Time was when Afghanistan was the forgotten war. Then it was Iraq. Today it is Libya. You would think we would learn that “forgetting” these wars is the worst thing that we can do. Inevitably, they come back to haunt us, and at the worst possible times. So even while we are all enjoying Osama Bin Ladin’s long-overdue demise, we would do well to take stock of the Libya war and consider what it will take to bring it to an end rather than assuming that if we just ignore it, it will go away.
Predictably, the rebels lack the military strength to make headway against the remnants of Qaddafi’s army. By the same token, the regime’s military is finding that it can’t get very far across Libya’s airstrike-friendly deserts in the face of Western fighter-bombers. As many have already begun to whisper, the situation is bogging down into a stalemate.
Could that deadlock be broken suddenly without any additional outside effort? Sure. The next airstrike against one of Qaddafi’s compounds might kill him. Then again, it took us ten years to achieve the same against Bin Ladin, and we never got Saddam that way, despite repeated sorties from 1991 till 2003.
Or a member of Qaddafi’s inner circle might decide to kill him. But that hasn’t happened so far, and our experience with Saddam’s regime in 1991 was that the internal threat caused his cronies and flunkies to rally around him for fear that any divisions among them would lead to their ruin. As best we can tell, the same has happened with Qaddafi’s minions.
Both the rebels and the regime are also doubtless trying to seduce the tribes affiliated with the rival coalition to defect to them. At some point, one or more major tribes might do so, which could significantly shift the balance one way or the other. But neither the rebels nor the regime have a particularly compelling case to make at this point, and thus we have not seen significant changes so far.
And in the end, all three such outcomes are low probability events dependent principally on luck, rather than on planning or deliberate action. They are hopes, not strategies, and no government should base policy on what it hopes will happen.
It seems equally unlikely that the status quo will last forever. European air forces are already experiencing command and control problems and, over time, will likely find it more and more difficult to maintain surveillance of the battlefront, which in turn could jeopardize their ability to respond promptly to Libyan regime moves. Already, we have seen that Qaddafi’s forces have been able to steal brief marches on the NATO air forces and, by “hugging” rebel forces, limit the ability of Western air power to interdict them.
This indicates that, over time, there is a real risk that Qaddafi’s forces will be able to catch NATO napping, overpower the rebel ground forces and get into Benghazi, where amid the city’s civilian population and urban terrain, NATO air forces will find it very difficult to stop them from reasserting control and slaughtering the population. In other words, the current situation is unlikely to produce an outcome satisfactory to the United States, and it is at least as likely—arguably more so—that over time, the advantage will tip in Qaddafi’s favor. At some point, NATO’s ability to stop his ground forces will erode, or he will catch them off guard, and the next thing you know, we will be facing the very humanitarian catastrophe that was the raison d’etre for American intervention in the first place.
All of which means that, at some point, we should get serious about a strategy that actually could resolve the standoff in Libya. But it does NOT mean that the United States needs to shoulder the lion’s share of the burden, let alone take ownership of the Libya war the way that we did in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are four courses of action that have a much greater potential to resolve the stalemate in Libya than our current indifference:
Invade and occupy Tripoli. There does not seem to be a single person in the United States of America interested in a third ground war in the Middle East and I sure am not going to advocate doing so. So let’s consider this one totally off the table. However, we need to recognize that by taking this off the table, we are also eliminating the only option that would be certain to resolve the Libya imbroglio, and resolve it as we would like it resolved. Any other option would simply have some probability of accomplishing that end, albeit with a higher likelihood than our current hands-off approach.
Offensive air strikes. NATO (read: the United States Navy and Air Force) could use egregious actions by the regime—civilian deaths, for instance—to justify a much more aggressive use of air power. As we did in the 1998 Desert Fox air strikes against Iraq, NATO air forces could target Qaddafi’s command and control facilities, key regime protection forces, his remaining air forces, and anything else of military or symbolic value. This approach would be much more likely than current tactics to produce Qaddafi’s death or provoke a coup against him from his inner circle. Desert Fox panicked Saddam and caused him to overreact in a variety of ways that briefly destabilized his regime. A more protracted effort against Qaddafi could produce a better outcome than it did in Iraq—although again, this is merely a probability, not a certainty.