The worst thing that could foreseeably happen in Libya is for the situation to degenerate into an indefinite insurgent conflict in a failed state. Just a few weeks ago, that possibility did not realistically exist. It was created by our intervention, which managed somehow to combine the qualities of being too late, too hasty, and of the wrong kind.
The beginnings of Libya’s slide into a chaotic insurgency are plain to see in the tactics Qaddafi’s forces have adopted: They now dress like the rebels and drive around in “technicals” (armed pickup trucks) rather than tanks. In a classic example of asymmetric strategy, Qaddafi has stopped presenting the West with its preferred targets: warplanes, military vehicles, and identifiable installations. His forces are melting into the urban landscape, and it will not take them long to start appearing well behind rebel lines.
Obama’s strategy of diplomacy backed by air power is stripping the Qaddafi regime of the attributes of a functioning state. But those policies pose little threat to the regime’s tribalistic and terroristic core.
That core has now become Qaddafi’s only hope for survival. As we have learned elsewhere, absent an effective occupation, he could subsist in that core indefinitely, deep within a web of insurgent forces and terrorist networks that he controls or influences to varying degrees — and which protect him. Beyond that, the situation in Libya is sui generis. We are deep into the realm of unknown unknowns.
Obama has promised that there will be “no boots on the ground.” Regardless of his relaxed approach to keeping the promises he makes, Obama’s multilateral answer to the current crisis and his exquisite sensitivity to Arab grievances virtually guarantee that there will be no invasion by Western combat troops anytime soon. We have started a war of choice, and we are denying ourselves the means to win it.
Credible reports indicate that Obama has authorized the insertion of CIA and other U.S. operatives into Libya, in an apparent attempt to help organize the resistance into some sort of effective fighting force.
According to Ahmed Sanalla, a medical student turned rebel in Benghazi, the front-line rebel forces are several thousand strong. About a quarter of them are former military, most of whom defected with their units under Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes, the former interior minister. Most of the rest are simply members of the pro-democracy movement, which has been armed from army stocks since the fighting started. The military component of the rebellion is trying to organize the larger mass into units, but they face daunting challenges.
In Iraq, where cost was no object and we had more than 100,000 troops on the ground — and where an effective local force was desperately needed — a similar task took years. Granted, in Libya we have the benefit of scale: Qaddafi’s forces have been reduced to perhaps just a few tens of thousands. That means that if we could train and organize just a single brigade-size formation of rebel forces (say, several thousand effectives), we could — assuming plenty of U.S. and allied special forces on the ground, and the continued application of air power — conceivably defeat Qaddafi.
But regardless of scale, just training and organizing a force that large takes time; it cannot be compressed into a period of weeks. And besides, all of that basic training, equipping, and organizing has to occur away from the battlefield, whereas the rebels right now cannot afford to lose a single man.