Libyan rebels appeared to make marked progress Mar. 27, driving westward from the long-contested town of Ajdabiya to small towns west of Ras Lanuf. In so doing, the rebels have consolidated control over almost all the energy infrastructure on the Gulf of Sidra.
Some 100 miles of advance is certainly noteworthy, but by almost all indications it was not a matter of Gadhafi’s forces being defeated by force of arms so much as a deliberate decision to pull back, possibly to Sirte (the Libyan leader’s hometown and a loyalist stronghold).
There is a logic to this. Gadhafi was on extended lines vulnerable to airpower. He was on the verge of taking Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital, when the coalition began to bomb targets in Libya, but the vast stretches of open territory between these towns leave readily identifiable armor and artillery vulnerable to attack from the air. By pulling back to strongholds like Sirte, not only does Gadhafi reduce the extension of his own lines and force the rebels to extend theirs, but he falls back onto stockpiles of his own in more built-up areas where it is far more difficult to attack targets from the air for fear of inflicting civilian casualties.
Meanwhile, the rebels in the east never actually conquered much territory through conquest in the first place, rather enjoying the accumulation of territory ceded to them by either the abandonment or defection of the military and security forces responsible for it. Even now there is little sign that they have coalesced into a meaningful military force (much less one with the logistical wherewithal to fight on extended lines), even as they have charged westward into territory vacated in the course of Gadhafi’s retreat. In fact, there is a risk that they will overreach themselves, riding the momentum of their westward advance directly into prepared defensive positions by more competent loyalist forces.
In any event, the tactical problems that define the attempt to change the reality on the ground in Libya through the application of airpower alone remain considerable. The open terrain between Gadhafi’s strongholds in the east and the rebel strongholds (even Ras Lanuf) remains a considerable challenge for either side to sustain combat operations across. And it remains far from clear that even with air support directed by western special operations forces that the rebels will be able to dislodge loyalist forces from prepared defenses in built-up urban areas.