Never mind who will command the Libya air war; the far larger problem lies in determining its purpose, terms and limits, and in honing a realistic strategy in terms of the limited commitment – both by measure of time and scale – of most of its authors.
By all accounts, Libya’s air force and its air defenses have been taken out of the equation after five days of coalition bombing. That fact alone has prompted U.S. leaders to talk of scaling back American involvement, having cleared Libya’s skies to allow others to bear a greater share of the burden of using air power to police events on the ground. But that burden, militarily and politically, is likely to grow rather than shrink given the limits of what has been achieved thus far: A no-fly zone has been imposed, and Gaddafi-loyalist armored columns have been destroyed outside Benghazi and Misrata. But there’s no sign yet that those efforts can bring the conflict to a close.
Even if they succeed in halting the loyalist offensive to overrun rebel-controlled towns, U.S. military chiefs say their orders do not include mounting attacks in support of a rebel counteroffensive. Africom chief General Carter Ham told reporters Monday that his mission is limited to protecting civilians and forcing Gaddafi forces’ withdrawal from rebel-held towns, but does not include protection or support for rebel combatants attacking regime forces.
While the U.S., Britain and France have made no secret of their desire to oust Gaddafi, that can’t be the goal of military campaign authorized by a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for “all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country”, but at the same time prohibits an invasion and calls for a cease-fire and political negotiations. Western leaders are hoping, of course, that the combination of restraining Gaddafi’s forces and the shock-and-awe effect of seeing so much of his military machinery obliterated will prompt the internal collapse of the regime — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that the U.S. has seen indications that Gaddafi may be looking for a way out. Perhaps, but don’t bet the farm on it. The Libyan leader was feeling sufficiently bellicose last night to appear in public at his compound and exhort his followers to fight on. And the reports from the front suggest that the rebels simply don’t have the capacity to mount their own offensive on Gaddafi’s strongholds, lacking the necessary weaponry, training, discipline, organization and command structure to win a ground war right now.
Rebels hoping to recapture Ajdabiya, the next town along the highway from Benghazi to Tripoli, have failed to make any headway against Gaddafi’s forces dug in there. And fierce close-quarters fighting continues in Misrata and Zintan, where loyalist troops tried to recapture towns lost to the rebels. Coalition aircraft attacked loyalist forces at Ajdabiya and Misrata, on Wednesday, in keeping with a demand that they withdraw from those towns, and allow a resumption of water, electricity, gas and humanitarian services.
If the regime backs off from its efforts to recapture those towns, said U.S. Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear on Tuesday, “then the fighting would stop. Our job would be over.” So, the outcome of the coalition air campaign, right now, looks more likely at best to be the enforcing of a territorial stalemate rather than a rout of Gaddafi’s forces.
As Shashank Joshi of the London-based strategic thinktank the Royal United Services Institute notes in a thoughtful commentary, “In degrading Muammar Gaddafi’s heavy armour and air power, the coalition can rightly claim to have stemmed both the assault on urban areas and the prospect of retribution against civilians that prompted the historic UN resolution. But sustained air strikes run into diminishing returns, and Gaddafi’s strengths are not rooted in such easily crippled conventional forces.”
The coming days will likely see more strikes on Gaddafi forces besieging rebel held towns, and probably also increasing attacks on regime command and control centers in order to raise pressure for Gaddafi to back off. But Western powers are not envisaging a ground invasion, nor have they committed to build up the rebels as a fighting force to oust Gaddafi, with some concern in Western corridors of power over the multiple agendas that may be at work in the chaotically disorganized rebel camp.
The absence of a single organizational entity overseeing a rebellion that sees thousands of people, bound by diverse ideological and tribal affinities, armed themselves with weapons looted from abandoned military arsenals, ranged against a regime that has organized its own defenses on the basis of fiefdoms and rival tribal loyalties, raises the specter of chaos in even the very best-case outcome. It’s unlikely that the Libyan state can be rebuilt without the introduction of thousands of foreign peacekeeping troops – a prospect that few of the Western powers will want to contemplate.
And that’s in the best case. Right now, it’s hard to see the air campaign as achieving much more than a de facto partition of Libya into rebel- and government-held cities, requiring long-term military engagement by the West to maintain the balance, and a complex and messy diplomatic process aimed at stitching together a Libyan state that has come apart. In particular, Western leaders have begun to acknowledge that, despite their best hopes, they have to reckon with an outcome, at least in the short term, that leaves Colonel Gaddafi in power, albeit a considerably diminished power. President Obama and his allies hope that even if the air campaign is scaled back, the combination of political and economic pressure on the regime and its weakened ability to crush dissent will force Gaddafi out. But it would be prudent to plan for the eventuality that he or his proxies may yet be at the table when the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1973 moves to the question of ending the fighting and negotiating a solution.