Since the air strike hit a farmhouse and killed dozens, it is not surprising that the US cannot confirm their target’s death (that is a lot of remains to sort through). But the US’s confusion over who it has killed is a problem. Similarly, The Washington Post recently reported that American officials are now unsure whether or not an airstrike targeting al-Qaida militant Mukhtar Belmokhtar last year was successful. New York Times war correspondent C.J. Chivers, famously targeted accidentally in an airstrike in Libya himself, said it best:
“An aircraft, a pilot, put a guided munition very near to me on a piece of ground where I was standing that was unquestionably out of the Qaddafi forces’ hands, and then proceeded to brief the strike publicly as if it was a valid strike. They said things that were not true. They may have believed them. Either way, it’s a problem, right? It shows that they don’t know what they’re bombing in many instances, and they convince themselves that they do, which is an incredibly dangerous use of lethal power. And it just was extremely useful to see that and consider other things they may be saying to you on one story or another. Because there’s no question to me about what happened.”
The sad truth of the matter is that as the air war against IS expands, the US government does not always know who or what they are bombing. This makes it hard to justify these airstrikes, regardless of how good or bad the targets are. Unfortunately, without good human intelligence, it is difficult to understand the situation on the ground when your closest observer is a drone orbiting at 15,000 feet.
But the IS problem in Libya is not going away. IS controls at least a good 120 miles of territory and growing, 5,000-6,500 fighters, and has been launching a multi-front campaign on oil production centers that is unlikely to be defeated by local actors. None, including the Libyan government, are organized or strong enough.
“The Somalia, Yemen, and Syria models show that an air campaign alone is not only ineffective, it is a sloppy, dangerous half-measure.”
Insurgencies and terrorist groups are most likely to be defeated via direct military action only if they are deftly struck relatively early in their genesis. As we have seen in Iraq and Syria, allowing IS to take significant amounts of territory and establish infrastructure has made them resilient to the 18 month old US-led bombing campaign against them.
With only one airstrike accomplished so far, it is too early to see how the US plans to fight in Libya. However, the Somalia, Yemen, and Syria models show that an air campaign alone is not only ineffective, it is a sloppy, dangerous half-measure. I have not yet seen any studies showing that adding new countries to the extremely costly US bombing list has made Americans safer, yet this continues to be the counterterrorism status quo.