Britain has launched covert military operations in Libya against Islamic State (IS) militants with the support of Jordan.
Soldiers from the elite Special Air Services (SAS) regiment have been sent to tackle an emerging IS threat in Libya as part of a global war against the group, and Britain has recruited Jordanian special forces to provide local intelligence, according to Jordanian King Abdullah II Ibn Hussein(in a meeting Abdullah held with US congressional leaders in January)
Abdullah said that he expected covert military operations in Libya to increase after the meeting, which was held in the week of 11 January. He told his American audience that Jordanian special forces would be embedded with their British counterparts.
“His Majesty [King Abdullah] said he expects a spike in a couple of weeks and Jordanians will be imbedded [sic] with British SAS, as Jordanian slang is similar to Libyan slang,” the account said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former top British military official told MEE that it was normal for special forces, which are not considered conventional forces, to be deployed without MPs being given the opportunity to debate the issue in parliament.
He said that he “assumed we [the British SAS] are there in a support and training role rather than a frontline role – but that’s been a bit muddy too," adding that while special forces are a “very useful tool” they would not “make a material difference” in the fight against IS.
“Special forces will never substitute for a conventional force that occupies and holds ground,” he said.
“A properly orchestrated international force would start to have an effect in terms of building up the proxy [Libyan] force that you’re actually going to use.”
Australian counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen, who advised US general David Petraeus and helped design the 2007 surge in Iraq, told MEE that special forces can have two positive effects on wider military efforts.
“The first is if special forces are on the ground they can provide close targeting intelligence for air strikes,” he said. “The second is that they can provide a stiffening effect on the local forces they work with, by giving them intelligence and tactical advice.”
Kilcullen pointed to the US-led war in Afghanistan, when 100 CIA officers and 300 US special forces soldiers built up 50,000 Afghan fighters to seize control of the country from the Taliban.
However, he said having such highly trained men on the ground could also have present problems of escalation.
“It puts Westerners in harm’s way. And this makes it harder for their governments to walk away,” he said.
“If someone is kidnapped or killed, this can become a tripwire to a wider unplanned engagement – it leads to raids to rescue a kidnapped soldier with the possibility of further operations.”
Kilcullen said that if there are British special forces in Libya, it was highly likely there would also be a “quick reaction force with search and rescue troops – along with drones with full strike capacity – in the event of special forces being killed or kidnapped.
The former British army official said that special forces could be used to kill senior IS leaders in Libya as part of a plan to stop the group increasing its presence in a North African country that acts as a key route for refugees heading for Europe.
However, Mattia Toaldo, a senior policy fellow at the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) told MEE that such missions did not guarantee wider success.
“Even if you kill the IS leadership, it’s not clear who will control the ‘liberated’ territory afterwards,” he said.
“This is very likely to be the case in Sirte, with competing forces now claiming to have a plan to defeat IS there but no plan to govern it in a unitary way,” he added, referring to the main Libyan town under IS control.
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