Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Update from the Libyan front

At the time of writing my first post, Qaddafi's forces were massed outside Benghazi, ready to take the city, and the world was deciding whether or not to stop him. Thankfully, they did decide to stop him, which means that all those who thought we shouldn't, started imposing unreasonable expectations on both the international coalition manning the air campaign to explain their aims, and the rebels on the ground to turn themselves into an army. My second post was written as the world rained bombs down on Qaddafi's tanks and artillery the world stood transfixed as it usually does when given a display of military hardware in action.

Some of the criticism of the allies' motives and objectives are valid, most are not.

What are we trying to achieve? Well this is clear but unstated. Regime change. The criticism that the coalitions' aims are vague is nonsense. It's simply maintaining a diplomatic and legal fiction that this is primarily humanitarian. Of course, the main reason Qaddafi must go is humanitarian - he must not be allowed to butcher (as he has clearly threatened) his own people. Remember, just like the only other equivalently murderous leader in the Middle-East/North Africa was Saddam Hussein, so the west is not as many people believe, being inconsistent. You need to be both a recalcitrant git with a WMD habit AND a murderous bastard (10s of 000s) to get bombed into the stone-age by NATO. To my mind this sets the bar appropriately high for intervention in another country's affairs. Lessons from the Iraq debacle have been learned. Western Ground forces will not be deployed.

This also deals with the nay-sayers' whataboutery. Bharain's Government has shot dead a few dozen protesters. Awful, disgusting behaviour, but sending an army into a hostile city it is not. The fact that the US fifth fleet is based there gives the US leverage it would immediately lose were it to start sabre-rattling against the Al-Khalifas. Likewise Yemen. Like it or not, only a fool would intervene in Yemen, a mountainous, tribal country where Al Quaeda holds sway and where the Government's writ does not run to the whole country (ahem Afghanistan ahem). These countries' current leaders are not quite as Ghastly as the capricious clown in Tripoli, and they behave themselves, at least as far as western Policy is concerned. We'd be mad to go after them. Ditto China, Zimbabwe and all the other nutty suggestions I've seen floating around place.

Many of the opponents of intervention believe themselves to be "realists" who demand to know the outcome before the event. By which time the window of opportunity to act has usually been lost.

Back to Libya. Who are the rebels? opponents of the intervention often ask. Well they're a mixture of Qaddafi's army whose deserted and young men from the east of the country with guns. There is a 33-man council, not all of whom are named, as some are from Tripoli. Some of the Council have served with Qaddafi in Government. So the criticism that the Council lacks credibility or experience is harsh. Given that the best-organised resistance to the Military strongmen in much of ME/NA has been Islamic of one form or another, I'd be surprised and wary if they were not represented. There are guys on there who know what they're doing sufficiently well to be recognised as the legitimate government of Libya by (so far) the Libyan UN delegation, France & Qatar. Finally, any putative Government of Libya would have to be pretty bad to be worse than the existing one. If you're clinging to Nurse for fear of Worse, and that nurse is Muammar Qaddafi, you're a dick.

The intervention had the desired effect, in the short term at least. Qaddafi withdrew from outside Benghazi, which appears safe for the time being, and the rebels "took" several towns along the coast. However, it now appears that far from Qaddafi's forces "collapsing" and "in headlong retreat" they sensibly decided to react to the allied air onslaught by shortening their supply lines and holding more defensible ground. They have subsequently resumed the advance, having halted the rebels just outside Surt.

Caution is the watchword. Wars are always risky, and Qaddafi is a wily, ruthless old fox. Western Journalists, in love with footage of Aircraft taking off from carriers (few of which are being used in this operation, the RAF is using bases in Cyprus and Italy) think that allied bombing is the key to winning wars, perhaps schooled in the wars of the 20th century in which Air power dominated WWII, Gulf War 1. However in asymmetric war - Vietnam or in support of troops insufficiently skilled to use close air support, like Libya now, air power is of less use.

The real use of Air Power in this campaign is to reduce Qaddafi's freedom of movement, degrade his forces' heavy weapons but above all to give the rebels heart that they are not alone. Napoleon Bonaparte remarked "in war, the Moral is the Physical as three is to one". However recent reports suggest many of the rebels are not fighting very hard. There certainly appears to be no great desire to dig in, defend a build up area and seek a decisive battle. Perhaps they are not yet ready, and they are harassing until they are. That would suggest a level of sophisticated strategy for which there's no evidence. It certainly suggests a total lack of effective small-unit leadership. Indeed all the reports suggest that rebel command and control is extremely rudimentary.

So, what can we expect from the next few weeks? Well the lines will ebb and flow. Towns will "fall" or "be taken" as one side flees, or advances. Journalists on the ground will continue to be mystified and spout words like "strategically important" as if they knew what was going on. Every rebel retreat will be a "disaster" every town taken by them will be a "triumph". Meanwhile, command and control structures, manning, equipment and training, no doubt facilitated and co-ordinated by special forces from western powers and possibly Egypt, will steadily improve. To imagine that the rebels could have held a determined Qaddafi two weeks ago is Naive. The Allied air offensive has bought time.

If, and this is a big "if" the rebels can learn and learn quickly how to defend a built-up area, and hold ground in the face of a determined assault, they will win. At the moment they're running up the front line, expending ammunition in the general direction of the enemy and running away at the first hint of resistance, assuming the rebels' military effectiveness continues to improve, Qaddafi will lose. He is hemorrhaging authority, and at some point, his army will look at the forces ranged against them and think "you know what? fuck this for a game of soldiers" and change sides while they still can, as will his senior commanders and Qaddafi will be left with a few family and Loyalists in a bunker 'till he's dragged out and strung up.

There are 4 possible outcomes:

  1. Collapse of the Qaddafi Regime, interim council take over and elections happen 12 months later.
  2. Stalemate: Tripolitania and Cyrenaica split (as they have always historically been). The oil's mostly in the Eastern half, run by people we supported. This is probably still a win for the west.
  3. Qaddafi wins back control of the country. We're back the the status quo ante Blair with a hostile Qaddafi at the helm of a weak, isolated and broken nation, at no great cost to ourselves. This, and mass murder on an epic scale in Benghazi, is what would have happend had the west not intervened. This result represents no gain for the west's expenditure of military hardware and diplomatic capital.
  4. Total collapse of the country into Somalia-style anarchy. This is the only (and most unlikely) scenario which could be a major problem to the west.
If 1 or 2 happen, or possibly even 3, then the west has, at the behest of Libyans and the Arab league gone to war in support of a popular Arab uprising. The Islamist narrative of the west as a boogeyman for Muslims is significantly weakened. It is this, I suspect, which is the major driving force behind the intervention, not oil. Most of the right wing objections (the left-wing anti-war mongs can be ignored - most of them are traitors anyway) are about ceding 3 in order to avoid 4 at any cost, and then hoping the resulting genocide in Benghazi doesn't trouble their news. The supporters of intervention believe the risk of 4. and the potential military cost is small enough to justify the possibility of obtaining 1. or 2. That's all it is: a risk/reward, cost/benefit analysis. The difference is the cynicism and pessimism of those who think we can't and the rebel's cause isn't worth helping.

There are major strategic wins possible for the west, even if Qaddafi remains in control of some of the country and whether he remains so is up to the fighters on the ground in the western suburbs of Benghazi and points West. Can they? We shall see. But the risks to the west, assuming our leaders are not totally stupid and leave the boots on Ground in sandy bits of the world which aren't Libya, remain small. Surely preventing a genocide in Cyrenaica is worth the risk we might not succeed?



2 comments:

banned said...

Good analysis.
What are we trying to achieve? Simple, support those trying to free themselves from Gaddafi and hopefully help them topple him. We have no specific aims since it is nor our war.


Gadaffi is not a fool and wil know his history, Libyas long supply lines were the reason Rommel and his Afrika Corps came to grief in WW2 so he
"...react(s) to the allied air onslaught by shortening supply lines and holding more defensible ground"

But the Benghazis can use this too and use those distances to create the time required to build a more disciplined fighting force once the West corrects its major error to date which has been the failure to supply them weapons using the spurious detail of the arms embargo to Libya.

Henry Crun said...

Good post as always, Jackart. However, I do disagree about Zimbabwe. Whilst Mad Bob may not use WMD or tanks against the Matabele, although if he had them he would, he prefers to starve them out and use violence against his opponents at election time.

Godot will turn up before Zim's near neighbours take any sort of action to have Bob removed from office.

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