Applied Force In Libya

War is a blunt instrument, be your weapons ever so precise. Firepower has a limited utility inversely proportional to its explosive potential. Nevertheless, my response to those who say that ‘war is a lie’ is to ask the city fathers of Carthage what they think about the notion. Indeed, Tripolitania — the northern sector of modern-day Libya, formerly part of the Carthaginian Empire — has been a scene of many wars, including the dance between Generals Rommel and Montgomery during World War II. There are many factors in this uprising: Ghaddafi has used water to play Libyan tribes off one another, destabilize his neighbors, and build a “legacy”; advancing desertification, and the high cost of food due to climate-change induced Russian drought, have put pressure on Ghaddafi’s system. (High food prices were a factor in Egypt’s revolution as well.) In the meantime, Ghaddafi has socked away untold scores of billions in oil wealth. That is the Libyan social, economic, and political picture in a snapshot; Libya is a “sick man” of North Africa because Moammar is a despot.

You can see it in Libya’s cities. As an ardent anti-urbanist, Ghaddafi sleeps in a tent and writes semi-poetic screeds about how much “I hate the city.” He has done little to prepare Libya for a burgeoning population; education and opportunity have been non-existent. His ideology, as presented in his “Little Green Book” (like Mao’s Little Red Book; get it?), is pastoral authoritarianism.

Since mid-February of this year, an armed uprising has challenged his power and rejected his ideology. The presence of pre-Ghaddafi flags among the rebels is proof enough that an entire order is being rejected. But a symbol is the only unifying feature thus far: the rebellion has fallen along tribal lines, as the armed forces have been maintained this way — with the out-tribes receiving less equipment and money than the loyal ones — for years. Much of the volunteer mob has no formal military training, with no central command structure to exploit openings or pursue objectives.

Thus, mobility has been a limiting factor for the rebellion. Moving lots of men and material from one place to another and bringing the enemy to a decision is not easy, which is why militaries spend most of their time practicing movement. Ad hoc military units created from turncoat elements of the Libyan military are only slightly more cohesive than the disorganized mob. There have been many reported incidents of rebels taking an area only to lose it the next day by disorganization. Ammunition gets wasted in celebration. Without fire discipline or direction, many opportunities were lost — and the forces loyal to Moammar Ghaddafi began to control the chaos better than the rebels. By last Saturday, when the world intervened, the opposition had collapsed and loyalist forces were already at the gates of Benghazi. Allied forces are now one week into their intervention, having destroyed the organized spearhead of Ghaddafi’s ground forces, established total air supremacy, and relieved Benghazi with supplies. In effect, the campaign has leveled the odds again.

The rest will have to be up to the Libyans themselves, which is as it should be.

Ongoing battles in key cities along the Mediterranean shoreline have seen continued used of heavy weapons and sniper fire against civilians. Western air power has limited utility here. As one Iraqi Colonel testified after the 1991 Gulf War, forty-six days of allied bombardment had reduced him from 35 tanks to 31; within minutes of engaging American M-1 tanks, he had exactly one tank left. It simply isn’t possible to find and destroy every Libyan tank from the air, and even if you could, it would be impossible to separate rebel from loyalist. There is nothing a Mirage jet can do about your sniper, except perhaps drop a bomb on him; and that might not be helpful, particularly if you wish to avoid civilian casualties. This deadly balancing act is a design feature of OP Odyssey Dawn. The strategy seems to be that more innocent Libyans die at Moammar’s hands than the West’s. For his part, Ghaddafi is doing a fine job of making that strategy a success.

Moreover, urban environments actually limit the use of tanks, which become vulnerable in close quarters (there is nothing more dangerous to a tank than infantrymen waiting in cover). Thus, the fight for the cities will continue to be an infantry battle. The crucial factor, then, is gasoline: Moammar Ghaddafi has a limited supply of fuel to run his tanks and motor his troops. If rebels achieve control of the means of fuel production, Ghaddafi hasn’t got a prayer of maintaining his grip — rebels will have freedom of movement to concentrate their ad hoc formations decisively. The government’s recapture of Ras Lanuf led to the near-fall of Benghazi for much the same reason. The notion that loyalist commanders will turn coat once the Western alliance shows up — an illusion that mainly seems to have affected the opposition — may actually prove true once the spigot is off.

So here, then, is a nightmare question for both the anti-interventionists of the left and the entire Republican Party: what if it works?

Video via BlackWaterDog

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About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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