Potential Hot Spots: The Revised Endgame In Libya

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March 21, 2011: The war in Libya changed dramatically when the UN unexpectedly got the votes (and abstentions) needed to authorize military actions ("any means necessary") against the Libyan government forces on the 17th. French, American, Italian and British aircraft and cruise missiles and warplanes, began hitting targets on the 19th. Canadian warplanes are on the way. Two days of air attacks destroyed the Libyan air power and anti-aircraft defense, drove back Kaddafi's ground forces and forced his navy to stay in port. American electronic warfare aircraft are monitoring communications in Libya, and broadcasting radio and TV messages to everyone in northern Libya. The rebels have quickly assembled a force of armed men in cars and trucks and are now advancing from Benghazi, which, last week, Kaddafi boasted he would have conquered by today. In response, the Arab League, which last week called for air strikes against Kaddafi, now calls for restraint, and a lessening of the violence used against Kaddafi. Apparently, many in the Arab League thought the UN would never get China and Russia to stand aside and allow a resolution authorizing force against Kaddafi. The Arab League largely consists of autocrats and dictators, men very much like Kaddafi, just not as flamboyant and eccentric.  The Arab League insisted they only called for a no-fly operation, to stop Kaddafi from bombing civilians, not this all-out air war against Kaddafi. After all, Kaddafi is one of them. All the Arab League wanted was some help in preventing Kaddafi from making all Arab dictators look bad.

For many Western nations (plus Russia, and China) Kaddafi was the devil you knew, and the exact nature of any new government is quite murky. Kaddafi thought the UN would never approve military action against him. But word, and images, of his brutality against his own people was getting out. Kaddafi, as always, was his own worst enemy. Faced with a choice between the proven precision (and low collateral damage) of American smart bomb technology, and the looming massacres promised by Kaddafi, the world went with the high-tech solution to the Kaddafi problem. Not unexpectedly, the coalition providing the air power is already being criticized for being too aggressive and endangering (if not actually killing) too many civilians.  

The United States took the lead in planning and commanding the initial air strikes. But the U.S. has said it will soon turn over this command to either NATO (if that organization can agree to take it) or another nation (probably France, which led the effort to get the UN to authorize the operation).

While air power has been authorized, everyone insists that they will not put ground troops in Libya. Right now, it appears that the rebels will be left alone to do what they can against the pro-Kaddafi forces. Kaddafi, it is hoped, will be captured or driven into exile, oil shipments will resume, and life will go on.

To avoid civilian casualties, the aircraft have to know what they are hitting with their GPS and laser guided smart bombs. To a certain extent, you can do that from the air. But given the use of irregulars (armed civilians) by both sides, it's difficult to tell friend from foe from the air. Both sides are using Libyan Army armored vehicles and weapons. As the rebels begin moving west again, there's great potential for a column of rebel fighters moving along the coastal highway to be bombed, by warplanes who thought they were retreating government troops. To avoid this, there are a growing number of special operations troops (commandos) on the ground. The United States has said it has no troops on the ground, so reports of American Special Forces may be the result of confusing other English speaking operators as Americans, or the U.S. may be using civilian contractors (former Special Forces) instead. The special operations troops serve several functions. Primarily, they supply information about what is happening on the ground. It’s known that Libya is a very divided country (by tribe, and regional loyalties), and there's great risk that national unity won't survive the removal of Kaddafi. There could be a civil war between victorious rebel factions. The special operations men are keeping an eye on that. Second, the commandos can call in air strikes, or warn warplanes to avoid certain targets (which are now rebel occupied.) Third, the special operations troops can advise the rebels on the most effective military tactics. But there are not enough Western (and Arab) special operations troops on the ground to keep track of all the rebel factions. The rebels are not marching on Tripoli as much as they are swarming.

Kaddafi has threatened to use human shields to guard his assets. While Kaddafi says these are volunteers, it's more likely that civilians are being coerced to camp out near military bases and headquarters, to discourage air attack. If the smart bombs come anyway (which appears to have happened already), Kaddafi hopes to obtain pictures of dead women and children, to help get some worldwide opinion moving in his direction. By himself, Kaddafi has not got the resources to stop the air war, or resist the rebels now marching on his refuge in Tripoli. The most powerful weapon Kaddafi has is the mass media. If he can successfully manipulate it, he can survive.

To remove Kaddafi, the rebels have to move along most of the 1,822 kilometers highway that stretches from one end of the country to the other. The coastal road passes through dozens of cities and large towns that contain over 80 percent of the country's population. The oil workers, and a few nomads and residents of remote villages, live in the vast interior. There will be groups of Kaddafi supporters who will fight back as the rebels advance from Benghazi in the east (near the Egyptian border), to Tripoli in the west (near the Algerian border.) But the biggest problem the rebels will encounter will be desperate civilian calls for restoration of the economy. The fighting has disrupted importation and distribution of food, and much else. Kaddafi has ruined the economy over the last 40 years. Despite some recent loosening up, most Libyans are still dependent on government bureaucrats for the necessities of life. The rebellion has, since February 15th, disrupted that government. People have hustled and coped for the last five weeks, but essential items are beginning to run out. Kaddafi planned to use these shortages to coerce the population back into subservience to his rule. Now the rebels have to fix things, or face further civil unrest.

The rebels have more armed men, but most are civilian volunteers, armed with assault rifles and not much else. There is not much training or discipline, and little experienced military leadership. The government has, or had, some warplanes and armed helicopters, as well as some tanks and artillery. Many of the armored vehicles have already been attacked. The Kaddafi troops now understand that any armored vehicle seen moving (or just seen) in government controlled territory, is a target. The air attacks of the last few days have, obviously, hurt the morale of pro-Kaddafi forces. The government forces also have some civilian volunteers and a growing number of foreign mercenaries (from Tuareg, and other, tribes to the south, as well as Eastern Europe and Syria). These will be the first people to desert. But the government forces also have some discipline. Many senior men from the security forces and the military have remained with Kadaffi, for the moment. Many of these guys are known, by name to rebels, and are subject to lifelong pursuit for "crimes against humanity" during Kaddafi's decades of rule. So there are some men who will fight to the death. Fortunately, Algeria, just to the southwest of Tripoli, also has a large force of secret police, and got along (most of the time) with Kaddafi. This is a big plus for the rebels, as it gives Kaddafi's core supporters, and foreign mercenaries, an escape hatch.

Officially, Kaddafi is not the target of this operation. The U.S. has come right out and said there is no official intention of killing Kaddafi. Unofficially, it's a different story. But for the record, Kaddafi is not on any target list. There is a lot of American intel on what kinds of bunkers Kaddafi has built, and where. The U.S. has the "bunker buster" bombs that can destroy these facilities.

The government strategy involved deployment of lots of cash (several hundred million dollars worth), post-war promises, and a small force of loyalist troops and foreign mercenaries. The foreign troops (mostly from African nations to the south), are the most reliable. Pro-government Libyan troops still occasionally have loyalty problems. This much is known from the few that have been captured, and incidents where government forces halted, and seemed to settle some internal dispute with gunfire. But the sudden appearance of all that Western air power has shattered the resolve of many of the Kaddafi followers. It's possible that Kaddafi's forces will largely disappear within days.

The basic government strategy was to use several brigade size (1-3 thousand men) units, racing along the coastal highway to recapture towns and cities. These assault brigades are equipped with Russian made tanks, and other armored vehicles, including artillery. The brigades were backed up by a few dozen fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships, as well as a few warships off the coast. Once the rebels in a town are killed or driven out (or into hiding), the government forces bring in less heavily armed security troops, and contact local government loyalists (or recruits some new ones) and proceed to terrorize the locals into obeying orders and not demonstrating or taking up arms. There aren't a lot of loyalists right now, so terror is the primary weapon. The foreign mercenaries are particularly trigger-happy, and shoot anyone who appears to be resisting. The Kaddafi loyalists could attempt to retain control of towns and cities by using human shields. That is unlikely. Few people are that pro-Kaddafi. The best option is to flee west in a civilian vehicle (that is much less likely to catch a smart bomb) and get into Algeria.

On the west end of the country, dictator Muamar Kaddafi never lost control of the capital, Tripoli, along with its many nearby military bases. This is why so many of the air strikes are in the Tripoli area. Yet most of the Tripoli population is pro-rebel. On the other (eastern) end of the country, there is Benghazi, the rebel "capital". In the middle (closer to Benghazi) is the oil shipping facility at Ras Lanuf. Control the oil and you control the national wealth. Kaddafi's forces took control most of the coastal cities last week, especially between Benghazi and Misarata, which is 210 kilometers east of Tripoli and has a population of 550,000. This is the third largest city (after 1.1 million Tripoli and 671,000 in Benghazi), Despite its proximity to Tripoli, government forces have been unable to take Misarata. But the government shock troops have retaken most of the oil ports and refineries, and Misarata has been under siege.  The rebels are heading for the oil ports first, and air strikes have already hit government forces surrounding Misarata.

The rebels have no central command, and are divided by tribe and area of origin. There are some deep divisions among the rebels about how the "new" Libya should be run. If Kaddafi and company disappeared tomorrow, the civil war might well continue because of the animosities between rebel factions. The rebellion is not just against the rule of Kaddafi, but against the rule of an "outsider". Libya is a very divided (mainly by tribal loyalty) country. There could easily be four or five major tribal coalitions fighting each other, if Kaddafi were gone. And each coalition would consider other rebel groups unwanted outsiders.

As the rebels lost more ground over the last two weeks, they became more united in their calls for foreign assistance. A month ago, such foreign intervention was not wanted. Actually, no one really wanted to get involved with the Libyan civil war. Arab nations did not want to risk exposing the incompetence of their armed forces, and Western nations know intervention was a no-win situation. Even if invited by the rebels, Western troops going in would soon be widely denounced as "infidel invaders."

March 20, 2011:  The AU (African Union) called for an immediate cease fire. Kaddafi always took his status as an African (and not just Arab) leader seriously, and spent a lot of money in sub-Saharan Africa, trying to buy or influence local leaders. That largess will be missed. Kaddaif said he agreed to the AU ceasefire, but the coalition force do not trust him. Nor do the rebels.

NATO approved a plan to carry out the UN arms embargo on Libya. This means blocking any arms shipments via Libyan ports.

March 19, 2011: Three American B-2 bombers, making a 12 hour flight from their North American base, dropped 45 one ton bunker buster bombs on heavily defended Libyan airfields (especially on concrete aircraft shelters), destroying most of Kadaffi's operational warplanes. Other bombers wrecked the concrete airstrips and other air base facilities. The coordinated assault also included 112 American and British cruise missiles, mainly used to destroy Kaddafi's air defense radars, missiles sites and guns.

March 18, 2011: Kaddafi declared a unilateral ceasefire. Rebels immediately pointed out that Kaddafi's troops were still fighting, and aerial reconnaissance confirmed this.

March 17, 2011: The UN approved military action against the Libyan government, which has been waging a terror campaign against its own people for the last month, in an attempt to put down a rebellion. The UN rarely approves this sort of action against a member country, mainly because so many countries are run by kings or dictators. But Kaddafi was always an odd bird, and by setting himself apart, he came to be considered outside the usual norms. So Kaddafi is considered a special case.

 

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