Story highlights

Obama's nominee to command forces in Africa testified

Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser said more troops are needed to fight ISIS

Washington CNN  — 

In remarkably blunt testimony, President Barack Obama’s nominee to command U.S. forces in Africa said Tuesday that more ground troops were needed in Libya to fight ISIS and agreed the current strategy of not bombing the terror group’s affiliate there “makes no sense.”

When asked by the committee’s chairman, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, whether the U.S. had a strategy for Libya, Marine Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser said he didn’t know about one.

“I am not aware of any overall grand strategy at this point,” Waldhauser said at his confirmation hearing to become commander of the Africa Command.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Repubilcan, asked him if it would be “wise” for him to have the authority to order strikes against ISIS without having to first seek White House approval, as is currently the case.

“It would be wise, it would certainly contribute to what we’re trying to do inside Libya,” Waldhauser responded.

Waldhauser agreed with Graham that ISIS represented “an imminent threat to the United States” but he noted that the U.S. was not conducting air strikes against the terror group’s Libyan branch.

“That makes no sense then, does it?” Graham asked.

“It does not,” the general answered.

Waldhauser also told the committee that the U.S. did not have a large number of troops on the ground in Libya, and said more were needed.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Graham acknowledged Waldhauser’s candor.

“I can’t thank you – I’m just, that’s about as direct testimony as I’ve ever heard from this committee,” Graham said.

McCain also welcomed his frankness, “General Waldhauser, I want to thank you for your candor before the committee, we look forward to working with you. I think that Sen. Graham’s questions clearly indicated that, at least as far as ISIS is concerned, that Africa is their next target of opportunity, and I think you are going to need a lot of help.”

Concerning strikes on Libya, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told CNN’s Barbara Starr at a news conference Tuesday, “We don’t make a decision to carry out a military strike lightly.”

“We’ve been willing to take strikes in the past in Libya targeting ISIL leadership,” Cook said, using another acronym for ISIS. “We are prepared to do so again in the future. But this is a situation where the government is still taking shape. It is showing progress. Military forces aligned with the government are showing progress as well, particularly in the fight against ISIL in Sirte.”

Asked about Waldhauser’s comment that there’s no overall strategy, Cook said, “It’s clear, as I think Gen. Waldhauser acknowledged, it’s a complicated situation right now. And the most important thing in terms of our policy, and we believe for the region’s policy, is for that government to take shape, take hold. And we’d like to, of course be in a position to strengthen it as needed, going forward, along with our partners in the region.”

The Pentagon has previously acknowledged small teams of Special Operations Forces on the ground in Libya to establish relationships with local forces battling ISIS.

The U.S. has conducted several airstrikes against ISIS in Libya, including one in February that killed over 40 ISIS operatives, but the U.S. has held off on additional strikes for several months. At the end of March, the recently formed UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord took up residence in Libya’s capital, Tripoli.

Militias based out of Misrata and allied to the new government have had some recent success driving ISIS out of territory around its Libyan base in the coastal city of Sirte.

The Director of the CIA, John Brennan, told Congress last week that ISIS had about 5,000-8,000 fighters inside Libya.

Barbara Starr contributed to this report.