Belmont Club

Beads on a String

The AP reports that Libyan rebels are on the retreat after an hour-long battle with Khadaffi forces near Sirte. The rebels claimed they couldn’t advance without air cover and yelled “Sarkozy, where are you?” Sarkozy has apparently answered — well not quite — with the deployment of USAF AC-130s and A-10 ground attack aircraft; and even that came with conditions.

At this morning’s NFZ ops brief, Vice Admiral “Shortney” Gortney allowed that Spectres and Warthogs had been “employed” but only in support of the UN-backed resolutions to protect Libyan civilians.

“We’re not in direct support of the opposition, that’s not part of our mandate, and we’re not coordinating with the opposition,” he said.

No such military restrictions may apply to truck mounted SA-24 surface to air missiles in the Duck of Death’s forces. Aviation Week reports that:

The Russian-made SA-24 Grinch can shoot down coalition aircraft effectively at altitudes up to about 11,000 ft. That would not affect most combat patrols, which are being flown above 20,000 ft., but once humanitarian relief, refuge, medical evacuation and other low-altitude missions begin, they could be lethal, particularly in the hands of groups operating outside the bounds of legality and conventional rules of engagement.

But these and other difficulties may be causing the door to open, ever so slightly on the use of ground troops in Libya. Not US troops, mind you — the President has ruled that out — but NATO ground troops, whoever those may consist of. Wired quotes Adm. James Stavridis testimony before the Senate in which the USN four-star (who is also NATO’s SACEUR) said that such ground troops might participate in post-Khadaffi stabilization operations. More interestingly, he suggested that NATO (not US troops, of course) might meet their old acquaintances, al-Qaeda on Libyan soil.

Stavridis said he “wouldn’t say NATO’s considering it yet.” But because of NATO’s history of putting peacekeepers in the Balkans — as pictured above — “the possibility of a stabilization regime exists.” …

In fact, Stavridis told Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma that he saw “flickers of intelligence” indicating “al-Qaeda [and] Hezbollah” have fighters amongst the Libyan rebels. The Supreme Allied Commander of NATO noted that the leadership of the rebels are “responsible men and women struggling against Col. Gadhafi” and couldn’t say if the terrorist element in the opposition is “significant.” But the U.S. knows precious little about who the Libyan rebels are.

The new prospect of NATO force on the ground in Libya seemed to alarm Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who got Stavridis to say that there’s “no discussion of the insertion of ground troops” in NATO circles. (And “to my knowledge” there aren’t troops there now, he said.) But Stavridis told Reed that the memory of the long NATO peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans is “in everyone’s mind.”

Poor Admiral Stavridis is at pains to say what everybody must realize but cannot say. Whether or not the US beats Khadaffi or loses to him, American forces will be involved. If the rebels are not to lose, it must be behind US air support, now involving manned aircraft and probably expanding to drones in the near future. If the rebels actually win then another set of problems begin.  NATO troops with “unique capabilities” are probably going to have to patrol the IED strewn byways of Libya to protect civilians from the ensuing post-regime chaos. Al-Qaeda is certain to make a bid for the leadership of the war-torn country and foreign fighters will be drawn as flies to a honeypot to North Africa, when they are not already there.

Why should French and British publics, so sensitive to casualties in Afghanistan, be more tolerant of losses to stability operations in Libya? Why won’t they just decamp as they did in other places, leaving “other NATO” troops to hold the ring?

The prohibition against ground troops has already been subtly breached. As I predicted in an earlier post, NATO will need a port. The Turks are beginning the process by taking control of ” Benghazi Airport in eastern Libya to coordinate international humanitarian aid efforts. Erdogan has said that an accord to that effect has already been signed. Benghazi is the rebels’ stronghold”. It will not be long before Benghazi seaport or some similar facility is secured in the same way. Unless port security is left to the rebels this may mean that other NATO troops will be stationed ashore. And suppose, God forbid, that Khadaffi’s forces advance again to threaten Benghazi, who defends these airports and seaports?

The sad fact is that NATO cannot hope to succeed in its mission — whatever that may be — without combined arms: land, sea and air. An unbalanced force will either be suboptimal for regime change and stability operations or wholly inadequate. Either NATO fights one hand tied behind its back or it fights with the full range of its capabilities. Since much of NATO’s capability, including most of its “unique capabilities” are provided by US forces this strongly implies that the American mission has only just begun. If so, then using “NATO but not US” troops an equipment will be a distinction without a difference.

My guess is that everybody has realized that by now, but nobody has had the authority to come out and say so in public.

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Watching this video of Libyan rebels on the attack, or supposedly on the attack, one is moved to ask: where are the bandoliers of ammunition of these men? Do they have just one magazine for the attack after which it is either back to the pickup or back where they came from? Where are their comms? If US airpower shows up overhead, how do they distinguish themselves from the Duck’s forces? Why would anyone actually think that these rebels, who NATO says it will not arm because the UN has prohibited it, have the capability to advance against Khadaffi’s men? They might, but there is nothing certain about it.

Update:

Hillary Clinton has now reinterpreted the UN arms embargo so that NATO can arm the rebels. The Guardian explains:

The US indicated on Monday night that it had not ruled out arming the rebels, though it was assumed this would take some time because of a UN arms embargo which applies to all sides in Libya.

But Clinton made clear that UN security council resolution 1973, which allowed military strikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, relaxed the embargo. Speaking after the conference on Libya in London, Clinton said: “It is our interpretation that [resolution] 1973 amended or overrode the absolute prohibition of arms to anyone in Libya so that there could be legitimate transfer of arms if a country were to choose to do that. We have not made that decision at this time.” …

The [British] foreign secretary, William Hague, who chaired the conference, indicated that Britain may be prepared to interpret UN security resolution 1973 in the same way as Clinton. Until now, Britain has said it believes it would be illegal to arm any side in Libya. He said: “We did not discuss at the conference today arming the opposition … but this subject has been raised by the national council.

Clinton remembers that it all depends on what “is” is. Thank God the lawyers are in charge of things. Control is everything, extending Lyndon Johnson’s adage that “them boys over there can’t bomb an outhouse without my permission”, Bill Clinton installed so many lawyers in the DOD that it was impossible to act without reference to them. Donald Rumsfeld recalled:

Well, when I served as Secretary in the 1970s, it was quite a different department. When I arrived back in 2001 I found 10,000 lawyers in the Department of Defense. They’re there at every level. We live in an enormously litigious society and the Congress contributes to that. As a result, there’s practically no step that’s made by anyone in the Pentagon and in the Department of Defense where they do not take into account the legal implications and consult lawyers about it. …

There’s a pattern in the department, at the top level, the chairman and the chief and the Joint Chiefs will recommend some rules of engagement for a certain circumstance. It will then be sent down the chain of command and it will get to the next command level, maybe the combatant commander, and the combatant commander will look at it, and then he will not want to violate it. So he might take a little tuck in it. And then it goes down to the next level. And it’s got now it’s in a country commander. And he looks at it and he doesn’t want to break the rule so he takes a little tuck in it. You end up with four or five layers down there taking tucks and you end up with some rules of engagement that don’t look like what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs or the Joint Chiefs of Staff or even the combatant commander intended. Now why is that? Well, it’s fear. It’s because of our litigious society. It’s because of Congress overseeing things and having hearings.

It’s all about words. Reality may or may not have anything to do with it.

Update 2:

Even though Hillary has determined that she can arm the rebels, she has not made up her mind to do so. Nor is she giving Khadaffi a deadline to go, although President Obama has insisted that he must, as this video shows.

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