The commander-in-chief of US forces in Africa paid a surprise visit to Tripoli last week to sit down with officials from both sides of the Libyan conflict.
General Stephen Townsend accompanied US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland on meetings with Acting Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, Presidential Council Chief Mohammad Younes Menfi and Army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Mohammed Haddad.
The couple also met with the country’s 5 + 5 Joint Military Committee on Tuesday, marking the first time that representatives of rival Libyan parties have met in the internationally recognized capital.
Townsend has come to support Washington’s message that Libyan officials are sticking to a schedule to hold national elections later this year, according to a statement from US Africa Command.
A senior US official familiar with the meetings said Norland and Townsend also discussed the prospect of military partnership opportunities with the United States, but stressed the need for a unified Libyan government first.
The official, who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, called the meetings “very productive.”
Why is this important: Townsend’s visit to Tripoli was the first by a senior US military commander since a 2019 offensive by Khalifa Hifter against the UN-recognized government plunged the country into yet another civil war.
A UN-backed ceasefire agreement ended hostilities last year. In March, the rival parties approved an interim government in line with a UN political roadmap backed by international pressure. National elections are now set for December 24.
But officials in the Biden administration, keen to re-establish their diplomatic presence on the ground in Libya, are increasingly concerned that disputes over a constitutional framework could derail the country’s reunification process.
In addition, thousands of Russian, Syrian and sub-Saharan African mercenaries, as well as Turkish troops, remain in Libya in violation of the ceasefire agreement. Egypt, Russia and Turkey say they support the UN process, but stakeholders failed to agree on a path to eliminate the fighters at a June summit in Berlin.
US officials now privately admit that Moscow or Ankara is unlikely to withdraw most of their forces before the Libyans go to the polls, and fear upsetting the balance of power on the ground at such a sensitive time .
“There is no sign that these forces are considering trying to influence the outcome of the elections,” the senior official told Al-Monitor.
US officials now say the best hope for a foreign fighters exit is if it is requested by an elected Libyan government.
“There is no organization or body more capable of bringing about this departure than a strong and unified Libyan government chosen by its own people. And that’s why elections are so important, ”Joey Hood, the region’s top State Department official, told reporters following the Berlin conference.
US officials see the potential failure to hold legitimate elections on time as the most immediate threat to Libya’s stability. A resumption of large-scale fighting could be a devastating setback for the political process and invite further foreign intervention.
From AFRICOM’s point of view, the presence of the Wagner mercenaries from the Kremlin in Libya is particularly worrying.
Russia introduced fighter jets and radar systems in an attempt to tip the scales in favor of Hifter’s offensive last year, a move that U.S. military officials say could become a tactical issue for the NATO if Moscow establishes a permanent presence there.
Townsend stressed to Libyan officials last week that the departure of a few hundred foreign fighters from either side ahead of the election may grease the wheels for larger-scale withdrawals once a new government is in place. On Monday, the acting Libyan foreign minister said reports of some small-scale departures were true, calling the move a “modest start”.
Yet as Libyan politicians and generals vie for influence, the Kremlin has sought to play on both sides. His mercenaries Wagner – accused of leaving a trail of war crimes in Libya, Syria and the Central African Republic – continue to make inroads elsewhere in the region.
News that the Malian government is working on a security deal with Russian mercenaries as France reduces its military presence in the Sahel has raised alarm bells in Western capitals.
Townsend also visited Tunisia and Algeria last week in the latest sign that U.S. officials are looking to strengthen defense ties on the sidelines of Wagner’s forays into Africa.
“The things we can do to try to build confidence and security in these places, including Tripoli, we are interested in doing,” the US official said.
Earlier this year, AFRICOM invited Libyan Lieutenant-General Haddad to its flagship multinational exercise, African Lion. The US military is also looking to continue the recent small-scale joint training for Libyan soldiers on both sides, including training against IEDs in the region.
Larger-scale cooperation will have to wait until Libya forms a unified army, officials say.
And after: Mohamed Menfi, who heads the Libyan presidential council, said the body will hold an international conference this month to garner support for a stable political transition.
“Either we succeed in our democratic transition through free, fair and transparent elections … or we fail and fall back into the division of an armed conflict,” Menfi told the United Nations General Assembly last month.
Meanwhile, there are signs that the Biden administration is considering increasing the pressure on Libya’s foreign actors.
Speaking to reporters after the Berlin summit in June, Joey Hood said he was convinced that the United States “can set the conditions to provide the incentives and perhaps other parameters for these forces to leave.”
Last week, the US House of Representatives passed a landmark bill that would sanction foreign actors supporting Libyan fighters on both sides.
A separate measure included in the House’s version of annual defense spending legislation would add the weight of US sanctions to the UN’s largely helpless arms embargo on Libya.
Know more: Check out Andrew Parasiliti’s conversation with former UN envoy to Libya Stephanie Williams.