U.S. advisers on the ground have picked targets, but the White House has yet to approve airstrikes to support the fledgling Libyan government's fight against ISIS, President Obama's nominee to head U.S. Africa Command said Tuesday.
Marine Lt. Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his nomination hearing that U.S. Special Forces advising the Government of National Accord based in Tripoli had identified ISIS targets but AFRICOM needed presidential authorization to conduct strikes against them.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said "That makes no sense, does it?"
Waldhauser, known in the Marine Corps for being outspoken, responded: "No, it does not."
"Do you think it would be wise to have that authority?" Graham asked.
"It would certainly contribute to what we're trying to do inside of Libya," Waldhauser said.
The current guidance to the military was to assist the GNA against ISIS while promoting political reconciliation among the various factions in Libya, Waldhauser said. The U.S. has a sufficient number of advisers on the ground "at the moment" -- he wouldn't say how many -- but "I am not aware of any overall grand strategy at this point," Waldhauser said.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and the committee's chairman, said " 'At the moment' means to me we don't have a strategy. Unfortunately, this administration has reacted at the moment with incrementalism, mission creep, a gradual escalation in Iraq and Syria and I don't want to see the same thing in Libya."
At a later Pentagon news conference, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook, when asked about Waldhauser's remarks, said "We've been willing to take airstrikes" in the past against ISIS leaders in Libya but none has occurred in recent months, and there have yet to be any in support of the current drive by GNA forces to take the port city of Sirte from ISIS.
"It's a complicated situation" in Libya, Cook said. "The most encouraging thing we see now is the action on the ground around Sirte. We'll continue to watch it closely. If the Libyans can do it on their own, that would be a good thing."
Waldhauser was expected to win easy confirmation and promotion to four-star rank from the full Senate to lead the sprawling AFRICOM with headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, and replace Army Gen. David Rodriguez, who is retiring.
Earlier this year in a Pentagon briefing, Rodriguez put the estimated number of ISIS fighters in Libya at 4,000-6,000, roughly double what it had been at the beginning of 2015.
Rodriguez said then that the policy was to conduct limited airstrikes in Libya against ISIS targets, only going after those leaders and groups that posed imminent threats to U.S. personnel and interests.
Rodriguez said that last Nov. 13 a U.S. airstrike killed ISIS leader Abu Nubil in the city of Derna, the first such strike against an Islamic State leader in Libya. In February, a series of airstrikes was conducted on a militant training camp in the seaside Libyan town of Sabratha, Rodriguez said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.