WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon is seeking $200 million in the 2017 budget for counterterrorism operations in Libya and other portions of North and West Africa, but Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday that Libyans must take the lead in eliminating the Islamic State threat in their country.
The new funding provides the first concrete indication of what the U.S. military may do to battle the threat, including expanded drone and surveillance flights, strikes and other operations. And it is the first time that the Pentagon has included a separate increase for operations against the Islamic State in Africa.
There were no details on how the money would be spent. The $200 million is part of an overall increase in the department's war funding, including the ongoing effort in Afghanistan, and the airstrikes and training in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State. The war funding request is $58.8 billion for 2017, compared to $58.6 billion this year.
The $200 million is likely to cover increased drone operations over Africa, as the military struggles to provide real-time intelligence through 24-hour unmanned aircraft patrols in the coming years. And that budget increase will build on discussions U.S. officials are having now on plans to beef up counterterrorism operations in Libya in the coming weeks and months.
Carter, speaking with reporters en route to Brussels, where he will host a defense ministers meeting Thursday on the fight against the Islamic State, said many allies are worried by the extremist group's foothold in Libya. But Carter also made clear that his consultations are not aimed at any immediate large-scale military intervention in Libya by the U.S. or others.
"One important factor is Libyans themselves don't want foreigners on their territory, and so the approach to Libya will be to help the Libyans to expel ISIL, which is basically our strategic approach everywhere else, also," he said, using a common acronym for the group. He was referring to U.S.-led efforts in Iraq and Syria to enable local armies to do the ground combat, even though progress there has been extremely limited.
Noting that Libyans have not yet been able to agree on a government, Carter said "action there, as we all understand, has to go hand-in-hand with an end to the internecine fighting there." If and when that is achieved through diplomatic means, the Italian government has agreed to take the lead in assisting Libya expel the Islamic State, he added. "We are strongly in support of that," he said.
According to U.S. defense officials, the Pentagon is looking for ways to increase drone flights over Libya and other parts of Africa to get a better picture of what is going on and to be prepared to conduct operations when needed.
As a result, officials said the U.S. may have to shift aircraft from other parts of the world, including Afghanistan, to cover the growing demand in Libya, where the number of Islamic State militants has risen from a couple thousand to about 5,000, according to newly declassified U.S. intelligence assessments.
Under the plan laid out in the 2017 budget, the Pentagon would increase the number of 24-hour combat air patrols from more than 60 now to 90 by about October 2019. The increase would come as the Army, government contractors and special operations forces contribute more to the flights already being done by the Air Force.
Although there are no plans for a large-scale U.S. military action in Libya, President Barack Obama last week directed his national security team to beef up counterterrorism operations there.
U.S. officials say the military options under consideration include raids and advisory missions by U.S. special operations forces and targeted airstrikes against militants, including high profile enemies. Last November a U.S. airstrike on a command center near the port city of Darnah killed Abu Nabil, a longtime al-Qaida operative believed by U.S. officials to have been the senior Islamic State leader in Libya.
U.S. officials are increasingly worried that Libya could become the next Syria, where the Islamic State flourished amid civil war and spread into Iraq. Both Syria and Libya have vast under-governed areas where militants can set up headquarters, training camps or storage depots.
Small teams of U.S. military members have gone in and out of Libya in recent months as part of an effort to establish ties with local groups and leaders.
The expected increase in military activity in Libya comes as officials pursue diplomatic efforts to form a national unity government there.
Since 2014, Libya has been split between two rival authorities, each backed by different militias and tribes.
The officials were not authorized to discuss the plans publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this story from Brussels.