Peter Brookes: U.S., allies should act now to halt ISIS spread
As if they didn’t have enough to deal with already, the Pentagon has a new problem to panic about: the rise of Islamic State (aka ISIS) affiliates in Afghanistan and Libya.
While we’ve known that ISIS has been spreading beyond the Middle East, creating allies and claiming “provinces,” there has been limited U.S. military activity against it outside the Syria-Iraq theater. That may be changing. In Afghanistan, where there is already concern about a Taliban resurgence as the United States weighs its future involvement, ISIS has made itself known through its usual violent tactics.
Islamic State-Khorasan is reportedly responsible for suicide attacks, kidnappings and strikes against U.N., Afghan and Pakistani targets, including a Pakistani consulate. The Afghan affiliate is believed to be small in number – maybe a few thousand. It’s made up of former Taliban (from Afghanistan and Pakistan) and foreign fighters (such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), according to a December Pentagon report.
In response to that report, Washington designated it a “foreign terrorist organization” and stepped up targeting.
The New York Times reported that U.S. forces have recently conducted ground and air operations against the Islamic State affiliate. For instance, last week, U.S. military reportedly bombed an Islamic State radio station, yanking the “Voice of the Caliphate” off the air in eastern Afghanistan and hopefully curtailing its local recruitment efforts.
Kabul is struggling with a host of longtime enemies – the Taliban, Haqqani Network and al Qaeda – due to the drawdown of allied forces. Adding an Islamic State offshoot to that “fight card” won’t help quiet the country. The other pressing problem for our own nation is Libya.
Team Obama hasn’t yet upped our act in Libya, where NATO’s 2011 intervention led to widespread chaos. But today it’s debating doing more against Islamic State-Libya based on a number of factors: The Libyan affiliate is based in the city of Sirte, which is smack dab between the capital, Tripoli, and the major coastal city of Benghazi and, by some estimates, may now be one of the largest Islamic State groups – if not the largest -outside Syria-Iraq.
The affiliate seems to be tightly tied to ISIS and may seek to control Libyan oil assets, which are significant – a tactic that made ISIS the richest terror group ever. Some experts see Sirte as the “fall-back” caliphate capital (currently Raqqa, Syria) and believe the Libyan affiliate is serving as a new powerful magnet for foreign fighters who don’t – or won’t – go to the Middle East.
Southern Europe is understandably nervous about Libya – and the last thing you’d want is an Islamic State affiliate spreading across Africa, a place already rife with violent Islamist extremists (such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram and al-Shabab). Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has indicated to some media outlets that “decisive military action” against Islamic State-Libya is being considered to give some breathing space to Libya’s elusive political reconciliation process.
In Europe last week for talks with anti-ISIS allies, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed the coalition has made gains in pushing back the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. If true, that’s good news for a change, just not nearly enough. It appears that the chance of the “caliphate” creeping beyond Syria and Iraq in a worrisome way is growing. Acting with our allies now – before it gets worse – seems simple common sense.
This article first appeared in the Boston Herald. Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a Fort Valley resident. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter. Email:BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.