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Libyan War 2011: A Short History


by Austin Bay
July 27, 2011

In April of this year, it was already apparent that the Libyan War of 2011 had become a curious war of military, economic and political attrition. That was cruel news then, and remains so today.

Wars of attrition are essentially mutual sieges, where neither side can quite dominate the conflict and bring it to a swift conclusion. So the combatant forces grind away at one another, gambling that superior manpower, superior material resources or sheer tenacity (superior resolve forged by determined leadership and superior morale) will eventually shatter enemy resistance.

World War I's entrenched western front provides a tragic example of attrition warfare at its worst. The stalemate produced unimaginable casualties. Landlocked Germany eventually suffered economic collapse.

Libya is no World War I, but Moammar Gadhafi's siege of the rebel-held city of Misrata, which the rebels ultimately raised, serves as a grim reminder of the human costs of day-by-day attrition.

 As August 2011 approaches, however, there is better news from Libya, given the circumstances: Dictator Gadhafi is clearly losing, on Libya's battlefields and in the diplomatic struggle. Though still factionalized, inadequately armed and poorly trained, Libyan rebel forces have not only held their own but made significant military advances while strengthening their political and diplomatic clout.

United Nations observers are reporting that towns located in the dwindling chunk of western Libya Gadhafi still controls lack fuel, hospitals are running short of medicine and supplies, and food prices are climbing. These are the signs of economic attrition. Political effects will follow. Gadhafi bought loyalty by providing his supporters with goods and luxuries. Now his struggle to retain power brings them poverty.

Until NATO intervened in March, Gadhafi's aircraft and armor were dominating and all but defeating Libya's rebels. Disorganized rebel fighters lacked anti-aircraft weapons, anti-tank weapons and artillery. All the rebels had was just cause and passion -- the seeds of resolve. Rebel leaders were divided along regional, political and ethnic lines. This is why Gadhafi's threats of mass reprisals -- mass murder -- were very serious. The month of dawdling by the U.S., Great Britain and France was almost fatal.

In March, Gadhafi's forces were pouring into eastern Libya. NATO airpower saved the rebels by driving Gadhafi's air force from the skies and by pinning then pounding his loyalist tank and motorized ground units.

NATO military intervention and international diplomatic support bought time. Tunisia and Egypt have provided the rebels with significant, if low visibility, support. Neither of them wants to see a troublemaker and state sponsor of terrorism like Gadhafi remain in power.

By late April, Gadhafi faced a war on five fronts: the east (Benghazi front); to the south (Berber tribespeople in the western Nafusa Mountains); the Misrata siege; an uneasy occupation of western towns located between Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital, Tripoli, and the Tunisian border; and the air front, the NATO air attacks on Tripoli and his supply centers.

By late June, a sixth front of sorts began to emerge: discontent in Tripoli itself. While more of a political challenge to Gadhafi and a problem for his secret police rather than military front, the increasing physical isolation of Tripoli and the duress of the bombing campaign helped stir opposition in Tripoli.

As Gadhafi feels the effects of attrition, the rebels are returning to maneuver warfare.

Within the last two weeks, the rebels launched a very sophisticated operation, one covered in some detail by The Wall Street Journal (July 21). From a distance, the operation, conducted in southern Libya deep in the Sahara Desert, has the gee and haw of professional advice supplied by NATO or Egyptian special forces. That noted, Libyan rebels are executing it.

A rebel motorized column (wheeled vehicles) left the Kufra oasis in eastern Libya and, after an advance of some 600 kilometers, attacked a pro-Gadhafi air base just north of the Libya-Chad-Niger tri-border region. The column then drove north, threatening the town of Sebha. This attack threatens a fragile land supply route Gadhafi has running from the border to Tripoli.

The political effects of the attack may be even more important. Sebha is the hometown of many Gadhafi political and military loyalists. It now requires protection -- Gadhafi faces a seventh front. 

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