Libyan Options As Time Runs Out

By Brian Downing

The Libyan uprising once seemed sure to follow the pattern in Tunisia and Egypt where longstanding autocrats stepped down after large popular demonstrations. Colonel Kadafi, however, has rallied his forces and is quashing the opposition. This has put policymakers in the region and around the world in a dilemma between their preference for democracy and their reluctance to intervene. There are a few actions that can be embarked upon, but which is optimal and who if anyone will take the lead? (Image)

The Military Situation

Early reports of large-scale defections of the Libyan military over to the rebel side are evidently untrue or at least greatly overstated. Kadafi has retained control over sufficient numbers of trained soldiers to launch successful counteroffensives from Tripoli. Loyalist forces have demonstrated a decided competence in logistics and tactical movement and also in the use of coordinated air power and artillery.

The rebels thus far have been no match. There is no central command in evidence, only a hodgepodge of former officers who were not able to bring over the rank and file of their units. The fighters are only lightly-armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers. They also have a number of antiaircraft guns and missiles, but there’s nothing to indicate that loyalist jets have suffered any losses from them.

Loyalist forces have driven west into Az Zawiyah and east as far as Ras Lanuf and Brega. A drive toward Benghazi and then Tobruk is likely in the offing. Loyalist successes will require keeping garrison forces in recaptured towns and placing troops along now-long supply routes, thereby reducing the number of troops they can bring to bear on the rebel position and capital of sorts in Benghazi.

Nonetheless, rebel troops are disorganized and increasingly dispirited. The exuberance once proudly displayed before the cameras of al Jazeera and other media outlets has given way to grave concern and indeed to increasingly desperate pleas for help.

Rebel forces might be advised to drop any notions of taking on Kadafi’s forces in a conventional manner, that is by trying to hold fixed positions and repel their assaults. Instead, they might well adopt guerrilla tactics: attacking loyalist garrisons in towns and at key intersections along the long coastal highway connecting Tripoli with the country’s main cities.

Such tactics do not require central command or training in infantry tactics. Weapons are available and a limited kind of command may be based on tribal/clan networks. Replenishment of arms can be done after attacks – a means that various guerrilla movements in their early days have always relied upon. Kadafi’s forces are not large and his ability to find well-trained replacements is limited. Rebel forces can wear down loyalist forces and buy time for foreign powers to act.

Foreign Help

Countries have officially recognized the opposition and imposed sanctions but many Libyans are puzzled and even angered by the lack of more substantive foreign assistance. Where is the Arab League? Where is the European Union? Where is the United States?

The most oft-heard form of intervention is a no-fly zone. The Arab League has called for one yet strangely also called for no military intervention – a “position” designed to do nothing. NATO is soon to discuss the subject of a no-fly zone and has in the meantime prepositioned resources in southern Europe. Such operations are complex. They include attacking air defense systems, cratering runways, and monitoring a huge amount of air space – perhaps indefinitely.

Depriving the loyalist forces of airpower will not fundamentally alter the situation on the ground. Their infantry and artillery have been far more important in their gains than have the sporadic and largely inaccurate bombing runs of their jets. An ineffective aircap would soon lead to calls for the introduction of ground forces.

Another form of intervention would be to send equipment to rebel groups in order to strengthen their positions vis-a-vis the loyalists. Some reports indicate that Egypt is already providing fuel to the rebels and that Saudi Arabia, at the request of the US, may send Stinger antiaircraft missiles. There is little to suggest that either will be be helpful against the trained loyalist troops and calls for ground intervention are likely to grow.

Ground Forces

There are undoubtedly contingency plans for deploying troops into Libya – and countless other countries for that matter. (Long ago my unit was briefly put on alert to invade a North African country.) The Egyptian military, NATO, and the Pentagon have large bureaus who specialize in making detailed plans, unlikely though they are to be implemented.

One option would be to land troops near rebel strongpoints and fight alongside them. Bolstered by professional soldiers, the rebels could stabilize the situation and turn the tide. This would immediately and probably irreversibly enmesh the intervening force into fighting a ground war against the loyalists, which even if victorious presents problems of casualties and local sensitivities.

Another ground option might be more attractive. Instead of seeking to immediately link up with rebel troops, foreign ground forces could land in two places: just west of Tripoli and just east of it. These forces would not immediately conduct offensive operations. They would pose a serious challenge to the regime merely by severing the lines of communication between the Libyan capital and its two principal forces operating now in Az Zawiyah and Ras Lanuf, and severing the lines of communications between the two loyalist forces as well.

Loyalist ground operations would come to a halt as commanders lose their supply lines and, facing the possibility of two fronts, would rethink their strategic options. The most obvious but most costly option would be attacking professional troops in fortified positions, who would have air supremacy, reinforcements, and local support.

Another option to the loyalist forces would be to circumvent the coastal positions, but that requires driving into highly foreboding terrain – areas that Rommel and Montgomery preferred to avoid seventy years ago. In all likelihood, the loyalist troops would be fixed in place.

The effect on rebel forces in eastern redoubts and in guerrilla units would be heartening. Rebels and foreign forces can open a dialog with loyalist commanders whose practicality or patriotism outweighs their loyalties to an isolated colonel whose days in power would be more surely numbered now.

The presence of foreign forces could lead to the coalescence of an alternative government on the now failing rebel side. It could also help with avoiding unnecessary casualties and with a less sanguinary ouster of the Kadafi family rule.

This scenario is far more conducive to a transition to a new government than weeks of bloody fighting between the foreign forces and the loyalists. And as Liddell-Hart counseled long ago, wars should be fought with an eye toward forging postwar settlements and should avoid needless destruction and humiliation.

Whose Army?

Thus far the nationality of these foreign forces has not been mentioned, though undoubtedly an American force has naturally occurred to many. This would be the least attractive force as it would raise the specter of a US grab of Libyan oil and gas resources, possibly bolstering the loyalist cause and prolonging the war.

In any case, the US is already deeply involved in Afghanistan, on guard around North Korea, and called upon for security by many states around China’s periphery. Further, the US is beset by fiscal problems and its public, though concerned by the rebel plight, is quite wary of arguments of quick deployments followed by smooth transitions to a new government.

Forces from the European Union are an alternative. Three of those countries – Italy, France, and Britain – once administered the land and much of the EU has substantial trade relations with Libya. EU forces include numerous first-rate airborne, commando, and marine units who would be well suited for the twin landings astride Tripoli. The specter of a foreign land grab might be somewhat less worrisome with EU troops rather than US ones.

The optimal scenario is for Egyptian and other Arab forces to land around Tripoli. Egypt has a formidable army that has benefited from US equipment and training. It would undoubtedly excite far less anti-imperialist passion. An Egyptian lead would bolster the Egyptian public’s perception of the army’s commitment to democracy and enhance the country’s prestige in ensuing regional cooperation on political and economic matters.

It is unlikely that Egypt or the Arab League or the EU will intervene in Libya without the help of the US for logistics and transport. One might recall that in the mid-90s European powers were reluctant to intervene in the Balkans without US support, even though it was only a few hundred kilometers from key capitals and military bases. Heads of state will also seek assurance of US air support and infantry reinforcements should they be needed – a prospect that is not unlikely.

Reluctance to intervene is both considerable and understandable. As a famed poet of one of the powers once noted, even the most skillfully-made plans gang aft agley and bring much grief and pain. Public concern has been pressing for intervention over the last week or so but eyes are now on the Japanese catastrophes and relief efforts there.

Nevertheless, neighboring Arab states and the EU and the US might well ponder the region’s stability should Colonel Kadafi reassert his power and wealth then look at the hostile democratic countries around him and seek vengeance for their present positions, timid though they are.

©2011 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and the author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at

Reposted with the author’s permission.

One response to “Libyan Options As Time Runs Out

  1. So you’d rather see this turn into another Darfur or Rwanda?

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