The PJ Tatler

An opportunity in Libya?

Gadhafi is now fighting a war on five fronts. I’m aware that The Washington Institute describes the situation as a two-front war with the western front having several “compartments.” Over the last ten days the situation has clarified. In a column I wrote this past Tuesday I suggested Gadhafi now has five fronts. Cyrenaica (eastern Libya), the Nafusa Mountains (Berber region south of Tripoli) and Misurata (besieged western city) are the most active. Misurata could be described as a compartment but it is so vital and requires so many resources on Gadhafi’s part that you can make a case it is (at the moment) Gadhafi’s main effort. In March, Gadhafi suppressed uprisings in the western cities of Zuwara and Zawiya (near the coast, between Tripoli and the Tunisian border). However, opposition simmers in the region. He must assign police and garrison forces to watch the region. So that’s four ground fronts that require attention. He must divide his forces.

Gadhafi’s fifth front is the NATO/coalition air front. Is it a front ? NATO airpower smashed his air force. In the column I wrote Tuesday I noted that the addition of Hellfire missile-armed Predators puts increased psychological pressure on Gadhafi and his senior henchmen. With Predators lurking he’ll now have to think twice before he tools around Tripoli in a convertible posturing for television cameras. He did that a couple of weeks ago, to show the world he’s macho. As my column notes, Great Britain’s defense secretary openly discussed striking command and control centers. I report, you decide: Does Gadhafi’s convertible would qualify as a command and control center? Colonel Gadhafi seems to think so. His propagandists accused NATO of planning an assassination.

Back to the ground fronts: Today news broke that Tunisian forces have detained pro-Gadhafi fighters who crossed the Tunisia-Libya border while pursuing Libyan rebels.

The lede from the BBC report:

Tunisian TV said Libyan forces in about 15 vehicles entered the town of Dahiba before being overpowered by Tunisian troops and surrendering their weapons.

There has been fighting between Libya leader Col Muammar Gaddafi’s forces and rebels over a nearby border post.

Tunisia has strongly condemned the violation of its territory.

Gadhafi knows his western backdoor is not locked.

The Washington Institute article (linked in this post’s second sentence) argues that the Libyan civil war is not a stalemate (since Gadhafi’s forces have adapted to NATO’s air tactics) and that Gadhafi is poised to win an extended war because he has the will to endure and the will to win. I think the analysis is quite reasonable. The distracted, confusing, and often feckless NATO/coalition leadership is a bad sign for the long term. The Libyan rebels have great passion, but their fractiousness is a weakness (though one that might diminish over time).

That said, consider the evovling situation from Gadhafi’s perspective. War on four or five fronts is difficult. The bitter attacks by Gadhafi forces on the Wazin (Libya)-Dehiba (Tunisia) border crossing indicate Gadhafi understands his southern Berber front presents an enormous threat. I’ll add a brief historical note, one that the Libyans are certainly aware of: Ottoman Turkey kept its western forces supplied through Dehiba, Tunisia during the Turco-Italian War of 1911-1912. The Turks even had a telegraph link in Dehiba so their forces (in the Tripolitanian desert) could communicate with Constantinople. The 21st century war in Libya differs, but the Dehiba crossing remains immensely  valuable. Gadhafi knows Tunisia’s revolutionary government is not his friend.

Gadhafi said late last week that his forces would pullback from Misurata. They did, then they started shelling the city. Gadhafi also said tribespeople would start to attack the rebels in Misurata. This may well be an attempt to exploit a weakness in UN Security Council Resolution 1973. Gadhafi will portray the tribespeople as “civilians” — so that NATO and coalition aircraft can’t attack them.

The multi-war actually gives the Libyan rebels and NATO an operational opportunity to deal Gadhafi several defeats (defeats in detail) and gain time to train rebel forces in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya).  However, NATO and its coalition allies must have the courage and insight to seize this opportunity before it fades. NATO aircraft have begun supporting the Berbers in the south. The moment to deploy special operations troops and USAF AC-130 gunships to help secure the Wazin crossing is now.  The Tunisian Army is deployed on the Tunisian side of the border as a blocking force. Take advantage of it. The moment to provide the rebels in Misurata with AC-130 gunship support was two weeks ago, but it isn’t too late. Yes, it will take special ops personnel on the ground to maximize the effectiveness of air support, and special ops guys usually wear boots. Obama said no boots on the ground. He also said Gadhafi must go. No Boots or Must Go?