April 05, 2011

Libya’s Rebel Forces Need More Than Just Weapons

To become an effective fighting force, the amateurish groups of volunteers that are the fighting force, such as it is, of the Libyan rebellion would require far more than just shipments of weapons.

From Army Special Forces sergeants, who specialize in building guerrilla militias from scratch, and all the way to the secretary of defense the assessment is the same: The rebels have plenty of small arms, such as automatic weapons. The introduction of heavy weaponry, such as long-range artillery, should not be the priority.

What could blunt government assaults by armored vehicles on rebel positions and anti-Qaddafi cities would be modern, precise anti-tank weapons — but rebels would need weeks of training to put them to use, as they are not as easy to operate as the movies and video games would suggest.

The true game-changer on the ground in Libya would be training the rebels to carry out what the Army calls “fire and maneuver” combat at the small-unit level; that could bring some logic, coherence and effectiveness to their efforts on the battlefield. Rebel offensives thus far have been disorganized, ad hoc, relying mostly on allied air cover and luck.

Better communication would be vital to that effort. But while radios and other communications equipment could easily be brought to the rebels through the porous eastern border with Egypt, any outside effort to turn rebel bands into a militia with formal command-and-control structures able to pursue specific, tactical advantages over a better-organized government force would take weeks, if not months.

Robert Haddick, the managing editor of Small Wars Journal and a columnist for Foreign Policy magazine, said the rebels’ most significant need is basic instruction in both offensive and defensive tactics at the small-unit level — and in identifying and training commanders.

“You could train hundreds of men in those skills, maybe even thousands, in two months, probably,” Mr. Haddick said.

“But I think the more difficult task, and something that would take far more time, would be to select leaders — squad leaders, platoon leaders and company commanders,” he said.

There is no good estimate on how many Libyans have taken up arms on the side of the rebellion. Many are not even full-time, but show up for a fight and then return home. They are of questionable physical conditioning. They have little training in weapons and none in military discipline.

Among the rebels, according to American intelligence estimates, are about 1,000 men who have trained with the Libyan army, as both officers and foot soldiers, before changing sides. The government’s force is estimated at roughly 30,000.

“Additional small arms probably would not be enough to change the balance on the ground,” said Andrew M. Exum, founder of the Abu Muqawama blog and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security who, as an officer in the Army Rangers, the military’s elite light infantry, commanded units in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“More sophisticated weapons systems, especially anti-tank weapons, might make a difference, as would some armored vehicles,” he said.

Mr. Exum, who wrote a doctoral dissertation on Hezbollah in Lebanon, noted that the first antitank weapons were given to the radical militia in the 1980s. But even with state-sponsorship from Iran and Syria for their terrorist activities and military actions, Hezbollah was unable to become a proficient fighting force against the Israelis for at least a decade.

“The issue with any type of advanced weapons system is the amount of training required,” Mr. Exum added. “There is no short-cut to addressing the imbalance between Qaddafi’s forces and the rebels.”

While the American-backed rout of the Taliban government in Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is an example of where outside assistance turned the tide of a war, that initial victory has little in common with the situation on the ground in Libya.

The anti-Taliban militias, in particular the Northern Alliance, had a dedicated leadership structure atop a seasoned fighting force. In quality, they were the Taliban’s equal. They were just fewer in number and held less territory.

So, with the help of Army Special Forces units and small C.I.A. teams to pinpoint airstrikes and manage the infusion of weapons, the anti-Taliban forces swiftly altered the balance on the ground.

One concern that is in the back of some minds is the possibility that more sophisticated weapons might fall into the hands of Qaeda sympathizers. But with little likelihood of the United States providing arms to the rebels, few analysts have raised that concern publicly.