The American Kafir

2011/03/23

The Problem of Libyan Rebels

Filed under: European Union, Libya, National Security, Obama — Tags: , — - @ 10:00 am

Source Link: Stratfor

Tuesday saw continued violence in Libya not only in the contested city of Ajdabiyah in the east, just south of the rebel capital of Benghazi, but also in a number of cities across the country including Misrata and even Zintan, which lies further inland and closer to the Tunisian border to the west. This comes only a day after rebel forces advanced on Ajdabiyah and were once again repulsed by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, which are entrenched in the city.

“The rebels so far continue to prove incapable of serving as a more appropriate (if still imperfect) tool themselves to do what air power cannot.”

Some loyalist armor and artillery remain nestled in Ajdabiyah, taking refuge in more built-up urban areas where they are difficult to target, especially without significant risk of civilian casualties (a risk that cannot be eliminated completely, particularly when dropping ordnance in an urban environment). These are the sorts of targets that will increasingly plague the coalition’s efforts. Larger, more fixed air defense and command and control targets are dwindling as the air campaign progresses. What remains will be trickier: Mobile, self-contained air defense assets, individual tanks, armored vehicles and artillery pieces and so-called “technicals,” a phenomenon particularly common in Africa where heavier crew-served weapons are mounted in the back of civilian pickup trucks. These targets will require more agile and rapid targeting as well as operating at lower altitudes, especially since Gadhafi and his forces know that operating in the open in well-marked military vehicles will maximize their vulnerability to attack from the air; they will minimize this exposure.

This means that in practice, the easy and safe targets will be fewer and farther between. Targets will become more difficult to identify, will require rapid decision-making flying at lower altitudes — thereby increasing exposure to more persistent air defense threats — and will entail an increased risk of civilian casualties. The coalition will increasingly face the choice: For fear of inflicting civilian casualties, it stands by while the fighting it ostensibly intervened to stop continues; or it undertakes increasingly risky airstrikes that run a higher chance of civilian casualties in their own right. There are increasing reports of the use of human shields — even of some civilians loyal to Gadhafi voluntarily assuming such a role.

Nor does the tactical problem stop there. Loyalist armor and artillery are not the only thing that repulsed rebel forces from Ajdabiyah; so too did mortars and other heavy crew-served weapons, as did defensive positions manned by proficient and committed soldiers. These targets are increasingly difficult to engage with airpower, particularly without forward air controllers on the ground to talk to and guide in air support. Airpower is an increasingly inappropriate tool as the situation moves across the spectrum toward dismounted infantry forces operating in built-up urban areas where civilians remain at risk.

This is the core of the problem in terms of what is next for the coalition air campaign. The rebels are not what the West thinks they are, and they do not conform to the narrative that circulates about them in the West. They have yet to show any sign of being composed of a meaningful number of trained, capable soldiers.

The rebels have so far proven a rag-tag group incapable of holding the line against Gadhafi’s forces. Their problem is not one that close air support can solve. It is a problem of basic cohesion, organization, military proficiency, battlefield communications and leadership. So far, it appears that the extent of this problem is beyond anything even Western special operations forces teams trained to provide those things might possibly achieve anytime soon.

Meanwhile, civilians are being killed even now across the country – and not just with loyalist aircraft, armor or artillery but also with small arms by dismounted infantry and security forces loyal to the regime. The rebels so far continue to prove incapable of serving as a more appropriate (if still imperfect) tool themselves to do what air power cannot. Without that, not only is the coalition left without the right tool for the job, but Gadhafi’s anti-colonial narrative becomes more credible as the conflict drags on without resolution or an indigenous fighting force, particularly on the Arab street.

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