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Thoughts on Libya

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It looks as if things are coming to a close in the Libyan Civil War. Although Gaddafi could still surprise the rebels, this is about as bad as it’s been for him. Much can still go wrong, however, including a bloody siege of Tripoli, a bloody battle for Tripoli, or a bloody rebel purge of Tripoli (or all three). Some quickish thoughts:

1. I’ll be glad to see Gaddafi go. Plenty of folks have correctly pointed out that we don’t have a good sense of who the rebels are, and that it’s possible they could pursue more repressive policies than the Gaddafi government. I’m a bit more concerned that we’ll simply move to phase two of the civil war after Gaddafi goes, but these concerns were genuine. However, it wasn’t easy to see a road to democratic reform in the Libyan state prior to the civil war, and such a road is (at least fleetingly) apparent now. This may not mean much if, in two years, Libya is still at war with itself or Gaddafi has been replaced by another strongman or authoritarian faction. But for now, I have some hope for the rebels.

2. The course of the war vindicates the “Afghan Model” as a military technique, if not as a political strategy. To review, the Afghan Model is based on the idea that airpower and special forces can help indigenous troops can win wars against numerically and organizationally stronger opponents. Special forces take on training, command, and liason roles, airpower conducts close air support, attrition, and interdiction missions, and the indigenous troops force the enemy to defend strongpoints from fixed locations. This model worked very well in the first several months of the Afghanistan war, but it worked rather less well at the start of the Libyan Civil War. Although airstrikes were able to freeze Gaddafi loyalist forces, rebel offensives initially failed.

With what looks like a rebel victory in the offing, the specifically military aspect of the Afghan Model seems to have been vindicated, if in slow motion. However, the Afghan Model is as much a political as a military concept. Politically, the AM is supposed to minimize domestic opposition in the intervening country, minimize nationalist reaction in the target country, and minimize international upheaval.  In Libya, the grade is mixed on all three.  Cameron, Sarkozy, and Obama probably received more flak than they had expected, mostly because the war stretched so long.  The war likely stretched so long at least in part because of nationalist reaction within Libya.  The international community remained relatively quiet, although the violence in Syria and the ongoing collapse of the global economy may have played some part.

The other political aspect of the Afghan Model involves post-conflict stability.  If Libya crumbles back into civil war in the wake of Gaddafi’s fall, it won’t reflect well on a strategic concept that promises large returns at minimal risk.

3. Given this outcome, it really is better that the Libyan rebels finished the war than, for example, the French. Although the course of the conflict was sufficiently frustrating that you could, from time to time, half wish for a quick amphibious invasion to end it all, the victory of the rebels on the ground is probably positive for the chances for a peaceful, stable post-conflict situation.  If nothing else, the length of the civil war has forced some coalition building, even if there have repeatedly been signs that the coalition is held together by spit and gum.  Of course, the length of the Soviet-Afghan War didn’t prevent the anti-Soviet coalition from cracking.  Still, the fact that so many of the major players in the opposition became familiar with each other and were forced to work through their differences prior to taking power is probably, on balance, a good thing.

4. I am still skeptical about the wisdom of the decision-making process that brought NATO intervention about.  It’s obvious that none of the major players expected the war to last this long, and unclear if they would have intervened if they had believed Gaddafi would hold on until almost September. However, I certainly don’t believe that the Libya intervention precluded a similar intervention in Syria, or that such an intervention would have been wise on its own merits either way.  It was also apparent that the decision-makers in Washington, Paris, and London didn’t have the faintest what to do in case of a failure of Gaddafi to collapse.  “Pound away until the bombs run out, the aircraft carriers have to go home, and the allies get bored” isn’t a strategy.

And yet, here we are.  In all likelihood Gaddafi will be gone soon, and that’s a good thing.  I do hope that one of the lessons learned is that even relatively weak states can survive for a while in the face of airpower campaigns. I also hope, as always, that policymakers will remember to take the utmost care with any decisions that involve dropping bombs in order to do “good.”

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