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.