Leadership: NATO Helps Libyan Rebels Build An Army


April 24, 2011: NATO nations, as well as some Arab countries, are sending (or promised to send) hundreds of trainers to Libya in an effort to training rebel forces. The rebels have been fighting the Libyan government troops and foreign mercenaries for over two months now. While the rebels had an advantage in terms of numbers and enthusiasm, they had few people with military experience. That's because the Kaddafi family, which has controlled the country since the 1960s, kept themselves in power by building a security force that emphasized loyalty to the Kaddafis (particularly family head Mumamar Kaddafi) and prevented any potentially hostile Libyans from obtaining any military training. This is typical of dictatorships. For example, in Iraq, Saddam Hussein recruited Sunni Arabs (20 percent of the population and his main support) for nearly all military leadership positions, from sergeant to general.

In Libya, Kaddafi went even further, and kept the military small, because he could only depend on about ten percent of the population (members of his tribe, and other favored groups.) Since the 1960s, over half of Libya's GDP came from oil exports, and Kaddafi used much of this money to buy as much loyalty as he could. This was especially true of his secret police and intelligence organizations, and the many informers that were on the payroll. Naturally, most of the population hated this. But now that there is a rebellion, most of the rebels are fighting at a serious military disadvantage.

The rebels not only lack basic military skills, but, more importantly, lack trained and experienced leadership. Not that the Libyan armed forces are much better. These guys are generally considered among the most inept troops in the Arab world. But an old military saying sums it up quite well; "it's not a matter of who's better, but who's worse." The small edge in training, organization and leadership that the Kaddafi forces possess is often decisive.

But the NATO trainers, and the rebels, have one advantage here; eagerness to succeed. A few weeks of basic military training will make a big difference, especially for men who know that they will go directly from training to combat, where their new skills will not only make victory more likely, but will help the newly trained troops survive.

Selecting and training leaders is another matter. In situations like this, the trainers try to find out who the natural leaders are, put them through the basic training (which will eliminate some of them), and then give them some basic military leadership training (how to move, maintain and deploy their troops). Trainers can also help organize logistics, using civilians who have the necessary skills (professional truck drivers and managers of transportation companies, as well as communications and medical specialists, and so on). These men, and women, don’t need as much, often not any, military training. They simply have to be shown how to apply their existing skills in a wartime environment.

The trainers can also help select people for the staffs of the military units. These are the people who will coordinate the support functions like supply, transportation, intelligence and personnel. Again, those with civilian skills in these areas can be put right to work, with trainers available to help them learn as they go. If you have smart, eager civilian specialists, they will pick up the special tricks for using their existing skills in a military environment.

One of the most critical military specialists the trainers will have to create are FACs (Forward Air Controllers). NATO has special equipment (communications, laser range finders, and so on) for FACs, and you can train a bright civilian to use this stuff in a few weeks. The rebel FACs will have a lot of responsibility put on them. Make a mistake as a FAC, and you can put a smart bomb on your own people. Even the professional FACs occasionally do that (often due to equipment malfunction or extreme fatigue). The trainers will have to select people who are meticulous and calm under pressure. That can be done, but it isn't easy.

A lesser problem is lack of weapons. Actually, there are lots of weapons lying about all over Libya. Kaddafi loved to buy weapons, but for those unfamiliar with this stuff, learning as you go is not only inefficient, but often disastrous. Weapons can malfunction from lack of cleaning, or through misuse. The trainers can identify those rebels who are somewhat familiar with weapons, or are quick learners, and train them to be armorers (military specialists who supervise the maintenance and care of weapons). These weapons specialists can train the rebel troops who have gone through the basic course, when a new weapon is being used in their unit.

It will take months to organize all this, but results can be seen as soon as the first rebels complete their basic training and capable (potentially, anyway) leaders are selected and formal units (platoons, companies and brigades) are organized. This process will need help from the political leadership of the rebel movement, which is already split by political, religious and tribal differences. But at least the need for more capable fighting forces will provide some pressure on the political leaders to overcome some of their differences for the good of the entire rebel movement.

Lots can, and probably will, go wrong. As was discovered in Afghanistan, getting NATO nations to cooperate on a training mission is difficult. There are often shortages of promised people, cooperation and coordination. In Libya, the many splits within the rebel movement will add to NATO's problems, making it very difficult to select the best people for key leadership jobs. That said, anything will be an improvement over the current anarchy.


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