Libya – Now What?

March 2011


The U.S. and its NATO allies are now through three full nights of the air campaign over Libya, and approaching their fourth. They have once again demonstrated that given uncontested access to regional air bases that they can conduct a coordinated, complex air campaign to suppress enemy air defenses; target command, control and communications nodes and take out military vehicles in the open. But now that this has been achieved, and as the United States prepares to hand command of operations over to its European allies, the apparent lack of a consensus on military objectives or wider political goals begins to evolve very quickly from abstract down-the-road issues to more tangible and pressing questions of ‘now what?’

CDRSalamander laid out these questions out on Sunday. With the air campaign now well underway, we’re beginning to see additional indications relevant to some of these questions. Most stark regards the opposition forces in the east, which even before the announcement of a NFZ never proved capable of mounting a coherent military opposition to the advance of Gadhafi’s forces — their defensive lines collapsed as he drove eastward. Even now, after three days of air strikes against his positions between the rebel capital of Benghazi and the town of Ajdabiyah, the rebels proved incapable of retaking the town and again had to retreat under fire from Gadhafi’s forces. There is little indication thus far that their problems are advanced enough that even close air support coordinated by western special operations teams can make a difference. They lack the basic cohesion and organization as well as competency and proficiency in basic military operations — much less the ability to organize logistical support for a sustained push across the country. What it would take to get these forces to the point that they could defeat better-trained forces loyal to Gadhafi that have proven committed and capable (in a way that was never dependent on the limited harassment of what remained of Gadhafi’s air forces) and are now dug in and taking shelter in built-up urban areas. This is simply not something airpower alone is capable of resolving while at the same time doing its best to keep civilian casualties to a minimum.

This raises an even more important point. Not only has the west intervened in a civil war — with all the attendant uncertainties that CDRSal identified, as well as the likely attendant further deterioration of the humanitarian conditions on the ground without forces in place (or even the political consensus to be ready to deploy those forces). But it has stepped into a very messy situation where all manner of Libyan tribal, societal and personal divisions are boiling to the surface all at once as Gadhafi’s four-decade control over the country is finally eroding. That intervention entails picking a side, and we did not pick the side that is capable of unifying the country militarily with minimal support.

Instead it appears to have intervened based on the west’s perception of the unrest that has wracked the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. This perception is based on an idealized but flawed narrative of what has happened in the region, a narrative that suggests that these strong men — from Gadhafi to Mubarak — are the only thing standing between liberal masses yearning to be free and democratic countries that share basic western values. In reality, it is often far from clear that the opposition to these regimes has much at all unifying it other than opposition to the regime itself and there are strong illiberal, non-secular and conservative strands that underly many of the demographics and political forces at work.

Posted by nhughes in Air Force, Aviation, Foreign Policy, Hard Power

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  • Matt Yankee

    Fine post…the last paragraph especially important.

    The same day so many were cheerfully supporting the Egyptian Revolution Lara Logan, the CBS news reporter in Tahrir Square, was gang raped by a mob of 200 men screaming Jew. The stunningly brutal attack was glossed over by the media intent on focusing on the narrative of the supposedly freedom loving people. And since then a Christian Church in Cairo was torched by another mob of Muslums who also killed Egyptian Christians.

    We should be asking the rebels if they endorse religious freedom at the very least before we take their side. That goes for the whole muslum world…freedom of religion should be part of the “freedom agenda”. Did we allow Nazi and Japanese ideology to continue after victory? Demand Islam, as practiced, accept the rights of others to practice their religion freely.

  • Spade

    ‘now what?’

    The coalition falls apart due to a lack of any sort of C2 planning (“on the fly” as OSD said), everybody goes home and pretends the mission was either accomplished or failed due to somebody else bailing, the UN issues either more worthless paper demands or kodus, and Libya ends up with a dictator of one kind or another at the end of it all. On the plus side some ships got to pratice shooting thins and a CSAR team got in some real world experience.

  • eastriver

    Wow. Well, I submit that the West has intervened not on any of the grand grounds cited by all the navel-gazers (especially those linked in the last paragraph.) Rather, the West has intervened in the hope we can dump a particularly odious fruitcake who has caused us no end of problems. Worth a shot: some fuel, Tomahawks and bombs. Doesn’t work, oh, well, so it goes. We lose nothing by giving it a bit of a fling. Don’t let the high-minded rhetoric and blather disguise what this is really about; and don’t bury one’s self in the endless “define winning/losing” argument.
    It really is no more complicated than that.

  • leesea

    so what capability does the LCC bring to all of this?

  • Matt Yankee

    The eastriver navel pickers should focus on “a shot” or two at Syria and Iran. I know some would like to do anything but their job by pursuing “fruitcakes” but we do have some “real enemies” to pursue. How much is that to ask when we are handing out free tomahawks to just “see how it goes”. Oh…and never mind what our major oil supplier and ally Saudi thinks…surely they don’t have to worry about us rolling the dice against them. Surely they will just act like this is business as usual also. lol

    This is all just a bad joke…it’s really just that simple.