Libya Mission: Creeping

One can almost hear the pitter-patter of American boots in the distance.

A month to the day of my post Libya Mission Creep Inevitable, the creeping began in earnest with the announcement that the Brits and French will send in advisors to the Libyan rebels. Today, the Italians are following suit. One can almost hear the pitter-patter of American boots in the distance.

This was not only predictable but predicted. In the aforementioned post, I observed “if regime change is  the goal, than the tactics will ultimately have to shift to achieve it. Presumably, the hope is that the threat of international force, or limited application of same, will be sufficient to tip the balance of power back to the rebels. But what if it isn’t?” Answering my own rhetorical question, I concluded “hope is not a strategy. It’s anyone’s guess as to what happens if limited action doesn’t work. Mine is that the action will become less limited until Gaddafi is gone.”

Alas, my prescience isn’t the result of any special genius. I was far from alone. Anyone who’s paid attention to American interventions over the past two decades without ideological blinders on could have predicted this.

Yesterday’s announcement of “advisors” being sent in the midst of a civil war naturally bring to mind Vietnam, which was the classic case of mission creep long before Jim Hoagland gave it a name. Not because the current situation has the remotest possibility of dragging the coalition into a massive land war–it doesn’t–but because, having committed advisors–some of whom will inevitably be killed–leads to the need for support personnel, security forces, and wider escalation. And, like throwing good money after bad, the previous increment virtually begs the next because, after all, one doesn’t want to have gotten soldiers killed in vain.

The Guardian‘s Simon Tisdall laughs in the face of British foreign secretary William Hague’s adamant insistence that the advisors will not be armed, training, or directing rebel forces. Given that the Big 3 leaders have not only not backed off their insistence that Gaddafi step down but have actually doubled down on it, Tisdall’s snarky “give it time” seems the right bet.

Anthony Cordesman of CSIS is positively blistering, repeatedly calling the whole thing a “farce.”

American connoisseurs of schadenfreude can take some comfort in the parallels between this course of action and the equally naïve and dangerous approach used by the Bush Administration in Iraq. After all, watching a French President,  a British Prime Minister, and Democratic President of the US repeat the Bush Administration’s failure to plan for the decisive and lasting use of force, fail to plan for the civil side of military operations and to support stability operations, and focus on short term goals without a realistic plan for a successful strategic and post-conflict  outcome is not without irony but touches of black humor. And as for historians, the whole thing is yet another demonstration that they have the world’s easiest profession; all they have to do is wait for history to repeat itself.

Unfortunately, there is nothing amusing about the fact that the lives and futures of some 6.6 million Libyans are at stake. The Franco-Anglo-American gamble now seems far too likely to fail at their expense. Moreover, it seems likely to  drag the other nations that support the operation into their failure — along with part of the reputation of NATO and credibility of the UN.

The key problem is that farce is still being used as a substitute for force. It is just a little over two months since the protests began in mid-February, and the rebels seemed likely to sweep though Libya and take Tripoli. It is almost exactly two months since Gaddafi began to respond with air and helicopter attacks and the massive use of force.  It was early March when Gaddafi’s forces began a near decisive set of victories, and they were on the edge of victory in mid-March. It was this series of events that led to a UN Resolution authorizing on March 17th with  major US-led coalition air strikes starting on March 19th.

In the month that has followed, it has become all too clear that gambling on Gaddafi caving in has created a far more serious humanitarian crisis for the Libyan people than would ever have occurred if the Coalition had acted decisively from the start and had directly attacked Gaddafi, his centers of power, and the military forces loyal to him. The humanitarian cost of humanitarian restraint is all too clear: Hundreds of Libyan and foreign workers have been killed, thousands injured, thousands more arrested and sometimes tortured, and hundreds of thousands lack jobs, security, and safe conditions of life.

[…]

This kind of operation cannot be “surgical’ – if “surgical” now means minimizing bloodshed regardless of whether the patient dies. Hard, and sometimes brutal, choices need to be made between limited civilian casualties and collateral damage during the decisive use of force and an open-ended war of attrition that will produce far higher cumulative civilian casualties and collateral damage. The Coalition will also need to avoid the trap of blundering into some kind of ceasefire, where Gaddafi’s forces and unity will give him the advantage. This will be a “peace” that simply becomes a war of attrition and terror campaign by other means.

My preferred alternative–not intervening in the Libyan civil war to begin with–has been foreclosed. That leaves three obvious options: 1) Continue the strategy of Hope and Pray, 2) declare the humanitarian crisis at the center of Resolution 1973 averted and wind down, or 3) adjust NATO tactics to coincide with the political strategy.

Of those, the second is not a real option. Having staked so much political capital on Gaddafi’s ouster, there is no “declare victory and go home” exit strategy here. Sarkozy has staked his re-election on it and, to some extent, so has Obama.

And, as Cordesman makes clear, there’s zero reason to continue hoping that Gaddafi’s ouster is going to happen organically. The rebels lack the will and means and the glimmers of political isolation we saw a couple weeks back with the fleeing of Gaddafi senior advisors have since faded.

So, the question now is whether to allow the mission to continue to slowly creep–likely at great humanitarian cost for which the interveners have assumed responsibility–or get on with it. My fear is that that former is far more likely.

Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t see what the problem is with allowing a stalemate. I think a stalemate favors the rebels for the following reasons:

    1) Gaddafi is using up weapons and munitions he can not easily replace. By contrast the rebels are gathering weapons and slowly training troops. His strength is declining, theirs is growing.
    2) Gaddafi still has not secured his own region. There are rebels in Misurata and in the Tripoli suburbs.
    3) Gaddafi cannot defeat the rebels so long as NATO maintains control in the air. (Long, open road, mucho desert.) If Gaddafi were able to move against Benghazi, the advantage would be on the side of the defenders. But he can’t bring it to that point as he trades Brega back and forth.

    If I were playing poker I’d far rather be holding the rebels’ hand.

  2. legion says:

    This was not only predictable but predicted. In the aforementioned post, I observed “if regime change is the goal, than the tactics will ultimately have to shift to achieve it.

    Actually, I’d go even farther. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the original goal was something humanitarian in nature about ‘protecting’ people from Col. M’s attacks. Maybe protecting political dissidents/ rebels from having full-on military-grade hardware used against them; maybe just keeping civilians from getting caught in the middle.
    But ultimately? There’s no difference. The very _moment_ any outside nation becomes involved _in any way_ in a situation like this it becomes regime change. There’s no other option.
    Does Khaddafi seem like a “live and let live” kind of guy? No. If we, or NATO, or whoever’s running this show decide to pull out while Khaddafi is still in power, what do you think will happen? Rebel or civilian, any city that ever fell out of his direct control will be slaughtered to the last man, woman, and child. Promise. It’ll be the kind of bloodbath that’ll make the Hutus/Tutsis or Saddam Hussein/Iraqi Kurds look like icily polite PTA meetings. Anybody who spends more then about 15 seconds thinking about this situation should come to that inescapable conclusion.
    It is about regime change. It was always about regime change. Even if policymakers were too stupidly short-sighted to recognize it at the time, it’s still true.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    It looks to me as though the present strategy is de facto colonization. We can maintain a partition of Libya as long as we’re willing to maintain the “no fly/drive/whatever” zone which will probably become an increasingly American operation simply because the British and French don’t have ability to maintain the effort indefinitely while we do. The anti-Qaddafi forces at this juncture don’t appear to have the ability to unseat Qaddafi or secure the country if they did. Which means that if security is to be maintained they’ll need help for a long, long time.

  4. Steve Verdon says:

    Well…looking good for Doug’s initial claims.

    American connoisseurs of schadenfreude can take some comfort in the parallels between this course of action and the equally naïve and dangerous approach used by the Bush Administration in Iraq. After all, watching a French President, a British Prime Minister, and Democratic President of the US repeat the Bush Administration’s failure to plan for the decisive and lasting use of force, fail to plan for the civil side of military operations and to support stability operations, and focus on short term goals without a realistic plan for a successful strategic and post-conflict outcome is not without irony but touches of black humor. And as for historians, the whole thing is yet another demonstration that they have the world’s easiest profession; all they have to do is wait for history to repeat itself.

    Obama’s first term = Bush’s third term foreign policy wise.

    Change you can believe in.

  5. ponce says:

    40 French military advisers sounds like a punchline, not a slippery slope.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Here’s a quote from yesterday from the U. S. ambassador to NATO:

    KELLY: Slowly, but surely eroding their capacity, you say, but how do you get past what appears to be emerging as a stalemate, with NATO carrying out airstrikes, but unable to, for example, help the civilians in Misrata who are desperately calling for more international attention?

    Amb. DAALDER: Well, the opposition will get stronger over time, and we’ll be able to take advantage of the fact that NATO airpower is limiting the capacity of Gadhafi to sustain his fight. It will either end because Gadhafi has decided that he has had enough, or more likely that the people around him have decided that they don’t want to continue to fight. And the people of Libya and those who are now supporting the regime and are upholding it will have to ask the question: Is this how they want to continue, or are they better off finding an alternative path?

    To me that doesn’t sound like an assertion that the rebels are getting stronger but rather that they may. Is there any actual evidence that Qaddafi is weakening and the rebels are strengthening?

  7. michael reynolds says:

    To me that doesn’t sound like an assertion that the rebels are getting stronger but rather that they may. Is there any actual evidence that Qaddafi is weakening and the rebels are strengthening?

    Little things. Like the arrival of uniforms and body armor from Qatar. Presumably weapons as well.

    Bigger things like the fact that Misurata still has not fallen, and that Gaddafi still cannot reliably hold Brega and Ajdabiyah. He’s lost them, taken them, lost them. It’s a see-saw battle between a professional force and a what many like to dismiss as a handful of kids with popguns.

    Then there’s the geography, which does not favor Gaddafi. Not with a hostile Tunisia on his border and a friendly Egypt on the rebel border.

    In purely military – as opposed to political – terms, the rebels have the edge in a long-term confrontation. They don’t need to take Tripoli to win. Add in foreign advisors, Qatari money and arms, continued NATO air cover and the demonstrated inability of Gaddafi’s forces to close the deal, and you have a 60/40 advantage for the rebels. So long as they hold together politically.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    I don’t doubt the rebels are strengthening, particularly given their starting point; they are gaining in weapons, equipment and time to organize and train. I’m skeptical about the part where Qaddafi is supposed to be getting weaker. He’s had some of his toys taken away from him, he’ll switch to irregular combat operations now.

  9. ponce says:

    “Little things. Like the arrival of uniforms and body armor from Qatar. Presumably weapons as well.”

    Saw a shot of Qaddafi’s forces getting ready to attack yesterday. They had a line of pickup trucks with what looked like fully loaded MiG rocket launchers mounted on swivels in the beds.

    The rebels don’t need French & British military advisers… they need Mad Max.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    PD:

    I don’t know about that. If it’s true that Gaddafi is largely relying on non-Libyan mercs that doesn’t bode well for guerilla warfare. There are the bedouin, but beyond tribal loyalty they’ll probably follow the stronger horse, which will not be the guy with the frozen bank accounts, the blockaded harbors and the burned-out tanks. Especially when backing Gaddafi may mean NATO missiles in your tent.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    ponce:

    Everyone needs the raggedy man. Also Tina Turner.

  12. ponce says:

    The guy who directed “Restrepo” was killed in a mortar attack in Libya today.

    Hetherington reported on the heavy bombardment earlier in the week on his Twitter account. “In besieged Libyan city of Misrata,” he wrote. “Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.”

    http://tinyurl.com/3vrc2rc

  13. john personna says:

    By all means editorialize against it, but I don’t really see American boots as a possibility. This looks like a European foolishness. Or perhaps to them not foolishness because proximity drives different concerns(?)

    But anyway, yeah everyone make clear how bad another land war would be. Just to make sure the fire is good and dead. Drown the ashes.

  14. legion says:

    Well, short-sighted adventurism aside, I think even US politicians have figured out that colonialism is a Bad Idea. But don’t forget – the Brits sent Libya’s airplane bomber back to them, on a pathetically thin “doctor’s note”, just to get a better promise of access to Libyan oil. I think they may be just stupid enough to think a new African colony could be a good idea for Brittania…

  15. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t get the colonialism interpretation. This is just pop-the-dictator. It’s not that complicated, I don’t think it’s a big deal, and I think politically it’s already falling off the radar.

    My guess is we’ve got another month before we either have Gaddafi with a one-way ticket, or a stalemate that grinds eventually in our favor.

    Depending on how Sarkozy does in the election we also may have a newly militant couple of friends willing to carry heavier loads in the future. If this succeeds it may have a salutary effect on NATO and a lessening of the automatic reliance on US power.

  16. ponce says:

    “Depending on how Sarkozy does in the election we also may have a newly militant couple of friends willing to carry heavier loads in the future. ”

    The last time a tiny Frenchman sent troops to that part of the world we got the Rosetta Stone out of it.

    Who knows what rewards we’ll get this time?

  17. Southern Hoosier says:

    Intelligence experts see Gaddafi rebuilding power

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/04/20/us-libya-gaddafi-idUSTRE73J78Z20110420
    Better hurry up and get the boots on the ground while the rebels hold some ground

  18. tom p says:

    Stupid is as stupid does….