By Samer Al-Atrush
Libya’s security chief called on the U.S. to set up a base in the North African country to counterbalance Russia’s expanding influence in Africa.
Fathi Bashagha, interior minister for the Tripoli-based administration, said his government proposed hosting a base after Secretary of Defense Mark Esper laid out plans to scale back the U.S. military presence on the continent and re-focus deployments globally on confronting Russia and China.
Bashagha’s government has been engaged in a months-long battle with forces trying to seize the capital led by eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar, who’s backed by Russian mercenaries.
“The redeployment is not clear to us,” Bashagha said, speaking in a phone interview with Bloomberg on Friday. “But we hope that the redeployment includes Libya so it doesn’t leave space that Russia can exploit.”
The oil-rich nation across the Mediterranean from Europe has been one of the main stages for Russia’s push for influence over the past year. More than a thousand mercenaries deployed by a confidant of President Vladimir Putin have backed Haftar’s offensive to capture the capital from the internationally recognized government.
Bashagha warned that Russia’s backing of Haftar was part of a broader push for influence.
“The Russians aren’t in Libya just for Haftar,” he said. “They have a big strategy in Libya and Africa.”
Esper’s plan to pull troops from Africa provoked criticism in Congress, with 11 lawmakers led by House Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Anthony Brown, a Democrat, noting in a letter last month that Russia and China were investing in the continent to strengthen their influence.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a top ally of President Donald Trump, was among a bipartisan group of lawmakers who confronted Esper on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich and said they wouldn’t back the plan, NBC reported on Tuesday.
In late January, Esper said the U.S. wouldn’t withdraw all of its troops from Africa, but acknowledged a review is under way to account for a new strategy that makes countering Russia and China the priority. The U.S. has about 6,000 troops in Africa, including those guarding diplomatic facilities, according to a defense official.
A report by the Pentagon’s lead inspector general released this month said Russia’s activities in Libya and North Africa posed “significant challenges to the United States and its partners,” undermining military relations with countries in the region.
“Libya is important in the Mediterranean: it has oil wealth and a 1,900-kilometer coast and ports which allow Russia to view it as the gate to Africa,” Bashagha said. “If the U.S. asks for a base, as the Libyan government we wouldn’t mind — for fighting terrorism, organized crime and keeping foreign countries that intervene at a distance. An American base would lead to stability.”
The U.S. hasn’t had forces in Libya since last April, when it withdrew them as Haftar’s forces marched toward the capital. The country has been in turmoil since a 2011 U.S.-led and NATO-backed uprising ousted long-time autocrat Moammer al-Qaddafi. The following year, a jihadist-led mob attacked the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, killing the American ambassador, Christopher Stevens.
In a 2016 interview with Fox News, then-President Barack Obama said that failing to plan for the aftermath of Qaddafi’s ouster was the worst mistake of his presidency.
“We hope that the U.S. can move on from this regretful incident,” Bashagha said of the attack on the embassy. “All Libyans regret it. It wasn’t the Libyan people but a small group of criminals that did it.”
Since April, control of the country has been divided between Haftar’s forces, who are also backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and the UN-recognized government, which gets military support from Turkey.
The war prompted the U.S. to withdraw a counter terrorism contingent from Tripoli that had been assisting in the fight against Islamic State militants in Africa.
Bashagha warned that arms pouring into the country despite a United Nations arms embargo could find their way to neighboring Egypt, where weapons smuggled out of Libya have reached Islamic State militants in Sinai and the neighboring Palestinian Gaza Strip.