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.


FILED UNDER: Africa, Military Affairs, National Security, United Nations, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. EJ says:

    “and the no-fly zone isn’t going to be enough either”

    Considering we attacking tanks, trucks, engineering facilities, fuel depots, ect, could we please stop calling this a no fly zone? This mission has gone well beyond just preventing Libyan aircraft from running bombing missions to taking ground forces and military logistics.

  2. EJ says:

    *taking out

  3. PD Shaw says:

    One aspect of the U.N. resolution was that it lifted the pre-existing arms embargo as to the rebels, while maintaining it as to Gadaffi.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    I suspect that with arms, the rebels can maintain parts of the country indefinitely, and Gaddafi’s forces can’t pacify them in the face of the embargo and air attacks. What’s most surprising is the suggestion a few days ago that the goal is not to partition the country, because without more outside help, such as special forces deployment, that’s what it’s starting to look like.

  5. Wayne says:

    I suspect the 1000 number is for one area only. Otherwise Libya has enough infantry to easily route them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Qaddafi forces end up parking their military vehicles and use civilian ones to do basic light infantry assaults. Initial movement and supplies routes would be the tricky part but not that hard. Once done it would difficult for the Air forces to distinguish them from the rebels. One thing I curious about is who and how the rebels are being supplied.

    I agree that calling what we are doing as enforcing a no-fly is a lie.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    1) Turkey just conceded that NATO should take command. As I recall, that was yesterday’s hysteria: no one’s in charge! Aiiieee! We’ll all be killed. The NATO transfer will take place within 48 hours.

    2) Today’s hysteria is that the rebels aren’t armed. Right.

    Look, they share a border with Egypt. Hillary visited Egypt and while there met with a rebel spokesman. I’d put the odds that weapons are getting to the rebels at about 99%. Give OTB”s track record on this war I imagine we’ll get conformation within 24 hours.

  7. PD Shaw says:

    So when Hillary was in Egypt she counted more than a 1,000 men in the room with her?

    I think Wayne is probably on to something. There are probably only that many recognizing the authority of the Transitional National Council, there are no doubt localized resistance groups, tribal affiliations, and other independent fighters. That would make it a political problem, not a numbers problem.

  8. michael reynolds says:


    Perhaps we should have thought this through before going forward into the breach or, in Obama’s case, going to South America.

    Todays news:

    NATO appeared on Thursday to move closer to assuming command of the military operation in Libya when Turkey’s foreign minister was quoted as saying an agreement has been reached.

    And this in an analysis at Al Jazeera English that details the sudden shift of Brazil away from Iran since their new president took power::

    Where will the Iran-Brazil relationship go from here?

    It’s anybody’s guess. But it certainly will likely not go back to the way it was. At least not while Rousseff is president.

    Washington must be smiling.

    It’s almost as if Obama knew what he was doing and could do more than one thing at once. Even when he’s not at the White House.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    By the way, has everyone finally abandoned the nonsense that this was a case of the US passively following France around? Or is that bit of b.s. stil alive?

    And do you think we’ll ever get an official OTB post on the actual timeline of this whole affair? Or will Doug never acknowledge that his casual, “At least a month” reference of yesterday, and the various commenter’s references, and GOP snarks about what should have been done “weeks ago,” never be reconciled with reality?

  10. Brett #2 says:

    Why this assumption that the US must escalate to ground troops? We could just as easily keep up the air campaign and sit tight until the rebels get their crap together and advance.

  11. Wayne says:

    Brett that is a big assumption that the rebels are capable of getting their crap together or will not simply be wipe out. I don’t think they are as weak as Doug does but I am not all that confident they are all that strong either.

  12. anjin-san says:

    Hmm. The rebels are having a pretty good day today. Wonder what tune Doug will be singing tomorrow?