The Real Military Options in Libya

The revolt in Libya was always likely to play out very differently from what has transpired in Egypt.  Libya lacked Egypt’s homogeneity, the strength of its institutions (particularly in the armed forces), and even a reasonably mature and extensive opposition.  Where Mubarak was harsh and sclerotic but prudent, Qaddafi has been erratic, fanciful and manipulative.  As a result, the society and the structures of governance that they left behind were very different, with Qaddafi’s incapable of withstanding a sharp blow.  With his veneer of invincibility shattered, power has quickly devolved to Libya’s tribes and its geographic cleavages have re-emerged forcefully.  The result has been civil war, with Cyrenaica pitted against Tripolitania, with some tribes rallying to Qaddafi and others going over to the opposition.

Meanwhile, Qaddafi’s security forces are starting to knit themselves back together.  In the initial shock and confusion of the revolt, many personnel deserted and some whole units switched sides, largely as a product of the tribes sorting themselves out for and against.  Qaddafi’s military was left confused and scattered.  Inevitably, however, the regime called those who remained loyal back to Tripoli and other key locales.  It has consolidated its power, is re-organizing and beginning to field cohesive units as part of a coherent command structure again.  All of this suggests that if the opposition cannot count on the last vestiges of the dislocation and psychological shock of the initial revolt, the most likely outcomes will be either a victorious reassertion of power a la Saddam Husayn in 1991, or else protracted civil war.

With Qaddafi’s forces bouncing back from their early defeats and stalemate looming as potentially the best near term outcome for Libya, talk in Washington and other Western capitals has turned to the question of military intervention.  However, the key question that needs to be considered before deciding among the various options is what is it that the United States and its allies would be trying to do?  Would we be trying to push Qaddafi out of power?  Would our aim be the lesser goal of trying to demonstrate some commitment to the opposition?  Or would we just be trying to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe?

These are very different goals and suggest very different military options.  For instance, everyone’s current favorite military option, the No-Fly Zones, is probably the wrong option if our goal is to overthrow Qaddafi because it is unlikely that they would have that effect.  In truth, if helping to topple Qaddafi is our goal, then the current balance of forces strongly suggests that the U.S. would have to adopt a much more active intervention in Libya to achieve it.

Ultimately, there are six basic military options to ponder, but each is specific to a particular goal.

Safe Haven:  If Qaddafi’s counteroffensive makes headway, we could see huge numbers of Libyans running for Egypt and Tunisia.  Given what they have just gone through and are still going through, it would be disastrous to burden Egypt and Tunisia with hundreds of thousands of refugees as well.  We could carve out safe havens along both borders, defend them with ground and air forces (and ground forces would be necessary) and then bring in the UN and NGOs to provide aid and assistance.  Such an operation would be relatively easy to start, but very hard to end.  We could only responsibly cease protecting the strongholds when a political settlement in Libya was in place and could be trusted to actually end the violence—and that might be a long time coming, especially if the only Western intervention is to defend the save havens.

No-Fly Zones:  The NFZs are a problematic option.  We have never tried to use a No-Fly Zone to bring down a regime in the past—only to prevent a humanitarian crisis—and it is a difficult operation to use in that manner.  A No-Fly Zone is a mostly passive option (which is why it is attractive to many Westerners) in that we would only use force when the Libyan Air Force (LAF) challenged it.  Otherwise, no one might even see the Western jets overhead.  Thus, the degree of pressure they apply, politically or militarily, is very modest.  NFZs did not bring down either Saddam or Milosevic. 

Airstrikes are psychologically terrifying even when they inflict absolutely no damage, and that trauma has a real impact on military operations, thus we should not conclude that the sorties being flown by the LAF are irrelevant to the battle for Libya.  But the LAF is a miserable organization that was of very limited utility even at their height in the 1980s, and they have gotten worse since.  It is highly unlikely that they will prove decisive under any set of circumstances, and therefore it is equally unlikely that removing the LAF from the military equation by means of a NFZ would be the key to enabling the opposition to prevail. 

This is also why there is a very considerable danger of escalation or mission creep from a NFZ.  The imposition of a NFZ is not going to prevent Qaddafi’s ground forces from continuing to kill people and, especially if the opposition is unable to hold off his counteroffensives, there could be tremendous pressure to turn the No-FLY Zone into a No-DRIVE Zone—to go after his tanks and other armored vehicles.  That is a much, much more demanding mission for U.S. and NATO air forces.  Moreover, we should remember that most of the killing is likely to be done by infantry—guys on foot with rifles.  They are always the ones who inflict the most casualties in civil wars, and it is effectively impossible to prevent them from doing so with only air power.  If you are serious about that, you need boots on the ground. 

Thus, the NFZs could be revealed as irrelevant, and then the West will find itself in the awful position of flying overhead impotently while Qaddafi’s ground forces slaughter the opposition on the ground below.  Having committed ourselves to military action to prevent that, it will be very hard to resist calls for deeper intervention, as was the case in Bosnia.

Finally, if Qaddafi does not prevail quickly in a counteroffensive over the next few weeks, then the most likely scenario is a long, protracted civil war—a stalemate in which both sides will have difficulty winning a decisive victory.  That means that a No-Fly Zone would have to be sustained for months if not years.  But NFZs are extremely taxing to sustain from both a military and diplomatic point of view.  It is not clear that prolonging the stalemate in Libya under such circumstances is enough of a national interest to justify that kind of a long-term military and diplomatic commitment.  Just within the Middle East, there are countries of far greater importance to the United States that may well need us to invest those resources there to make sure they turn out right.

Airstrikes:  If the U.S. really wants to do something about the Libyan Air Force (LAF), airstrikes to obliterate the LAF actually might make more sense. It means a bigger commitment of force up front, but the U.S. would basically be done in a week or so.  Moreover, because it is a far more aggressive approach, it would put far more pressure on the regime and might help topple Qaddafi in a way that NFZs probably would not.  The Allied air campaign against Iraq in 1998, Operation Desert Fox, was not meant to overthrow Saddam, but it terrified him far more than the No-Fly Zones ever did—and caused him to take missteps that actually undermined his control for some time. 

Ordering an air campaign to cripple the LAF would mean bringing one or more carriers into the Med, plus basing Air Force assets in Malta and/or Italy, and going after the LAF at their airfields.  It would mean suppressing (not destroying) Libya’s second-rate air defense network, and destroying as many LAF planes on the ground—or in the air, if they come up while we are attacking—as we can.  In 2-6 days of strikes, Western air forces would probably destroy much of the LAF and make it extremely difficult for the rest to operate (by smashing command and control and logistical facilities).  Thus, this option should have most of the same impact of a NFZ, but in a more compressed period of time.

The Afghan Option:  If our goal is really to topple Qaddafi, this is one way we could try to do it on the cheap.  It would mean following the playbook we used to topple the Taliban in 2001.  We would send large numbers of Special Forces (SF) and CIA paramilitary operatives into Libya to organize, train and equip the opposition forces and mold them into a cohesive, moderately capable force.  Then, we would provide lots of air power to enable the opposition to drive on Tripoli and crush Qaddafi’s loyal military forces.  This represents a much more active American role than any in Washington seems to want to contemplate right now.  It is also going to be a challenging undertaking—more challenging than Afghanistan in some ways—if only because in Afghanistan we already had a cohesive, capable opposition in the Northern Alliance, whereas in Libya we will have to create one.

Blockade, Sanctions and Covert Support:  On the other hand, if we don’t want to get directly involved, we could handle Libya the way we have handled lots of other similar situations.  We could send in the CIA on their own and have them arm, train, organize and otherwise equip the opposition to give them a better shot against Qaddafi.  This is what we have done in countless places around the world—Afghanistan in the 80s, Angola, Nicaragua, etc.  We have had very mixed results in these covert operations, but it allows us to do something without committing our own forces. 

Will it be enough in Libya?  That is hard to say.  A big question will be how much help Qaddafi gets.  If Qaddafi can increase his strength, then the marginal increase in the combat power that the opposition would derive from covert support alone might not be enough.  This is why it will also be important to prevent him from building up his strength—or even maintaining what he has.  Thus, if were to combine covert support to the opposition with draconian international sanctions to prevent Qaddafi from re-arming and sustaining his forces in battle, plus a naval blockade to enforce the sanctions, then over a period of many months or even a few years, his strength might erode enough and the opposition strength might improve enough to tip the balance in their favor.  But it will take years, not weeks or months. 

Invasion:  Finally, if the United States decides that we really want to get rid of Qaddafi, we could invade.  In the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, I have a great deal of difficulty imagining that any American would be ready to do this, and certainly no one is calling for it now.  Let us hope that we never come to this ugly bridge at all.