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Some Good News

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Rebel progress in Libya:

In the besieged western city of Misurata hundreds of rebels broke through one of the front lines late on Sunday, and by Monday afternoon were consolidating their position on the ground a few miles to the city’s west.

The breakout of what had been nearly static lines came after NATO aircraft spent days striking positions and military equipment held by the Qaddafi forces, weakening them to the point that a ground attack was possible, the rebels said.

While not in itself a decisive shift for a city that remained besieged, the swift advance, made with few rebel casualties, carried both signs of rebel optimism and hints of the weakness of at least one frontline loyalist unit.

But more potential signs of loyalist weakness emerged in a battle near the eastern oil town of Brega, where rebel fighters killed more than 36 Qaddafi soldiers and destroyed more than 10 vehicles, according to a senior rebel military official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about military operations. Six rebel fighters died in the battle, the official said, adding that the rebel troops retreated east from Brega after the attack on orders from NATO, presumably in advance of airstrikes.

I think that Chivers wrongly puts the emphasis on airstrikes, which have been more or less a constant since the NATO intervention began. It’s possible that the key development here has been attrition of Gaddafi’s forces, but I rather doubt it; attrition is rarely a major factor, and Loyalist forces have increasingly taken precautions to limit the damage that air attacks cause. Airstrikes work best in combination with coordinated ground assaults. Accordingly, I’m curious as to how the effectiveness of rebel ground forces has changed in the last month. By most accounts it takes quite a while to create an effective, cohesive infantry force. However, all military effectiveness is relative. British and French special operations forces have been working for several weeks, and it’s possible that the early part of the learning slope is sufficiently gentle that substantial gains can be made in a relatively short time. With coordinated airstrikes in support, even a very basically trained infantry force might be able to make progress. It’s also possible, of course, that the rebels are being directly (but secretly) supported by NATO SOF.

We’ll see. The rebels have made progress before, only to see it overturned by new Loyalist offensives. The hope remains that some kind of tipping point can be reached that will lead to significant Loyalist surrenders or defections. Of course, it would be best if the rebels would stop summarily executing surrendered Loyalists, but that’s also something that NATO SOF might be able to help out with.

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