The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Libyan Narrative

101 days ago, the Allies attacked Tripoli.  It was a headline taken right from the pages of a 1943 newspaper, but this was no repeat of the North African campaign from World War II.  There was no international war; rather, the Libyan campaign of 2011 got underway on account of a U.N. resolution that authorized force to establish a "no-fly zone" and protect the civilian population.

Within hours of opening hostilities, the awesome capabilities of twenty-first century airpower were on display to the world.  More than 100 American cruise missiles struck surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries across the country and destroyed communications, rendering Libyan air defenses virtually impotent.  Then the warplanes arrived, French and British and American, striking targets with the pinpoint, satellite-guided accuracy of modern precision-guided munitions (PGMs). 

Libyan planes were destroyed on runways.  Then, those that were housed in hangars were targeted and blown to pieces along with their lodgings.  Helicopters were hit.  The Libyans ceased to have an air capability.  Those first moments were a near-replay of what befell Iraq in 2003, distinguished only by the less-impressive starting state of the Libyan Army that left less to destroy. 

But the Libyan government did not back down.  Indeed, Libyan troops accelerated their campaign, bringing tanks and columns of troops into the fray against the rebel groups aiming to overthrow Col. Gaddafi's regime by force of arms.  Despite promises made by those rebels that the Allies needed only remove the air threat and they would handle the rest, the rebels were soon on the run.  Libyan troops massed outside of Benghazi and Gaddafi threatened a massacr; the Allies seized the opportunity and, in the name of protecting civilians, shifted their focus to Libyan troops.

Again, having seen the outcome of the 2003 Iraq invasion, what happened was predictable.  Warplanes struck tank and truck columns; vehicles exploded; soldiers died.  The Libyan Army withdrew, and shortly thereafter, they began abandoning their military vehicles.  The rebels resumed their advance.

It has now been 101 days since the Allied intervention in Libya.  Allied forces have taken an increasingly expansive view of "protecting civilians" reminiscent at the tactical level of the Bush Doctrine's justification of pre-emptive war.  Government buildings and even Gaddafi's own residence have been struck amidst claims of "command and control" capabilities.  Libyan troops are now hit by air attack whenever they become visible, and the need to link such action to civilians has been discarded.  NATO commanders now stress rather than hide the fact that they are coordinating their airstrikes with rebel groups, providing close-air support as well as conducting a progressive air interdiction campaign.

In a sense, it is working.  The rebels have advanced to within 80km of Tripoli, the Libyan capital and Gaddafi's stronghold.  There is talk that gasoline in Tripoli is in short supply.  The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for Gaddafi's arrest.  The government may soon fall, goes the narrative.

But that is the simple narrative, told by the politicians and ratings-hungry media outlets.  There is another, more complex narrative.

A Tale of Two Armed Forces

From the very beginning, CNN, the BBC, and other media outlets have reported as if the Libyan rebels were themselves civilians and urged Allied forces to "protect" them.  That is a flawed perspective.  Under the Law of Armed Conflict, a person holding a weapon is by definition a combatant, and a group whose stated goal is to overthrow a government by force is not a protest but rather a beligerent in a civil war.  The Libyan government has targeted actual civilians (non-combatants) in prosecuting its war with the rebels, but the coverage of the conflict delivered to us has not bothered to draw distinctions.

So the Libyan rebels are an armed group and not a civilian protest movement--not the sort of peaceful gatherings that we saw in Egypt, or that we stood by and watched crushed in Bahrain, or that we are presently standing by and watch being crushed in Syria while we are busy trying to overthrow Gaddafi.  But they are not just an armed group; they are also a thoroughly disorganized rabble.

Backed by twenty-first century airpower, the rebels have nonetheless repeatedly demonstrated no military acumen or organizational skills.  Reporters on the ground have commented on bravado-filled charges undertaken by a handful of men to rousing cries of 'Allahu Akbar' ('God is Great') only to see those same men come running back when a few bullets are fired, often accompanied by the same rousing cheers in retreat and all while most of the rebels stand around.  One reporter wrote of how, in the middle of an interview, a rebel fired his rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher "at nothing in particular."  Attempts by those professional soldiers who have defected to the rebel side to impose order have met with minimal success.  These are boys with toys, obsessed with proving themselves in warrior-culture fashion, and the track record of that model both during and after conflicts is decidedly not favorable.

On the other side of the conflict, meanwhile, something truly remarkable has taken place: the Libyan Army, never viewed as a particularly effective force, has time and again improvised in the face of enormous difficulty to reform, adopt new tactics, and continue its offensive.  When the tanks proved vulnerable, they were abandoned along with the distinctive green trucks that made easy targets for NATO planes; instead, the troops adopted the same pickup trucks used by rebel forces.  When artillery proved vulnerable, the troops shifted to mortars placed within heavily populated neighborhoods. 

Of course, NATO has complained vigorously about this placement, because it limits their abilities to use airpower without risking civilian casualties, but that is the point; why would a defending army guarantee its annihilation by facing a vastly superior enemy on that enemy's own terms?

Amazingly, Libyan troops have increased their potential in the face of devastating air attack.  They have modified rockets in the field to increase their ranges, allowing them to bombard rebel forces from 20 miles away.  There are reports that, on at least one occasion, Libyan troops actually rigged up a cropduster plane and used it to strafe a Rebel position!  The rebels, of course, complained to NATO; the Allies pointed out that such a plane was so small, slow, and low-flying that even tracking it was beyond their abilities and that engaging it would be very difficult given the relative speeds of modern fighters.

In short, the Libyan Army is doing very well, far better than our projections might have assumed, while the rebels are doing far worse than their advantages would suggest was likely.  Where does that leave us?

Likely Outcomes in Libya

On the political front, it bodes poorly.  The rebels may take Tripoli, but if they cannot impose order on the country--and there is ample evidence to suggest that the Libyan National Transitional Council will prove as cohesive after Gaddafi is gone as was true for the top ranks of the Mujahadeen who drove the Soviets from Afghanistan, which is to say, not very cohesive--then the country will collapse into anarchy. 

We also have yet again fallen for the claim, first made in post-war Germany and since then drummed out in nearly every conflict that has involved the United States, that the Libyan government is singularly unpopular with no support from the people of the country.  That was not even true of the Nazis, and the last ten years have made clear that it wasn't true of the Taliban or of Saddam Hussein's government either; Libya is no different.  There are doubtless many who support Gaddafi, if not specifically out of love than because they fear what will come next

The enemy of my enemy may be my friend, but that does not mean that Tripoli residents will welcome rule from Benghazi.

Likely Outcomes for Military Power

The spiritied and innovative resistance of the Libyan Army also presents a series of concerns for the future of military power.  Airpower is inherently offensive; it excels at destroying well-defined targets, but it cannot bring a war to its conclusion even under the least restrictive circumstances, demonstrated in 1945 when bombing cities to ruin was the rule.  Today, with the Allies unwilling (and, except for the U.S., virtually unable) to commit ground troops and equally unwilling to risk civilian casualties, the use of airpower is rapidly becoming limited to the targeting of armor, artillery, and massed infantry.

As discussed, however, the Libyan Army has responded by abandoning these trappings of industrial-age warfare and reverting to guerilla-style combat.  Guerilla warfare cannot impose order, but its capacity to create chaos is nearly unlimited, and since Gaddafi currently holds power, "victory" for him means nothing beyond a cessation of hostilities where he maintains his status; that may be impossible, but his troops are making it very costly to deny him that outcome. 

Libya shows us that while high-tech forces are increasingly defined by the capabilities of what has already been built, great innovation among low-tech forces is still possible at the tactical level.  Libyan soldiers' use of a propeller-driven plane is made all the more fascinating by the realization that twenty-first century fighter planes are ill-suited to confront such an obsolete weapon. 

We may find that in the future, First and Third World military forces are simply at an impasse, the former too powerful to risk striking targets in the context of how the latter will opt to fight while the latter ignores the former altogether while pursuing its objectives in closer quarters.  Might there even be a resurgent market for light aircraft equipped with First World War-era interrupter gear, to be used by low-tech armies as undetectable and effective air support despite NATO interdiction? 

Of course, it is an open question whether we would even risk blundering into another of these expensive, lengthy conflicts for such limited benefit.  Even if Russia and China were to allow another resolution like that which "authorized" the Libyan military adventure--and there is no reason to think they will, since the Allies have drastically overplayed their hands in interpreting so expansively language that had a very limited meaning--we are unlikely to want to do this again.  That we must now endure the whining of a spoiled, utterly incapable rebel force that it would somehow have already won a war it was poised to lose were it not being "held back" by the airpower that prevented its defeat only underlines the downsides of such interventions. 


So, call it a victory; wave the flag and cheer if you like.  Gaddafi may indeed fall.  But we will have made many enemies for what will almost certainly follow, just as we have doubtless made many more for our myopic focus on Libya while true democracy protesters are being crushed in other countries not far away.  There is always a cost, and when it comes to war in particular, history shows us that the cost is only rarely worth the benefit. 

Perhaps this is worth the cost.  But as with Afghanistan, as with Iraq, the real story is one far outside the narrative that we have been told.  We have a different president, but our national narrative remains eerily and disappointingly singular.

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