March 24, 2011

In Libyan Conflict, Is Endgame A Stalemate?

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and the forces loyal to him are still getting pounded. Since Operation Odyssey Dawn began last Saturday, more than 160 cruise missiles have been launched, and jet fighters from at least four countries have dropped bombs on targets all across Libya. But is the operation achieving its goals? Not yet.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the U.S.-led operation in Libya had achieved air superiority: Gadhafi's aircraft were staying on the ground. Also, maritime superiority: No ship could reach Libyan shores without being stopped and inspected.

But Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, briefing reporters from the U.S. command ship, said the air campaign is still short of its main objective: stopping Gadhafi from attacking Libyan civilians.

"In Ajdabiya, regime forces intensified combat in, into and out of the city," Hueber said. "In Misrata, regime forces continue to clear opposition, increase combat operations and target civilian populations in the city."

Disorganized Rebels

A major reason Gadhafi's forces are still advancing is that the rebel groups who opposed him successfully a few weeks ago have so far been unable to regroup, even under the protection of airstrikes. Journalists who have spent time with them — including NPR's Eric Westervelt — are highlighting the rebels' problems.

"They're disorganized. They're ill-equipped. They're untrained young men with no coherent communication or command structure," Westervelt said.

When the rebels were seizing control of towns and cities in eastern Libya, the pro-Gadhafi forces were in disarray. But as soon as the regime began counterattacking, the rebels' own shortcomings became apparent.

"Once you have to fight a defensive campaign, you have to build defensive positions," said Andrew Exum, a former U.S. Army Ranger who is now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "It becomes an engineering problem set as much as it is marksmanship, and there you need a competent officer corps to instill some discipline in the ranks and some organization."

That's missing among the Libyan rebels. In theory, the U.S. and allied governments could help them by sending in advisers or coordinating their airstrikes with the rebels' own combat efforts. The U.S. did that with fighters in Afghanistan in the first phase of the war there.

Comparison With Afghanistan

But there are two big obstacles. Exum highlights the first: The Libyan rebels lack warfighting experience, whereas the Afghans had been at war for much of the previous 30 years.

"When the United States dropped into northern Afghanistan, they began advising Afghan fighting forces that really didn't need to be told how to fight at the small unit level," Exum said. "What they needed were the types of tactical airstrikes that U.S. special forces could provide them."

Second, the Obama administration has made clear it has zero interest in providing military support to the Libyan rebels.

Still, this war story is not yet over. Hueber said Wednesday that as long as Gadhafi fails to comply with the allies' demand, he'll face more punishing strikes.

"Our targeting priorities are mechanized forces, artillery, interdicting their lines of communication with supplies — their beans and their bullets — their command and control, and any opportunities for sustainment of that activity," he said.

Airstrikes In Urban Setting

If those supply lines — the ones that provide Gadhafi's forces with their beans and bullets — can be broken, this fight could change course quickly. Plus, the rebels could yet regain some of the lost momentum.

"I think a lot of people who were in opposition and who played a role in the early days have hunkered down, and it may be that the changed circumstances, where he can't use his aircraft and where he's more challenged in using his armor, they return to the fight," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday.

But where Gadhafi's forces are entrenched, as they are in the capital, Tripoli, they could be hard to dislodge. Airstrikes are of little use in an urban environment.

So this war could well produce a stalemate: Gadhafi maintains control of Tripoli and western Libya, the rebels hold out in eastern Libya under U.S. and allied air protection, and the country is effectively split in two.

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