Libya: “No Fly” to “Unstable Stalemate” or “Regime Kill?”

  • photo courtesy of vittoare www.flickr.com/photos/55823935@N03/6391178467
    Apr 6, 2011

    It is hard to get at the reality of US and allied operations in Libya, in part because there have to be serious limits to public disclosures of both the full nature of those operations and the real mission. While President Obama has made it clear that he wants regime change, the US operates in an international environment that will not support this as an explicit goal and at a time of acute tension between the US and the West, and the Arab and Islamic worlds.

    The Congress may call for public clarity, but if the US or NATO should formally state that the real mission behind the UN “no fly” resolution has formally become “regime change,” there are several NATO powers that might publically oppose this, the support of the Arab League would vanish, Russia and China might be pushed into open opposition in the UN, and the tenuous compromises that provide a UN mandate might collapse. Not every situation merits full disclosure, or exploitation for partisan advantage.

    Nevertheless, the US and its allies need to make hard – if somewhat covert – choices, and make them quickly. The last thing anyone needs at a time when there is near turmoil from Pakistan to Morocco is a long-lasting open wound of political division and extended conflict in Libya as the worst-of-the-worst authoritarian leaders elsewhere in the region struggle to survive. And, from a Libyan viewpoint, dragging the country into a long political and economic crisis, and an extended low-level conflict that devastates populated areas, the net humanitarian cost will be higher than fully backing the rebels, with air power and covert arms and training.

    Whatever one thinks of the rationale for beginning this operation, it is now underway and the US and NATO are deeply involved in ways that go far beyond “no fly” and a narrow effort to protect the population.  There is no turning back now.  Moreover, it has been clear from the start of US and allied efforts that any successful outcome -- in either political or humanitarian terms – would require an end to the Qaddafi regime and power structure. Compromise, mediation, and coalitions simply are not real world options.

    It will probably be years, if ever, before we know the extent to which US and allied leaders and planners recognized this from the start, and what the intelligence community and other experts told them about the relative probably that Qaddafi would collapse in the face of limited military involvement.

    The same uncertainties surround what policymakers knew or guessed in terms of rebel capabilities to exploit a “no fly” effort that was actually a “no move” and “hit Qaddafi forces” operation from the start. In fairness, there always was the possibility the Qaddafi was on the edge of collapse, the initial rise of the rebels would become national, and that the first wave of Western strikes might succeed. The problem is that this simply did not happen quickly, and it is now too uncertain a hope to rely on. Moreover, Qaddafi is now consolidating his political leverage and military capabilities more quickly than the rebels.

    This leaves the US and NATO with two bad options. The first is an “unstable stalemate” in which rebel, NATO, and UN “unity” may well collapse, civilians could suffer for months or years of confrontation and conflict, and the Qaddafi regime could remain in some form. The other is to escalate “regime kill” – if this is not already underway. Both have serious risks, and both mean civilians will suffer, but quietly escalating “regime kill” still seems the better option.

    The most critical way to do this is to use strikes against Qaddafi and his forces more aggressively.  This means a more obvious “taking sides,” it means killing Qaddafi forces the moment they move or concentrate rather than waiting for them to attack, striking Qaddafi’s military and security facilities, and finding excuses to strike his compound. It means denying him the ability to use infiltrators, civilian vehicles, and lighter weaponry like mortars by expanding the use of UCAVs and targeting/surveillance systems,  and stepping up air strikes.

    It also means using techniques like covertly inserting Special Forces with laser illuminators to help target from the ground in ways that can do much to separate Qaddafi’s forces from the rebels and civilians once they are engaged. In means tolerating more civilian losses and collateral damage in the short run – knowing this is likely to reduce total civilian suffering in comparison with any stalemate, Qaddafi victory, or low-level struggle.

    It means covertly arming and advising rebel forces – although this can easily take far too long if any effort is made to relay on such efforts to provide the ability to win as distinguished from the ability to exploit the defeat of Qaddafi forces by air. It means denying Qaddafi money, ports, the use of aircraft, and every other method of escalating pressure under the vague terms of the UN resolution.

    There is no doubt that this will push the UN mandate to extremes in ways that have not taken place since the Korean War. It also means acting as decisively as possible as soon as possible without formally stating or reporting what is happening.  A strategy of “regime kill” will quickly cause a negative international reaction, even if it is made clear that killing the regime means destroying its power structure, ability to fight, and ability to govern – something very different from targeted efforts to kill given leaders. 

    Rebel endurance is uncertain. Qaddafi must be confronted with an unacceptable threat (as well as a clear way out for himself and his family), and the issue needs to be forced quickly enough to minimize divisions in NATO, the Arab world, with Russia and China, and in the UN.

    There is no guarantee that such a mix of strategy or tactics will work. Cases like Kosovo and Bosnia send very mixed signals. The alternative, however, is worse.  The US and NATO will pay greater penalties for failure. Success will be relative at best and be unpopular with the critics of the operation already underway. Yet a strategy of regime kill is far easier for the Libyan people to live with, however, than a stalemate or failure, and far easier for the rest of a divided world to excuse.

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Anthony H. Cordesman