After what appeared to be a headlong advance towards Sirte, Libyan rebels have been beating a hasty and chaotic retreat in the face of Gadhafi’s loyalist forces. It should hardly be much of a surprise at this point that the rebels are no match for Gadhafi’s forces — even with top cover from coalition aircraft. The problem was never that Gadhafi had an air force and the rebels did not. The Libyan air force conducted limited, harrassing attacks on opposition strongholds. It was — and continues to be — Gadhafi’s vastly superior ground combat forces.

Airpower alone is insufficient and inappropriate for the task of removing loyalist forces already ensconced in built-up urban areas and sheltered amongst the civilian population (with even some reports of loyalist civilians voluntarily serving as human shields). But the western coalition has balked at any hint of applying the appropriate tool — committing ground combat forces of its own (other than the special operations teams that are likely on the ground even now, at least.) Hence the talk of providing arms for the rebels. If the west is unwilling to provide the right tool for the job, then the idea is that the rebels might serve that role.

But the rebels’ problem isn’t lack of arms. They have broken open Libyan military arsenals and seized equipment abandoned by loyalist forces. At one point, they were openly calling for anyone able to drive a T-55. Could they be better armed? Of course. But arming them misunderstands the problem and looks disconcertingly like desperately searching for any solution.

The rebels have shown almost no sign of meaningful leadership, of planning before or command and control during operations, of any battlefield communication at all, or the ability to proficiently employ the weapons already at their disposal. A typical video will show, for example, a rebel firing a recoilless rifle or light machine gun into the air. Reports early in the conflict suggested that a rebel may have used an SA-7 MANPADS (perhaps one of the most frightening developments of the entire conflict has been the extent to which MANPADS have been ) to shoot down a rebel-flown aircraft.

When rebel forces scavenged for the last drop of gasoline in Ras Lanuf, it was all too clear that they had no idea where their next tank of gasoline would come from. Rebels continue to empty entire magazines of ammunition into the air without any sign of more being moved forward from strongholds in the east.

In short, this is not the Northern Alliance. These are not basically proficient, battle hardened fighters. It is not simply a matter of inserting some special operations teams to assist with planning, advise on warfighting, disseminate intelligence and to call in close air support. There is every indication that the Libyan rebels are a rag-tag rabble incapable of employing the weapons they do have in even a basically-trained manner. And however this ends, the weapons they have broken out of Libyan military stockpiles will be proliferated around the region and popping up in conflicts from North Africa to Yemen for years to come.

The danger is that as the air campaign increasingly approaches a predictable stalemate, that the desperation for a solution will lead to decisions that are not simply imperfect but that do nothing to further the ill-defined aims of the campaign in the first place.

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy

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  • UltimaRatioReg

    Nate, interesting post, and highlights how little we know/can influence the rebel capability, even if it were in our best interest to do so, for which the jury is definitely still out.

    Also reinforces the universal appeal of burning off large amounts of “gummint ammo”, especially on full auto, if only to hear the noise….

  • Tayeb

    I don’t agree with the idea that “the Libyan rebels are a rag-tag rabble incapable of employing the weapons they do have…”. By refering to rebel use of SA-7 MANPADS, the author may be hinting to the eighties events when Stinger missiles (originating from Afghanistan mujahidins) were found on iranian speed boats targeting the US Navy. Restoring the monarchy in Libya may prevent such misaventures. History shows that emirats are more reliable than other regimes (e.g Gulf monarchies).
    If assisted by special ops teams with adequate means, there will certainly emerge an army capable of defeating gadhafi’s loyalist troops and setting up a new regime in tripoli that will be grateful to the west.

  • B. Walthrop

    Secretary Gates is on record before Congress that this kind of assistance won’t come from the US for whatever that’s worth. While I believe that given adequate time, some training of the opposition/insurgency/rebels/”freedom” fighters might make some difference in the outcome, time is the often underappreciated enemy in these sort of events. Unless the regime collapses under the combined NATO/UN/opposition pressure, then this looks like a stalemate in the making and the potential for years (not months) of conflict to resolve. That said, there is some public evidence that the combined pressure is fracturing certain elements of the Tripoli regime, so who knows.


  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Absent a lucky SAS sniper team getting Kadaffi, and Kadaffi’s own mercenary artillery getting the Rebel Alliance Jihadi brain trust staff in an ill sited pol-mil strategy conference, we’ve got this tar baby firmly by the neck.

    Next time, think it through before pulling the trigger.

  • GIMP

    A no fly zone that’s not a no fly zone but an attack zone. No boots on the ground, that is except for the CIA, but maybe they don’t actually wear boots so it’s technically true although actually a lie. Quadaffi must go, but we’re not going to kill him, although we’re targeting places he may be, so we’re trying to kill him. The political goal is Quadaffi gone, but the military goal is limited to the no fly zone that isn’t a no fly zone to achieve the military goal, which is of course actually a political goal as they don’t exist without each other. Sheesh. The longer this goes, the deeper we’ll dig, the deeper we dig, the longer we’ll stay. Some sanity from somewhere some time would be great!

  • RickWilmes

    “Sheesh. The longer this goes, the deeper we’ll dig, the deeper we dig, the longer we’ll stay. Some sanity from somewhere some time would be great!”

    Gimp, you may find the following of interest.

    “When cowardly, doubt-ridden disquietude meets irrational, brazen certitude the latter inevitably wins. The civilized West today is unjustifiably cowardly and guilt-ridden, while the Islamic radicals are certain, insane, evil, and dangerous; thus the former provides air cover, arms and moral sanction to the latter. The Islamic radicals specialize in rearing homicide-bombers, but it’s the West that rears the real suicide-bombers, for when the U.S. military bombs Libya–as it did Iraq and Afghanistan–it does so to clear a path for its sworn enemies.”

  • YN2(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III

    On a side note, this post was 1,300th post at USNI.

  • Jeff Withington

    Really enjoyed this post; great, succinct answer to some of the questions I had been thinking.

  • Dominic Caraccilo

    The quality of life and security for the citizens has been largely restored and we are a large part of why that has happened.