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.
Deploy NATO ground forces as peacekeepers. One of the great risks over the long term is that NATO air forces will eventually get worn out by the constant cat-and-mouse games of the regime’s forces, and at some point, Qaddafi’s troops will catch NATO off guard and be in Benghazi before NATO can stop them. One part of that problem is that the rebel ground forces are not strong enough to repel a regime ground attack without NATO air support. Thus, one solution to that problem would be to deploy a force of peacekeepers on the ground between the rebels and the regime forces to prevent a regime ground attack. European troops, perhaps leavened with Egyptian, Jordanian, Moroccan or other Muslim forces for political appearances, should be more than adequate to play this role. However, since such a deployment is not politically sustainable in perpetuity, it could only be part of a larger strategy—a way to buy time for some other gambit. Since Qaddafi’s past behavior should give us absolutely no confidence that he could be trusted to keep any political agreement he struck, this could only be intended to buy time to…
Arm, train, and organize the Libyan rebels. In Afghanistan in 2001, the United States demonstrated that a reasonably competent rebel army (the Northern Alliance) could smash third world regime forces—even regime forces that had had the upper hand in the past—when backed by determined, Western air power. The Libyan rebels are not close to being the Northern Alliance yet, and it is going to take them months, probably a few years, to get to the point where they are. European trainers could certainly get them there; European military advisers have done well with numerous other third world military forces, including in the Middle East, although American assistance would certainly be very welcome.
Ultimately, arming the rebels and turning them into a more competent force is probably the inevitable option. Since we aren’t going to invade, even stepped-up air strikes are not guaranteed to succeed, and a European peacekeeping ground force could not be maintained indefinitely, arming the rebels is the ultimate fallback option, and the sooner that we get started on it, the better.
And while it is an afterthought to this piece, let us remember that the rebuilding of Libya cannot be an afterthought to this entire endeavor—still another area where the Obama administration’s grim determination to avoid getting involved could hurt us badly when it is all over. When Qaddafi finally falls, which may require several years if we get started right now, Libya is going to need a lot of nation building. Like Iraq before it, Libya will have suffered through war, civil war and sanctions; and like Iraq before it, Libya was a badly underdeveloped, traumatized country even before the events of the past few months. Again, the United States need not commit ourselves to Libya’s reconstruction as we have in Iraq and Afghanistan, but neither can we walk away. As we learned in other places like Cambodia, East Timor, and the Balkans, even when the United States does not shoulder the entire burden, our role is critical as part of a broader international effort. And as we should have learned in Iraq, planning for the postwar reconstruction needs to start long before the last bullet is fired.
Image by Mohammed Shamma