How Strong Are The Libyan Rebels? Not Very, Which Makes Ground Troops Almost Inevitable
The Libyan rebels probably aren't strong enough to defeat Gaddafi on their own, and the no-fly zone isn't going to be enough either. Which means this operation is going to be far more extensive than President Obama is willing to admit publicly.
The ease with which, air power notwithstanding, pro-Gaddafi forces have been able to beat back the Libyan rebels over the past several weeks makes one wonder just how strong and well organized they actually are, and whether they have a realistic chance of winning:
BENGHAZI, Libya — After the uprising, the rebels stumbled as they tried to organize. They did a poor job of defining themselves when Libyans and the outside world tried to figure out what they stood for. And now, as they try to defeat Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s armed forces and militias, they will have to rely on allied airstrikes and young men with guns because the army that rebel military leaders bragged about consists of only about 1,000 trained men.
Those frank admissions came from Ali Tarhouni, who was appointed to the cabinet of the rebels’ shadow government on Wednesday as finance minister. Mr. Tarhouni, who teaches economics at the University of Washington, returned to Libya one month ago after more than 35 years in exile to advise the opposition on economic matters. The rebels are proclaiming his American credentials — he has a doctorate from Michigan State University — as they seek foreign recognition of their cause.
“He understands the Western mentality,” said Iman Bugaighis, a spokeswoman for the fledgling opposition government.
But more important, Mr. Tarhouni, 60, who briefed journalists on Wednesday night, appeared to be one of the few rebel officials willing to speak plainly about the movement’s shortcomings and challenges, after weeks of rosy predictions and distortions by some of his colleagues, especially regarding the abilities of the rebel fighters.
“The process was, and is, very chaotic,” Mr. Tarhouni said.
The odds that a 1,000 man rebel force can defeat a pro-Gaddafi force that is clearly larger than that and consists not only of Libyans, but also foreign mercenaries and non-Libyans who happen to be members of the same tribes that control areas of Southern Libya would seem to be pretty slim. This is especially true given how badly organized the rebels seem to be. In fact, during a segment broadcast earlier today on MSNBC, Richard Engel reported on a group of rebels he was embedded with several of whom were only carrying toy guns.
Already, we’re hearing calls from people like John McCain for military aid to the rebels, something that the Saudis already seem to be doing according to some reports. Moreover, people are starting to realize that this operation is probably going to require ground troops after all:
Clearly, only boots on the ground of one sort or another can oust Qaddafi and his bloodthirsty son, which is, again, the only way to bring the current phase of fighting under control. Whose boots will they be?
The President prefers that the “Libyan people” do it by themselves. That is of course preferable, but it is not and never was very likely. The rebels say, in effect, “Sure, we’ll do it; we just need your air forces to pummel the regime into clouds of pink meat for us first.” That is tantamount to not exactly doing it all by themselves, and it certainly asks the pilots to do vastly more than protect civilians.
Suppose, then, that the French take their mission definition seriously and determine to go in on the ground to finish Qaddafi and son. Can French forces actually do this? Assuming they can get to the fight in sufficient numbers and hook up with the opposition (French and British special forces have been quietly on the ground in Libya now for weeks), can they prevail? This is not clear. What if the British help a lot? Can the two allies together do it, not as a NATO operation (unless the French relent on that point) but as something else, and a something else that will have neither UN nor Arab League imprimatur? (The relevant UN resolution explicitly rules out foreign troops on Libyan soil, and the Arab League will never endorse the return of “colonialist” forces to the region.) Under these political circumstances, and with an abstinent German government snarking unhelpfully over their shoulders, it is by no means clear that a major Franco-British effort will be forthcoming, or that if it is it will succeed. Echoes of Suez?
So what happens if the French and British try but do not succeed in a reasonably expeditious way? What happens is about as obvious as it gets: not Suez happens. The Americans come and save the day, as they demurred from doing in October 1956. The French and British know in their heart of hearts that we cannot let them fail miserably at this, or that’s what they suppose. I suppose they’re right.
What this means is that the President may before very long be forced to make the most excruciating decision of his life: to send American soldiers into harm’s way to save the Western alliance—even from an operation that is not explicitly a NATO mission!—in a contingency that has no strategic rationale to begin with; or not, leaving the alliance in ruins and Qaddafi bursting with plans to exact revenge.
Perhaps we should have thought this through before going forward into the breach or, in Obama’s case, going to South America.