In June the White House and Pentagon were touting the recent success of Libyan militias closing in on the Islamic State-held city of Sirte, with little to no support from U.S. forces on the ground.
Five months later that Libyan offensive has stalled amid heavy urban fighting with Washington finding itself being dragged further into the conflict, a development that analysts claim will loom large over the Iraqi-led offensive to take Mosul from the Islamist terror group, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
U.S. bombers and fighters have launched over 360 airstrikes against Islamic State positions around Sirte since American operations began in the country in August. According to a post-mission assessment by officials at U.S. Africa Command, U.S. warplanes struck 33 separate targets around the coastal city in a single day.
One U.S. official told The Washington Times that even more strikes are likely in the coming days and weeks under the U.S. mission in Libya, dubbed Operation Odyssey Lightning.
The Pentagon has declined to comment on the type of strikes occurring — whether drones, fighter jets or missiles — but have said all the strikes are occurring based on the request of Libya’s Government of National Accord.
“As of early November, the remaining ISIS fighters are said to number no more than 200 and are hemmed into an area of Sirte measuring only one square kilometer in size,” according to Jason Pack, a senior analyst specializing on North Africa at the Denmark-based Risk Intelligence corporate research firm.
An American official familiar with the U.S. military operations in Sirte suggested that Islamic Sate has been mainly defeated in the city despite sustained pockets of resistance.
“I’ve seen the operation area grow smaller and smaller over the weeks,” the official told The Times, while noting that the Libyan-led operation had become mired in street-to-street fighting as local forces attempt to secure the city’s center.
“My understanding is that it really is door-to-door clearing,” the official said.
The official declined to comment on the makeup of the Libyan force doing the house-to-house fighting in Sirte, beyond confirming that it is militias from Misrata.
“It really [is] those individuals on the ground doing the very tedious work of trying to survive the booby traps and going house to house, [and] that’s not something you can timeline exactly,” the official said.
The intense battle in Sirte that Libyan forces now find themselves in is a far cry from the sweeping offensive against the city, which the White House and Pentagon in July touted as a prime example of local forces taking the lead in the war against Islamic State.
“The Libyan people have a lot of reason themselves to want to get rid of [Islamic State], and it’s clear from what we’re seeing on the ground that they have been successful,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters at the time.
That same month, Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who then was the nominee to lead U.S. Africa Command, pressed Congress and the Obama administration to begin U.S. airstrikes in Libya to ensure that the Islamic State hold on Sirte would be broken.
But rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Libya, which require White House approval for any offensive operations in the country, limited Washington’s role in the country to clandestine drone strikes launched from NATO bases in Southern Europe and small rotations of U.S. special operations teams working with local forces.
The decision was rooted in the Obama counterrorism doctrine of depending heavily on local proxy forces with light U.S. support on the ground to battle Islamic State. The successful push on Sirte in June was seen as a validation of that strategy.
But as the Libyan-led offensive in Sirte began to lose steam, administration officials were forced to ramp up American military support for local forces, launching the U.S. air campaign in the country in August.
The shift in U.S. tactics in Libya presents a foreboding precedent for U.S.-backed Iraqi forces battling to retake the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, as those forces are now encountering the same tough, urban warfare that has stymied the Sirte offensive.
The decision will also factor heavily in the coming U.S.-backed operation to topple Islamic State’s Syrian capital of Raqqa, which kicked off Sunday.
Concerns over collateral damage and civilian casualties have forced U.S. commanders to limit the number of airstrikes carried out in Sirte. The roughly 360 strikes conducted since August pale in comparison to the thousands of sorties flown in Iraq and Syria by American aircraft, according to Mr. Pack.
“All indications suggest that given the political and sectarian sensitivities surrounding the Mosul battle that the U.S. will be even more cautious,” he wrote in a Nov. 4 analysis of both campaigns.
The guerrilla tactics used by Islamic State to great success to thwart Libyan forces in Sirte will likely be on display tenfold once Iraqi and Kurdish forces enter the heart of Mosul, according to Mr. Pack.
“Mosul is a much larger city than Sirte, and has been held by ISIS for much longer. Therefore, this problem will likely only be magnified,” he said. “Victory will almost certainly be secured through close-quarter fighting on the ground.”
But stiff Islamic State resistance along Mosul’s southern and eastern borders three weeks into the campaign has already begun to slow the coalition’s advance into the city.
Iraqi army and special operations units have reportedly become bogged down inside the city’s eastern suburbs in difficult street-to-street fighting.
In the south, Iraqi and coalition forces have retaken the town of Hammam al-Alil, and are moving slowly toward Mosul’s southern borders amid waves of car bombs and suicide attacks by Islamic State defenders.