to the desert ... it is still potent. It could easily exploit Libya's political divisions and the unwillingness of armed groups to confront it," Wehrey said. That's why achieving national reconciliation is so important, along with with improving the country's security, he said.
Alice Hunt Friend, a senior fellow at Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Libya's strategic location and proximity to Europe make it a favored target for proxy wars by outside parties. She said U.S. policy should recognize that ending the terrorist threat requires a political solution.
"Ending major violence and stabilizing Libyan politics to the point where powerful actors accept a single government will be the most durable way to address terrorism and humanitarian needs," she said.
"Yet the path to political equilibrium will likely be a long one. The international community including the United States should have a patient and realistic approach to Libyan politics."
US policy, presence
The U.S. military presence in Libya remains "limited and dispersed," according to Major Karl J. Wiest, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command.
"A small number of U.S. forces transition in and out of Libya to exchange information with local forces, and they will continue to do so in order to help counter violent extremist organizations," Wiest told VOA.
At the policy level, a U.S. official familiar with the administration's policy stance said the U.S. still was actively supporting the U.N.-backed, Libyan-led process.
"We are steadfastly committed to partnering with the Government of National Accord to defeat ISIS and other terrorists and to promoting lasting stability based on political reconciliation," the official said. "The United States strongly supports the Libyan-led, U.N.-facilitated political process as the only means to achieve stability and security in Libya."
But some U.S lawmakers, including Ros-Lehtinen, said the U.S. should do more to show its commitment to Libya.
"It is past time to appoint a new U.S. ambassador to Libya, and soon as it is viable from a security standpoint, we need to reopen our embassy in Tripoli to increase engagement on the ground," Ros-Lehtinen said.
"More than anything, more than military aid, more than financial aid, Libya needs U.S. leadership. Leadership that can corral the various countries interfering in Libya, leverage our connections and help push the political reconciliation process forward," she added.
Representative Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat, said U.S and UN cooperation is key to helping Libya move in the right direction.
"A coherent U.S-UN cooperation is needed to move the country forward in its path of integrity and stabilization," Deutch said.
VOA's Nike Ching contributed to this report.