As the rebels fail to advance on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s strongholds in the western part of the country, allied powers enforcing the no-fly zone have increasingly floated the idea of providing the opposition fighters with weapons. Arming a rebel force can help level the playing field or nudge a conflict toward a certain conclusion, but taken alone, supplying arms cannot fix the fundamental problems that cause a force to be militarily inept.
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Talk of arming the rebel fighters in Libya predates the March 17 decision to initiate an air campaign over the country but is again increasing as the rebels fail to show any sign of being able to successfully engage forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Before the imposition of the no-fly zone and coalition airstrikes, rebel defensive lines were collapsing in the face of an assault by Gadhafi’s forces, and the advance of the rebels from the contested city of Ajdabiya, just south of the rebel headquarters in Benghazi, to the outskirts of Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown, was actually just rebels moving into territory from which loyalist forces had already withdrawn. As soon as the rebels encountered prepared defensive positions outside of Sirte, they were forced to beat a hasty retreat. Already there are reports that loyalist forces have retaken the town of Ras Lanuf, a key energy export hub.
The renewed talk of arming the rebels has its roots in the fundamental problems of a limited air campaign against Libya. Coalition airpower is capable of defeating Gadhafi’s air force, crushing his larger, more fixed air defense capabilities as well as taking out known command, control and communications hubs. But the use of airpower to eliminate Gadhafi’s ability to wage war would entail civilian casualties and collateral damage. If minimizing those casualties is a key objective, then it is simply not possible for airpower alone to force loyalist forces already embedded in urban areas to withdraw.
If airpower is the wrong tool for the job and no country is willing to provide the right tool in the form of ground combat forces, providing weapons to the Libyan rebels is increasingly appearing to be the best alternative, at least to some of the coalition partners. In theory, this would provide the capability to do what airpower cannot and enable the rebels to provide the required ground presence. However, at no point in the Libyan civil war have the rebel fighters proved to be a competent military force, and their difficulties are not solely linked to their lack of arms. And without coherent organization, leadership, battlefield communications or command and control, as well as the ability to plan and sustain offensives logistically, no quantity of arms is going to solve the problem.
In the early days of unrest, opposition forces broke open Libyan military arsenals and appropriated an enormous quantity of small arms, ammunition, heavy weapons and related materiel, including armored vehicles and rocket artillery. Numerous reports have described rebels expending massive amount of ammunition to no purpose, firing small arms, rockets and recoilless rifles aimlessly into the air. Early on there were reports that a rebel SA-7 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile was used to shoot down one of the rebels’ own planes, and the rebels have even implicitly acknowledged their limitations by issuing a call for drivers capable of operating a T-55, an archaic Soviet tank and one of the oldest in even the Libyan arsenal.
Indeed, the longer-term problem in Libya is not too few arms, but too many. All of the arms that have been broken out of Libyan stockpiles will not be returned after the conflict ends. Everything from small arms to explosives to man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) will be proliferating around the region for years. There are also minor concerns that even within the rebel movement there are elements of al Qaeda and Hezbollah seeking to take advantage of the situation, though this is largely reflective of the overall lack of understanding by Western countries of the nature of the eastern opposition movement.
Unconfirmed reports have indicated Egypt and possibly Qatar may be involved in smuggling weapons to the opposition. But what the opposition needs is not more weapons but training that will enable them to be a competent fighting force that could advance with only limited outside support, as the Northern Alliance did against Kabul and the Taliban in 2001. Unfortunately, as recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrates, training requires time — usually years, not weeks or months — that neither the coalition forces nor the rebels have.
The necessity that training go along with any arms shipments to the rebel fighters has reportedly complicated the internal debate in Washington over whether this policy is the best course of action. The United States has been explicit in its opposition to deploying ground forces in Libya, fearing that placing even a small number of advisers in eastern Libya could suck the United States into a protracted conflict.
Arming an opposition or insurgent force can work when the group or a collection of groups are already composed of capable fighters and competent leadership. When the United States gave FIM-92 Stinger MANPADS to the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of the country, the mujahideen were a bloodied and battle-hardened force capable of planning and executing ambushes and assaults on Soviet positions. They were already slowly bleeding the Red Army in Afghanistan and may well have ultimately prevailed even without the Stingers. But the new missiles helped reduce a key Soviet advantage, their airpower. And when the Soviets and Chinese armed North Vietnam, the North Vietnamese had the basic military competencies not only to incorporate those arms into their operations but also to orchestrate the massive logistical effort to sustain them in combat and conduct large-scale military operations.
Today, the Taliban are winning in Afghanistan with Lee-Enfield rifles dating back to the 19th century and homemade improvised explosive devices, among other weapons. They are an agile and capable insurgent force that may ultimately prevail even without any expansion of limited outside assistance.
Taken alone, the act of supplying arms to a group cannot fundamentally alter the military reality on the ground. Also, rooting out competent forces from prepared defensive positions in fortified urban areas is a profound challenge for the best militaries in the world. Providing a ragtag group of rebels with additional arms and ammunition will not achieve that, though it may well make the conflict bloodier, particularly for civilians. And like the arms already loose in the country, any additional arms inserted into the equation will not be used only against Gadhafi’s forces, but around the region for years to come.