The PJ Tatler

US Libya policy ping-pongs over the abyss

According to President Obama in his speech Monday night, the United States pulled together a coalition to act in Libya when it became clear that Gaddafi’s forces were about to overrun rebels in Benghazi and massacre the people of that city. Obama refused, he said, to wait for the images of mass slaughter before acting. So hastily passed UN resolution in hand, first the French and then the US and British launched strikes, and soon the rebels took the offensive and Gaddafi’s forces reeled. Now a few days later, the offensive shoe is on the other foot and it’s the rebels who are in retreat as Gaddafi’s troops retake land lost just a few days back.

The combatants could remain in this back and forth contest for a while, and now there’s word that we (the US and NATO) are contemplating directly arming the rebels. But there may be a problem with that.

The lesson of the past week, however, is that the rebels don’t need arms so much as technical and tactical training in how to use them, the creation of some kind of communications network, and a command structure that might help them become a cohesive fighting force.

The panicked flight of Qaddafi’s army from Ajdabiya this weekend in the wake of heavy airstrikes left behind rifle ammunition, mortars, and the means to fire them, as well as less precise stand-off weapons like the Grad rockets, adding to the similar weapons the rebels had already taken from former Qaddafi weapons depots in the east.

The problem is that rebels have shown little ability to use these weapons effectively so far, either with accurate firing or by maneuvering themselves into safe firing positions.

What the rebels lack is tactical training and modern command and control. The lack of tactical training means a whole lot of them will be killed out of stupidity rather than competence on the other side, while the lack of command and control means the fog of war will be a great deal thicker than it has to be. They don’t stand much of a chance of winning without both plus real coordination with Western air power.

An obvious solution presents itself, but it’s a solution that haunts American history and that Obama has already ruled out: Inserting Americans into Libya to train them. President Obama has both promised that there will be no US boots on the ground there, and that our official military policy sticks to the UN mandate, which isn’t to defeat Gaddafi but to protect civilians. Any suggestion of providing advisers or trainers to assist in a foreign civil war carries ghosts of Vietnam and to a lesser extent Afghanistan.

We could get around the “no boots no the ground” commitment by moving the training to a nearby country, but oopsie, we just helped push one of our strongest regional allies out of power and the rest of the potential training grounds in the region aren’t exactly in a position to help us train anti-government rebels.  Well, other than Iraq, an ally now in spite of Obama’s longstanding policies and from which we’re already withdrawing. The thought of moving Libyan rebels, many of whom may be al Qaeda, to Iraq, which has suffered from al Qaeda violence for years, to train them in modern combat tactics to take down Gaddafi seems like insanity on stilts.

The NATO coalition, which is really the US coalition with the veneer of robust partnership, is fast running out of options. And though we know what defeat looks like — Gaddafi staying in power and in a position to massacre his own people and perhaps return to international terrorism — we don’t really know what victory looks like. Victory could look like Libya turning into a full blown democracy, which seems highly unlikely, or turning into a failed state along the lines of Somalia that will become a haven for terrorists and Mediterranean pirates, which seems much more likely.