Can NATO Topple the Gaddafi Regime?
Yes, if it can impose a blockade lasting several months, is willing to risk to risk the destruction of Libyan oil, and can eventually deploy UAVs over Libya. But the the worst thing they can do is let the fighting drag on, because it will almost inevitably lead to a humanitarian crisis in Libya.
The major problem facing NATO is that the rebels have been driven too far east to secure the facilities and the pipelines which take the product to the coast (see map below). To avoid permanently splitting the country along some kind of No-Man's Land, it is not enough for the rebels to stop Khadaffi at the gates of Benghazi; they must drive west far enough to take the infrastructure from the Duck of Death. Only then can Libya be reconstituted as a single political entity.
The major NATO advantage in this campaign is that they control the sea. Khadaffi can be strangled by denying him arms, ammunition, and military supplies, all of which can come in quantity only by sea. But its effects will take months to be decisive. Japan in World War 2 and the Iraqi insurgency showed how far limited supplies can be extended. There is probably still enough explosives in Khadaffi's arsenals to manufacture millions of IEDs, all of which can be used to slow the rebel advance. They will last even longer if he goes on the defense.
The control of the Med would be largely wasted unless NATO can open the port of Benghazi to allied shipping. But it must be done by rebel forces alone or run afoul of the UN proscription on the use of occupation forces. That may be a term of art which will permit the use of naval troops and marines to in port areas. And the security must extend at least out to artillery range of the port. Antiship missiles may also play a part. Recently the Jerusalem Post reported that a ship smuggling C-802 antiship missiles into Gaza had been intercepted. The shipment weighed only 50 tons. If such weapons reached Khadaffi they might complicate matters.
Khadaffi may try to mine the port or otherwise damage it because the Duck has a further weapon he can employ: humanitarian warfare. As can be seen from the map below, the water supply infrastructure is located to the west, again beyond Benghazi. If Khadaffi can drive, by terror or ethnic cleansing, his opponents into rebel lines, the onus of feeding and watering perhaps millions will fall to NATO. They cannot do this without a port.
Ultimately the rebels will need to be built up by Western training and advice to be capable of the offensive. This would be a good opportunity for the West to essentially "take over" the rebel movement and influence it in pro-NATO directions. But again, it will take a length of time on the order of magnitude of the US rebuilding of Iraqi security forces to develop an acceptable force; that is unless the whole task is subcontracted to Egypt. But Egypt is currently in turmoil so that is questionable.
Finally, for the rebels to hold on to the ground they will need persistent air support. European air power is limited by endurance. Their limited numbers are probably sufficient to provide some, but not complete coverage against Libyan air; they are probably useful against fixed targets in concentrated areas; but they would be wholly inadequate to provide timely air support against Khadaffi's maneuvering forces on the ground. Persistent coverage is best provided by UAVs, which can be deployed after the Libyan air force is completely swept from the skies. They can even be used as bait, for if the remnants of the Libyan air force rise to challenge the drones, they will expose themselves to the French Mirages and the British Typhoons on CAP.
Given this scenario, what can Khadaffi do? If he is suicidal and cares nothing for political consequences, he will probably attempt to create a humanitarian crisis as soon as possible. Such oil facilities as he cannot hold or feasibly protect, he may dynamite, in the dirtiest possible way. He can attempt to seize as many hostages from among the remaining Westerners as he possibly can. The Duck can also smash the system which brings water to the coast. Finally, he may unleash one last spasm of terrorism against the West and may, as a final act of self-immolation, blow all the oil facilities in his power before giving them up to the enemy. All of these tactics were used, in one way or the other, either by himself or by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, so they will instantly occur to Khadaffi.
Even if he does none of these things, Libya's economy is finished for the duration; and the need to feed or sustain the poorest of the population -- already reeling from high prices -- will become critical. They will become a charge on the West simply because there's nobody else who can do it.
The longer the operation drags on the greater the chance, strange as it may seem, that the Duck of Death will attract support. He certainly will, from all the fringe elements and crackpots of the world. Louis Farrakhan today came out in support of Khadaffi and so has Chavez. Farrakhan said that "they would love to go into Libya and kill brother Khadaffi and his children as they did to Saddam Hussein." Obama faced hostile leftist crowds in Brazil. Even Joan Baez has recently expressed her misgivings. If a humanitarian crisis occurs in Libya, these protests will redouble; it will not matter whether it was authorized by the Security Council or led by France. It will be, as it always is, America's fault .
The best outcome for West is for Khadaffi to be reasonable; accept safe passage out with his billions to Venezuela, perhaps, where "the rum is fine any time of year" and to give way to a quick and nondestructive takeover of Libya. He should do this. But will he? He would if he were sane ... but there you go.
The Associated Press now reports that Mohammer Khadaffi has pledged to wage a "long war", which as the post above argues, is his best strategy for keeping power. On a phone interview with Libyan state television, he said:
"We promise you a long war," he said.
He called the international assault "simply a colonial crusader aggression that may ignite another large-scale crusader war."
This should be a warning that while the Duck of Death may be crazy he is not stupid. Fighting a protracted war of attrition is in his best military interests while using its maneuver power to force a quick decision is in the best interests of the allies. Unfortunately, by declaring itself limited to half-measures, the alliance has given Khadaffi advance notice of its limitations and he will exploit this policy shadow. He will focus his actions in areas where he knows the West has self-limited itself.
"No Way In" print edition at Amazon