Biden's Libyan Victory

Where will Biden and his boots-off-the-ground strategy strike next?

Almost none of the numerous evaluations of the NATO military campaign in Libya so much as mention Vice President Biden. This is regrettable, given that the campaign follows to the letter an approach to such operations that he has long championed, albeit one specifically designed for Afghanistan. The “boots-off-the-ground”strategy Biden has advocated—also known as “offshoring”—entails using airpower, drones, Special Forces, the CIA and, crucially, working with native forces rather than committing American and allied conventional ground forces. This is the way the campaign was carried out in Kosovo, which was won with no allied combat fatalities and at low costs. This is also the way the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, in a campaign that relied largely on the Northern Alliance, although some conventional backup was committed. The U.S. “[took] full advantage of their air superiority and the [Taliban’s] lack of sophisticated air defenses . . . using a wide and deadly repertoire: B-52's, B-1's, Navy jets, Predator drones and AC-130 Special Operations gunships.” And, as is well known by now, it worked in Libya (although it took six months).

Aside from the very important but obvious advantages of low casualties and low costs, Biden’s strategy has one major merit that does not immediately jump out. It is much less alienating to the population and makes disengagement—the exit strategy—much easier to achieve.

People of most nations (and certainly many in the Middle East) resent the presence of foreign troops within their borders. Thus, even many of the Iraqis and Afghans who view the American military presence as beneficial to their security (or pocketbook) often seem troubled both by U.S. combat methods (which they see as yielding too many civilian casualties) and by what they deem freewheeling personal conduct (including the presence of female soldiers). Above all, native people consider foreign troops a violation of their sovereignty and a sign of their underlying weakness. They cannot wait for the day when these troops can be sent home.

The Libyan rebels made it clear from the beginning that although they sought NATO support, they did not want foreign boots on the ground. By avoiding such an engagement, this whole issue of a perceived threat to sovereignty was largely mitigated.

Similarly avoided were the political traps that await a Democratic administration seeking to disengage from a military campaign but forever fearing that the GOP will criticize it for being weak on defense if it leaves prematurely, as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. This whole issue is avoided in Libya; as the military campaign ends, disengagement is not much of a problem.

When Biden suggested a boots-off-the-ground approach in Afghanistan rather than an increase in conventional troops, he was overruled, and those who favored commitment of conventional forces (including President Obama) won the day. But it may not be too late to apply this strategy to Afghanistan.

Critics will argue that, unlike Libya, Afghanistan has no shoreline. Hence, when local forces or our Special Forces need, say, airpower backup, the planes have to come from aircraft carriers a thousand miles away—and the boots-off-the-ground strategy is likely to suffer. The same holds for collecting human intelligence when one has no local bases. Whether these weaknesses are sufficient to nullify the merits of the strategy, especially in view of the high casualties of a long war, is a question on which reasonable people can differ. However, one thing is clear as we discuss the application of Biden’s Libya strategy to other nations—Syria has a shoreline. Indeed, a rather long one.