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Jun 21, 1:50 PM EDT

General says number of US troops in Libya sufficient for now



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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Marine Corps general nominated to lead U.S. forces in Africa said Tuesday the United States has a small number of troops on the ground in Libya and no more are needed "at the moment."

In testimony Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser said the American troops are performing advisory roles while acknowledging that he is not aware that the United States has an "overall grand strategy" for Libya. Waldhauser said he is unaware of any discussions that would change US policy in Libya.

The U.S. previously has conducted airstrikes in Libya, targeting Islamic State fighters and leaders. But Waldhauser told the committee that no combat missions are currently being flown against the militant group, a decision he questioned during an exchange with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

"That makes no sense, does it?" Graham asked. "No, it does not," Waldhauser responded. He said there are targets in Libya that are being identified, although he did not provide details.

Waldhauser also said he does not have the authority, without presidential direction, to order missions on his own against Islamic State militants in Africa.

"Do you think it would be wise to have that authority?" Graham asked. Waldhauser said it would. "It would certainly contribute to what we're trying to do inside of Libya," he said.

Libya slid into chaos following the 2011 toppling and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Since 2014, Libya has been divided between two parliaments and governments with each backed by a loose set of militias and tribes. The eastern government and parliament were formed after the last parliament elections, but the parliament in Tripoli refused to hand over power to them.

Following a U.N. brokered political deal between factions from each camp at the end of last year, a new unity government has tried to consolidate its grip in Tripoli but has faced resistance from various political players and armed groups. Islamic State extremists have exploited the turmoil, seizing territory and triggering fears in Europe at the prospects of an expanding extremist-run bastion on its doorstep, just across the Mediterranean Sea.

The unity government is overseeing an offensive against the country's Islamic State affiliate in the militant group's stronghold of Sirte.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, faulted the Obama administration for failing in the aftermath of Gadhafi's death to secure the country.

"You're inheriting a very difficult and complex situation, which didn't have to be," McCain told Waldhauser. "We walked away from Libya."

President Barack Obama nominated Waldhauser to be the next commander of U.S. Africa Command in April. He is currently serving as the Joint Staff's director of joint force development.

If confirmed by the Senate, Waldhauser would receive a fourth star and replace Army Gen. David Rodriguez, who has been the top officer at Africa Command since 2013.

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Follow Richard Lardner on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rplardner

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