All Ahead Slow in Libya

April 2011


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Italian officials on Wednesday and had an interesting quote about Libya.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes on Qaddafi’s forces, she said, are “buying time, buying space” for the rebels.

It is an interesting statement as reported, because it looks more like NATO is buying time for everyone instead of just the rebels. It is difficult to see if any political plan exists yet for a post-Gaddafi Libya, but that is probably because that plan hasn’t been fully developed yet.

President Obama rushed into Libya due to circumstances on the ground and for reasons that have largely been articulated at a high level, and not a detailed level. That typically means US policy is both political and strategic, but neither the political nor strategic reasons are good for domestic political consumption. After the initial phases of US military activity, under the NATO flag the US military policy for Libya has become “the least we can do which is also the most we will provide.”

While some object to our involvement at all, and others believe that once involved – we should be in it to win it, I’m OK with the Presidents “Least is Most” policy. Ultimately other nations, most particularly the Libyan people themselves, will determine the future of Libya. This very limited use of US military force is new to virtually every generation of Americans alive today, so naturally it feels unnatural to everyone.

I think it will be interesting to see what happens once the post-Gaddafi political solution is ready. As news reports continue to show, there is still a lot of fighting in the cities, and the Gaddafi military still has strength. While that Gaddafi military power is deadly to untrained rebel fighters, the whole of remaining military power in Libya can be wiped out should NATO military forces engage on the ground.

As events continue to unfold and the violence in the cities continues to result in bloodshed of innocent civilians, I do wonder if pressure will mount for NATO to quickly end the war in Libya. There are two options for ending hostilities in Libya; what I see as go long or go short.

“Go long” is the current plan, and is similar to the Thomas Jefferson model for Tripoli over 2 centuries ago which is basically send in a few special dudes to build a domestic Army and overthrow the government. The US has no shortage of special operators in the CIA ready to be the William Eaton of modern Libya, but that figure does not need to an American. The political and military training process take time to develop, but it can work with very little NATO footprint on the ground once the violence in the cities stops. This is the preferred way because it gives everyone time to build the political and security infrastructure needed to support Libya when Gaddafi is forced out while also keeping NATO boots off the ground (although UN boots might be called upon).

“Go Short” would be the contingency should events on the ground start going really bad for the civilian population and the media narrative starts adding political pressure. Basically it is a repeat the Iraq 2003 Marine drive model but in Libya. If you recall, the US Marines basically drove the road from Kuwait to Iraq blowing the Iraqi Army equipment to pieces along the way. There were several problems doing so in Iraq, specifically related to logistics and the lack of sufficient forces to hold ground, but in Libya those problems are much easier to overcome.

A European contengent of Marines supported by tanks would land near Benghazi and drive the coastal road all the way to Tripoli while blowing the Libyan Army to pieces along the way. Libyan rebel fighters would be responsible for securing the cities and facilitating humanitarian relief from the sea while the European Marine forces would be logistically supplied outside the cites from the sea, and once the military power is destroyed – the Marines would be pulled off the beach back to sea. This is basically a modern Marine amphibious raid. The US, Dutch, French, Spanish, Italians, or British all have the military capability to perform the amphibious raid mission if it was politically necessary to do so.

Right now the plan is “Go Long” which means everything is going to move at a very slow pace. The big hope is that air power can separate the two sides while the political and military infrastructure of the rebels is strengthened. The President said he is initially looking at 90 days of military operations. Today is only day 19, meaning the politics supporting current NATO air operations is content to give airpower at least 71 more days to separate the two sides from each other. A lot can happen in 71 days… a lot of good and a lot of bad.

Posted by galrahn in History, Strategy, Tactics

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  • I remain skeptical of the rebels’ ability to be transformed into a meaningful military force on any sort of timeline that will impact the current situation on the ground. If those militarily capable entities supporting Gadhafi and forming the foundation of his remaining power can be enticed to turn against him, that might be another story. But even with considerable training, advising and support, it is unclear if the rebels can advance their cause.

    Nevertheless, the idea of “once involved – we should be in it to win it” is a dangerous one, and your view of the sufficiency of what you call ‘least is most’ is important. The specific case of current operations in Libya is problematic at best — it was problematic at its outset for reasons that are becoming increasingly clear. But there is a larger point in your logic.

    There are wars — existential wars and systemic wars like WWII — that you need to win and need to win decisively. Libya in 2011 is certainly not one of them. America exists at great distance from most of our military engagements. By virtue of distance and limited national interest in most scenarios, many American military efforts should be more akin to raids and spoiling attacks that avoid decisive engagement except on the most favorable terms and under all but exceptional circumstances, eschew any sort of prolonged and large-scale entanglement in ground combat.

    Thinking of ‘winning’ — particularly as we understand it from competitive sports or WWII — tempts us to commit disproportionate resources to a problem that is of only limited and oblique national interest and thereby ensnaring ourselves in something that increasingly becomes our problem not because it should be but because we have so many boots on the ground.

    It is only recently that we’ve regained the bandwidth to fully man our Marine Expeditionary Units to maximize the versatility of our ARGs. Currently we have one off the coast of Libya, another enroute, another in 5th Fleet and a fourth providing HA/DR off the coast of Japan. When we become entangled in one place there is the opportunity cost of having more limited ability to act elsewhere.

    So as we near the beginning of a long, slow drawdown in Afghanistan and we continue to critically examine efforts in Libya, it would be of enormous value for the idea of ‘least is most’ to become a more widely accepted concept. There are times when winning is necessary, and in those cases overwhelming and decisive force is prudent and justified. But ‘winning’ in its strictest definitions is rarely worth the price, as hopefully we have begun to once again (re)learn…

  • Tom

    Not as confident about the ability to resupply such a raid by sea. Presumably it will be moving fairly quickly across the desert and I’d be concerned about the ability of sea-based supply to keep up.

  • The Old Salt

    Those involved had better be ready to answer the question of whether our involvement is constitutional or not. It is not, in my opinion, a constitutional use of force.

  • YN2(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III

    What worries me the most is the Libyan economy…

    Inflation is rising, and the availability of basic items is becoming scarce, even in the rebel held areas. The longer this lasts the worst the economic situation will get and the greater chance of a fractured (I don’t want to say failed) State, IMHO.

    What is also interesting to me, is how the central element to the recent revolutions has been removed from Libya – the People. Reporting in Tahrir Square or in Bahrain talked of ‘People’ that gathered to protest their government. In Libya, we call them rebels. This distinction made by the media could only be semantics. But, I think the distinction between ‘people’ and ‘rebels’ points to more than that. In a revolution, it is the people that lead the struggle against their government. Where as in a civil war, it is the rebels who lead.