Obama appears at Pentagon to discuss strategy for countering ISIS

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Fighters of Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government fire a rocket at Islamic State fighters in Sirte, Libya, August 4, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic - RTSL2UE

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GWEN IFILL: The chaos in Libya after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi created a vacuum, filled in part by the Islamic State. Now the United States is stepping up pressure on the group’s stronghold there with new attacks launched this week.

Foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner begins our coverage.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama visited the Pentagon today to confer with his military leadership about the battle against the Islamic State.

He had this to say about the newest U.S. military front in that fight in Libya.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: At the request of Libya’s government of national accord, we are conducting strikes in support of government-aligned forces as they fight to retake Sirte from ISIL, and we will continue to support the government’s efforts to secure their country.

MARGARET WARNER: The meeting came three days after the U.S. launched a series of air and drone strikes against the Islamic State’s Libyan stronghold, in and around the town of Sirte. The U.S. air campaign comes in support of a Libyan government-backed coalition of brigades and militias fighting ISIS on the ground.

Those forces have taken heavy casualties trying to clear the town block by block, pushing ISIS fighters into the city center.

MAN (through translator): Despite the obstacles and difficulties we have faced, such as land mines, booby traps and snipers, we have made good progress forward.

MARGARET WARNER: But their slow going prompted the U.N. and Western-backed Libyan government in Tripoli to request the U.S. support. The Tripoli government isn’t the only one claiming legitimate rule in the country. It has a competitor in the east.

In Benghazi, renegade General Khalifa Haftar has been fighting Islamists and other rival militias for supremacy there. He rejects the Tripoli government’s claim to power. But for now, the U.S. military is focused on the fight for Sirte, at the heart of the Islamic State’s bid to make Libya its most important outpost outside of Iraq and Syria.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Margaret Warner.

GWEN IFILL: Joining me now for more on this is Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He’s just returned from a research trip to the front lines of the battle for Sirte. He was embedded with government-backed militias as they battled Islamic State fighters.

Welcome.

FREDERIC WEHREY, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: We heard the president today boast of success against ISIS, whether it was in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan, and he also scolded Russia’s role.

But Libya seems like it’s a whole more complicated issue.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Absolutely.

First, there’s no government, or it’s split. I mean, there’s many governments. And the forces that are fighting the Islamic State are a coalition of militias that are very loosely affiliated to this government of national accord.

And so the United States’ effort is to really use airpower to support that offensive. But, beyond that, you have got enormous challenges of building the Libyan state.

GWEN IFILL: How widespread is the ISIS footprint in Libya?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Right now, it’s concentrated in this coastal city of Sirte.

I heard estimates of about 500 fighters. It also has a presence, a slight presence, in the West, a presence in Benghazi. But over the past year, we have really seen Libyan forces of their own accord push back against the Islamic State.

GWEN IFILL: We have heard the president use an interesting term today in his remarks today. He talked about the risk of this becoming global Whac-A-Mole.

Is that what Libya is?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, certainly, this is an affiliate that is powerful, that was growing. And so I think the president of the United States and our Western allies felt the need to support local forces in this battle.

Libya is strategically located close to Africa, close to Europe. By some estimates, it is the most powerful affiliate outside of Syria and Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: Tell us about Sirte and tell us about Misrata, two key areas here.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Right.

Well, Sirte was Gadhafi’s hometown and base of support. The town really fell into disrepair and disarray after the revolution. And the Islamic State was able to exploit that, exploit tribal grievances, and come in and set up a form of governance there, a very draconian form of government.

Misrata is a town just down the road to the west that fields the most powerful militias. And they are providing most of the fighters that are launching that assault on Sirte.

GWEN IFILL: And that’s who you spent a lot of time with, these fighters, when you were on the ground. So what evidence did you see as you traveled on the front lines of the presence of ISIS?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, you certainly see ISIS beyond the front lines.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

FREDERIC WEHREY: They — we went into a bomb-making factory, and you see ISIS corpses. ISIS is in the city. The Misratan forces are flying drones. They are observing the ISIS fighters.

So they are dug in. They have sniper in buildings. They set up booby traps and mines. They have a few artillery and tank pieces that the U.S. just hit. So they’re prepared for the long haul. And the thing is, they don’t have anywhere to go. And that’s why they’re fighting so ferociously, to the death.

GWEN IFILL: You wrote that you saw a structure for crucifixions?

FREDERIC WEHREY: This was a roundabout on the outskirts of Sirte that was used for crucifixions that had a metal scaffolding that the Misratans, when they went in, they dismantled it.

It was a very powerful moment when they took this down, because that’s where the Islamic State held their public executions.

GWEN IFILL: How sophisticated are the ISIS fighters?

FREDERIC WEHREY: They enjoy a lot of support from foreign fighters that seem to have quite a lot of expertise in tactics like mortars and sniping and booby traps, mines.

When you talk to the Misratan and GNA fighters, they’re suffering a lot from mines. There are reports of some defections from Libyan fighters because they see the noose tightening. But they’re in it for the long haul.

GWEN IFILL: And yet, as you started off pointing out, and we always come back around to this every place that the U.S. is engaged in, which is internal politics on the ground affect what the future will be.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Absolutely.

In Libya, the government, even if ISIS is ousted from Sirte, there are enormous challenges for rebuilding this country. As we heard, there is the faction in the east under General Khalifa Haftar that rejects this government in Tripoli. There’s the question of oil revenues.

This government in Tripoli is so fragile. And it hasn’t been able to exert its authority. And so I think one purpose behind the U.S. strikes was to help this government, to show the government that the U.S. has your back, we’re helping you in this campaign.

GWEN IFILL: With the understanding that the U.S. will be done once ISIS is done?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, I think U.S. and the other allies want to help this government rebuild its army, get the economy back on track.

The Europeans have a huge role to play here. I think we heard the president acknowledge that we really dropped the ball in the year after Gadhafi fell, so there’s tremendous work to be done.

GWEN IFILL: Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thank you.

FREDERIC WEHREY: My pleasure. Thank you.

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