Libya: Disunited We Stall


April 15, 2011: Several NATO nations have intel operatives on the ground in Libya, and the information coming back about the rebels is not encouraging. While most Libyans want Kaddafi gone, there is little unity beyond that. There are dozens of armed factions, and no unifying higher command. The good news is that the Islamic radical groups are a small part of the resistance groups. The bad news is that the Islamic radical groups (including some openly allied with al Qaeda) are in play at all. But Islamic radicals were always among those who continually resisted Kaddafi's tyranny. The worse news is that there is slow progress on rebel formation of a unified military (or political) command. This greatly complicates any efforts to supply weapons or training. Some of the rebel factions are for this, others oppose it. How do you decide who (among the willing groups) gets the weapons and training? Meanwhile, politicians of NATO countries are divided over how much aid to give the rebels. This makes NATO efforts along these lines difficult. NATO is an organization that only acts when there is a lot of consensus. Right now, there is not a lot of consensus within NATO about how far to go in supporting the Libyan rebels. At this point, it looks like individual NATO nations are likely to supply and train the more likely (to be successful) rebel factions. Since no good deeds go unpunished in this area, this support will be followed by accusations of favoritism and unwarranted intervention in Libyan affairs. But the only alternative is a long (perhaps years) of bloody stalemate between Kaddafi and the rebels. That would be accompanied by lots of stories about very bad behavior by Kaddafi's secret police, and accusations that NATO nations could have done more to aid the rebels.

Meanwhile, the Persian Gulf state of Qatar is believed to have already supplied some rebels groups with weapons (portable rocket launchers and Milan anti-tank guided missiles). Qatar (whose ruler founded al Jazeera) has long been aggressive in its foreign policy.

Kaddafi has expressed some willingness to negotiate a ceasefire. But NATO quickly found that many members were very hostile to this sort of thing. There is a lot of consensus on the idea that Kaddafi must go, but not nearly as much agreement on how to make this happen. The Libyan rebels are very much opposed to any ceasefire with Kaddafi.

The rebels in Misarata, a city  210 kilometers east of Tripoli, warn of growing civilian losses from Kaddafi artillery and snipers. Misarata has a population of 550,000 and is the third largest city (after 1.1 million Tripoli and 671,000 in Benghazi) in Libya. Despite its proximity to Tripoli, government forces were never able to take it. However, Misarata has been under siege for two months, and there are many Kaddafi gunmen inside the city. There have been several battles in and outside Misarata in the last week, with about a hundred rebels, government and civilian casualties a day. Kaddafi keeps trying to send more armored vehicles and troops to the city, but most of these are detected and attacked by NATO aircraft.  

Kaddafi troops still have some armored vehicles inside cities like Misarata, which are rolled out when thought safe (from attack) to attack rebel positions, or key sites like hospitals. NATO has to assign a lot of its aircraft to monitor the situation around Misarata, and quickly attack any Kaddafi reinforcements approaching the city.  There are still rebels active inside Tripoli and in Berber majority areas along the Tunisian border.

Kaddafi has his secret police and street gangs in many cities and towns in western Libya, who are able to harass the rebels, or even defeat them in some places. Kaddafi has cash and lots of promises to give out, and many Libyans with guns listen. Kaddafi does not have a lot of supporters inside Libya, but there are still many people who will take the money, and avoid Kaddafi's killers, and show some support for the dictator. For now, anyway.

While the United States halted bombing missions in Libya on April 4th, there have been at least three instances since then when American warplanes, as part of their continuing electronic warfare efforts, bombed Libyan air defense systems that seemed to have survived earlier attacks. It just seemed simpler to have American F-16s follow up on the discovery of these Libyan targets by U.S. electronic warfare aircraft.

But the American withdrawal from the lead role in the air campaign has, for the first time, forced the other NATO nations to run the kind of campaign they have long let the Americans, and they vast air power resources, take care of. But the U.S. insists that its forces have been worn down by heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that Libya is a European and Arab problem, and that those nations, in theory, have the resources to deal with it. While that is true, NATO misses the American experience and leadership in air campaigns.

Kaddafi has become more aggressive in his use of human shields and hiding his weapons and troops in residential areas. In this area, U.S. intelligence experience comes in handy, as this sort of thing has been experienced often in Iraq and Afghanistan, and American analysts know most of the tricks, and the most effective countermeasures. Still, some civilians are getting killed, in order to prevent Kaddafi from moving weapons or troops close enough to cause more casualties among rebels or nearby civilians.

April 9, 2011:  A rebel MiG-23 fighter took off from an airbase near Benghazi, but was quickly spotted by the no-fly patrol and approached by NATO fighters and forced to land. There is little, or, more often, no coordination between the rebels and the NATO aircraft. Efforts to establish some kind of air controller system among rebel combat units has been difficult. There is little coordination among the various armed rebel groups. Getting the rebels to organize their combat forces is like herding cats. It can be done, but it's taking a long time and is frustrating for all concerned.





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